Restaurant leadership stress: Save yourself, save your staff

| by S.A. Whitehead
Restaurant leadership stress: Save yourself, save your staff

Significant weight gain or weight loss. High blood pressure. More cocktails more often than you would ever let anyone know about. Ongoing stomach problems or tons of migraines. Complete lifelessness after and/or outside of work. Those are just some of the symptoms that strongly suggest that stress is getting the better of you, Ms. or Mr. Restaurant Leader. What's it going to take to get you to notice you are simply too stressed out for either your own personal or your business's good? The inside of that metaphorical "pine box"? 

Heidi Smith, wellness expert and Integrative Wellness Studio founder and CEO, knows the feeling, which she shared during daily sessions at this year's National Restaurant Association show last month in Chicago.

"It's been a packed house since (the show's starting day) and I've talked to a lot of people who've been dealing with stress, and say they have been under chronic stress, " Smith said in an interview with QSRweb. "Many have health problems caused by stress like heart disease, diabetes ... depression, anxiety... so the restaurant industry and mental health is a big issue because so many will resort to alcohol and drugs and there's a high suicide rate, too"

But Smith said she was encouraged because so many showed up to her tutorials indicating that somewhere deep-down, stressed-out restaurant leaders know they need to do something. That's why we took the time to find out her best tips on how restaurateurs can make their own lives happier and healthier while improving bottom-line results. After all, it's only when your human "engine" is firing on all cylinders that a business can also thrive.

"If you're eating foods that aren't good foods — as in fried or with heavy fat ... that has a chemical reaction in the brain and it reduces your ability to handle stress."

The ultimate BOGO: Take care of the leader, employees soon follow

The interesting bonus offer in all this "self care" is that leaders who obviously take care of themselves tend to have employees that do, too. So when reading the tips Smith offers below, be open in your practicing of them at work because your staff learns by your doing. You're sending a message that it's okay to do the things that keep you feeling good, working well and just enjoying the ride. 

"Lead by example and show them ... because it doesn't really matter what you tell them or how, you have to live it," she said. "Stress, eating bad food, drinking too much ... all that takes a toll, so ...take a minute to focus on yourself ... start eating right and  exercising." 

Here are a few of the other great ideas she tossed out and lest you think this is all just more "New Age gobbledygook," please just try it for a few days and see. You can go back to your old "Henny-Penny-the- sky-is-falling" stressed and depressed any time.

When stress gets the better of you, granted you can't stop service, but you can take a few seconds to focus on your breathing. Smith suggests doing just that while repeating a name that really means something good to you, like a child's or pet's name. Just focus on that as you inhale and exhale for a few seconds and you will feel better.  

"Yes, something that easy and quick can stop the madness for a second and really give you an added burst of energy, so you can move on," she said. 

Good food to make those stressed out brain chemicals behave

You've heard it before, but it seemed too simple, didn't it? But believe it. Excessive fat, sugar, and artificial edibles is a recipe for amplifying the stress you've already got. After all, why do you think all your customers are pushing you to put more of this purer, better food in front of them these days?  

"If you're eating foods that aren't good foods — as in fried or with heavy fat ... that has a chemical reaction in the brain and it reduces your ability to handle stress, far more than if you're eating foods with nutritious benefits and antioxidants," she said. 

Hot tip: This may sound crazy, but it does actually help. Get some of those tongue cleaners they sell in the oral care section of the pharmacy. Smith said, "Use them to scrape away residual food and help reduce cravings a little." As an example, she said, after eating something sweet for a treat, try this to stop the ongoing desire to have "more."

Exercise: The natural relaxation medication

Data has shown that both drug dependency and suicide rates run higher in the restaurant industry than others, but using these powerful chemicals (or even too many of the garden-variety caffeinated types) you're setting yourself up for the ultimate fall. 

Instead, use exercise to release the brain and body's own stress-taming substances, endorphins, which help block pain and increase overall feelings of happiness since they actually look a lot like morphine in their chemical structure. And this is not about setting land-speed records so much as breaking a mild and even brief sweat. 

"When you do this your brain releases endorphins and the more that happens, the more your brain calms down — sort of like the Xanax produced by the brain," she said. "And here's the things, it can be as simple as going for walk. It's just a quick way to feel better instantaneously."

Hot tip: After you exercise and before you get in the shower, soak a large towel in hot water. Then, Smith said, "Go through and really scrub your body all over with it. This not only feels really good, but it increases circulation and makes you feel better. Plus it's really good for the skin."

"This is not necessarily about spending money, but it may be just taking a moment to stop... and breath ...and be at peace for just a second."

Self-respect and dare we say, a little kindness?

You've heard this, too, and let us guess, you blew it off right? But seriously, would you want to work for somebody who was always calling you an idiot or beating you over the head for life's constant parade of everyday mistakes? Well, neither does your own brain, spirit or body, and that's the way you've been talking to yourself. 


Be good to yourself. Not just in one or two ways but all day long, every day in as many ways as you can cram into your waking hours. This is about refusing to let yourself go to the negative side of things. 

"So right, this is not necessarily about spending money, but it may be just taking a moment to stop... and breath ...and be at peace for just a second."

That could be something as simply as watching cat videos that make you smile, getting out in nature or telling yourself that you are hanging in there and doing well.

Sleep: Would you please stop burning the candle at both ends?!

We get it. This is a super-stressful business. So whether it's late nights, early mornings or both, and you've been resorting to pills or booze to tame the sleep beast, you're not doing yourself any favors. 

Why not try something just little tamer for a night or two or three? Start with knowing that most sleep problems — whether it be getting sleep, staying asleep or overall poor quality sleep — revolve around emotions, Smith said. You can help alleviate the negative effects this has on sleep by first paying attention to your emotions instead of shoving them down, acting like they don't exist or blowing them off in some other way.

If you're experiencing these throughout the day and/or at bedtime, particularly if they are negative emotions, Smith highly recommends writing them down. She said this tells the brain to release these thoughts from your active consideration and essentially lets your subconscious brain work on it. And remember it's pretty good at problem-solving as proven by any number of geniuses over the years coming up with the answer to problems after a nap or night's rest. 

Hot tip: Hot water bottles are not just to alleviate site pain; they can help with sleep pain, too. Smith said that if you fill a hot water bottle and place it on your stomach in bed, you can then pay attention to your breathing more closely by monitoring how your stomach rises and falls with each breath. 

"It's like a meditation and it's also good for digestive issues or stomach problems," she said. "It's just relaxing."

While good Nutrition, exercise and sleep are among the primary subjects involved in the kind of active self-care that makes restaurateurs more effective every day, other elements include: 

  • Setting aside time for self. 
  • Setting aside time for people you care about.  
  • Actively practicing what feeds you spiritually whether that be religious or as simple as walking in nature.
  • Learning something new, particularly outside current expertise through a class, book, video tutorial or a friend. 
  • Remaining mindful of your mindset and adherence to the positive side of things. 

Of course, sometimes problems like severe depression or other mental or physical ailments intercede and require professional assistance, so if all of the above — earnestly tried — fail to improve things, it's time to see the doctor. 

Likewise, some professional positions, managers and/or employers simply don't make room for these types of critical self-care procedures that make both you and your work better. If this is the case for you, then it's time to decide whether you can stand staying and slugging it out day-to-day or set about on another path that is easier on you and probably better for business overall. 

Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Health & Nutrition, Human Resources, Workforce Management

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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