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Chef Ben Bayly on why hospo needs to up its game on mental health

Facing criticism, comparison and scrutiny every day takes its toll. Heaping even more pressure on someone who’s suffering isn’t the answer, writes chef and MKRNZ judge Ben Bayly.

It’s no secret that restaurants are high-adrenaline, high-stakes workplaces. The hours are long, it’s highly competitive and with the added pressure of maintaining impeccable customer service, there’s really no room for error. Add to this a sink-or-swim, dog-eat-dog mentality, and you have a perfect storm of contributors to poor mental health.

These are some of the factors unique to the hospitality industry that have come under fire in recent years, with several high-profile chefs – and many other unknown chefs – taking their lives.

I say unique because working in a restaurant is the only occupation I can think of in which you face criticism, comparison and scrutiny every day. In fact, the only occupation I could compare it to would be medical professionals working in emergency departments. The difference is that running a restaurant isn’t a life-or-death situation – until it gets too much and someone takes their own life.   

Depression and anxiety are well-known issues in the hospitality industry. I’ve never worked with anyone who has ended their life, but I have seen the effects of depression, anxiety and addiction and the impact it has on a person’s ability to function – especially in the pressure-cooker environment of a kitchen.

Brody, one of my boys at The Grove, wasn’t pulling his weight – he was underperforming, serving shit food and making mistakes. Eventually I pulled him aside and asked him what was going on and he broke down and told me he suffered from depression.

It caught me off guard – I should have seen the signs, but I didn’t. I’d been laying on the pressure and thinking he was just lazy, when really there was this whole other issue at play. One thing he said really stuck with me: “It’s like I can’t change gears. I’m stuck in first gear and I need to get into fifth gear to keep up with you all, but I have no spirit, I have no energy.”  

What I’ve realised as I’ve got older and smarter is that you need to know how to get the best out of people. We are all very different – some thrive off competition, some need a good bollocking to get moving, some don’t respond well to that at all. And the only way to learn these things is to get to know the people you’re working with. That way, you can learn to see the signs when someone is struggling with their mental health.

Ben Bayly (Photo: Supplied)

My ‘Brody epiphany’, as I call it, really brought this home for me. It’s about seeing individuals for who they are and treating each person on the team accordingly.

Brody now works out at my new restaurant, The Grounds Eatery, and is loving it because that style of dining is more suited to him and his skillset. He’s creating amazing rubs for the meat, he works on developing the menu and he’s totally killing it. Fine dining isn’t for everyone and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just about finding what makes people tick.

A friend of mine had one of his employees die by suicide. I hate to think what that would do to me – if I lost any of my guys and I felt I hadn’t done anything to prevent it. But that is a sad reality of this line of work, and it shouldn’t be. It’s such a rewarding industry and we need to work on bringing out the good. The hospitality industry in New Zealand is amazing – it employs more people in the country than any other industry, it’s fun and creative and there are so many opportunities. But as employers, we need to be very aware of how we drive our team. This was one of the big talking points of my presentation at the Restaurant Association and Eat NZ’s Hui in Christchurch last week.

There’s no denying working in a restaurant is stressful – regardless of whether you’re a head chef, kitchen hand or front of house. But I think one of the biggest problems we face, as a country, is the stigma around mental health. Just look at what happened with Jami-Lee Ross. I’m not in anyway condoning his behaviour, but how the National Party dealt with it, calling his problems ‘embarrassing’, is a perfect example of the stigma attached to mental health.

There’s nothing embarrassing about mental illness. We must normalise the conversation and treat the problems like any other medical issue, like a broken arm or a wound. I recently completed a Mental Health First Aid course run by St John’s – and this is as vital as a standard first aid course. This is a Restaurant Association NZ initiative developed with the hospitality industry in mind and I’d recommend it to any one of my team.

Mental health issues can be managed like any other condition. Empathy and acceptance – those are two key words for me – are what we need more of. I challenge employers to make small changes in the workplace – connect with people, find out what makes them who they are, embrace a better culture. My team choose the days they’re rostered on and they work four days a week, which I find really increases staff morale. And I get it – my mental health would suffer if I worked seven days a week, could never see my family or spend time in the garden and missed out on things because I was rostered on to work.

It’s not about being less tough or going ‘soft’, but let’s have fun as well and show love for what we do and who we all are – as individuals and as a team. Because there’s a lot to love.

Support services

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Resources for improving mental health and wellbeing in your restaurant can also be accessed via the Restaurant Association’s website.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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