As a restaurant manager in New Orleans’ French Quarter, Amanda Dillard spent many years working in an environment where alcohol flowed freely and drugs were readily available. “It was a culture of drinking, using drugs, partying and staying up late at night,” Dillard recalls.
Eventually, the lifestyle caught up with her. She became addicted to stimulants, alcohol and benzodiazepines (Xanax). After a friend overdosed and died, she went into a tailspin, and wound up in jail.
“The working environment facilitated my drug and alcohol use,” said Dillard, who is now in long-term recovery and works as a recovery counselor for RiverMend Health Center of Augusta. “And I’m not alone. There are lots of people working in restaurants who are vulnerable to addiction, and they’re going to be around both plenty of alcohol and drugs, and plenty of people to use with.”
Alcohol and drug addiction is a serious problem in the restaurant and hospitality industries. Late hours, easy access to alcohol and drugs, and an environment in which consuming alcohol and drugs is commonplace combine to put food and hotel workers at risk.
According to a 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 19% of workers in the food services and hotel industry reported illicit drug use in the past month, compared to 8.6% of all workers. Restaurants and hotels are also among the top fields for heavy alcohol use. Nearly 12% reported heavy alcohol use in the past month, surpassed only by workers in mining and construction.
The report estimates about 17% of workers in the food services and accommodations industry have a substance use disorder.
Why Working in a Restaurant Puts Workers at Risk
There are many reasons why working for a restaurant, bar or hotel raises the risks of substance use. Stress, working hours, access to substances and workplace culture all play a role.
The work environment is stressful. Waiters, waitresses, bartenders, managers, line cooks and chefs work at a high pace, with little time to rest and recover. Because restaurant workers often depend on tips for a portion of their pay, the need to keep customers satisfied is intense. When the kitchen gets backed up, an order is wrong or a customer is just generally acting difficult or rude, restaurant workers can experience lots of on-the-job stress.
Hotel workers face similar issues, constantly dealing with the public and trying to keep customers happy. To cope with the pace, some turn to stimulants such as cocaine and cigarettes to get through the shift. After a long night, it’s common for restaurant staff to get together for drinks to try to decompress.
Late nights and odd hours. Research shows that working the night shift is associated with higher rates of substance use. Restaurant and hotel workers often work late into the night, and it can be hard to fall asleep after coming home from a busy shift. Because of the low pay, some may also take on two jobs to support their families, making it even more difficult to get sufficient sleep.
Access to alcohol and drugs. Alcohol is not only readily available in restaurants, but drinking can be part of the job. Bartenders and wait staff are often invited to taste test new cocktails, or sample beer, wine and liquor offerings from vendors. A study based on a survey of nearly 1,300 restaurant workers that appeared in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that 80% of men and 64% of women had “hazardous alcohol consumption patterns,” such as feeling guilt after drinking, being unable to remember what happened after drinking, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Being around people who drink and use drugs. Because so many people in the restaurant and hotel industry use substances, it’s common to be offered drugs from co-workers, whether as a way to get through a hectic shift or to come down off of one.
Chronic pain conditions. Restaurant and hotel work can be hard on the body. People may suffer from disorders affecting the joints, ligaments, muscles and nerves due to repetitive motion or standing for long periods of time. Injuries are common due to slips on slippery floors, trips and falls, lifting heavy boxes or trays, or twisting and bending over while cleaning hard to reach places. Back and neck pain, knee and foot pain, burns, strains and sprains, cuts, and carpal tunnel of the syndrome are all too common.
A survey of over 500 New York City restaurant workers published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found a high prevalence of musculoskeletal and other types of injuries due to the face-paced, repetitive and physically demanding nature of the job, and little in the way of health benefits to get treatment for the conditions.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 67,000 food prep and serving workers hurt themselves on the job badly enough to lose at least a day of work in a given year, while nearly 20% of those lost at least a month of work due to the injury.
All of these injuries may mean people are either prescribed pain killers that they can become dependent on, or that they go looking for alcohol and drugs as a way to alleviate the pain.
Types of Drugs Often Abused by Restaurant Staff
- Prescription stimulants (Dexedrine, Adderall)
- Illegal amphetamine (meth)
- Prescription painkillers (Oxycodone, OxyContin, Hydrocodone)
Do You Need Rehab? Getting Help for Addiction
It’s never an easy step to enter into drug or alcohol rehab but getting treatment is often the best way to regain control over your life, and feel better physically and mentally.
RiverMend Health Centers of Atlanta and Augusta offers comprehensive assessment and treatment for addiction through our intensive outpatient program (IOP) and partial hospitalization program (PHP). RiverMend Health Center of Atlanta is led by Dr. Stacy Seikel, a physician with board certifications in addiction medicine and anesthesiology. Dr. Seikel is assisted by our compassionate and experienced team that includes nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed marriage and family therapists and licensed professional counselors. We can help you figure out if you need alcohol or drug rehab, and next steps.
There are also groups in the community and online specifically to help restaurant workers.
Ben’s Friends is a peer-based recovery support group for workers in the food and beverage industries. The group was founded in honor of Ben Murray, a chef who committed suicide after a long struggle with alcoholism. Meetings are held Sundays in Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.
Chefs with Issues is an online discussion group that invites people who work in the restaurant industry to share their thoughts and struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders.