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Oct 11th 2021
Industry News

The Open Secret in Hospitality

Photographer: Jenn Duncan 

Two decades of research have painted a clear picture of the prevalence of addiction in the hospitality industry. Our industry, where 19.1% of our teammates are diagnosed or struggling with illicit drug abuse[1], is second only to construction work and mining. This “open secret” is substantiated by years of studies, labor statistics and too many painful losses of loved ones.

Dustin Drankiewicz, Beverage Director and Wisconsin native, with 20 plus years under his belt in hospitality, states candidly, “The food and beverage industry is high stress. I absolutely hope everyone will agree with that.” The long hours needed to make ends meet, late nights and physically grueling work are highly contrasted with the clear-headed precision and energy required to do the job -- the perfect storm for coping mechanisms and “crutches” to develop.

Chris Bridges is a former bartender who left the industry once the pandemic hit. As a queer Black man, serving the LGBTQ community in San Francisco’s bar and nightlife, Chris sheds light on the psychological toll that comes with the job -- citing little to no HR presence, isolation and racism as contributing factors and a work culture that can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. Chris shares how the shock and impact of the “sexual harassment that many bartenders face at the hands of fellow staff, management, and customers” has contributed to his coping mechanisms. Hospitality workers will shake off the stress of various encounters during a shift by drinking together. This type of work bonding normalizes the use of alcohol as a tool to get through a shift and begins to feel like a normal facet of the job experience[2]

Dustin alludes to how easy and quickly the rhythm of “decompressing” after late nights and long shifts “becomes routine.” This can often skew our standards of what is a healthy amount of coping. DJ Watson, Director of Therapeutic Support Services at Please Hustle Responsibly, hones in on the blurred lines that come with an inconsistent schedule, “Those things can move from supportive to maybe more enablement,” he states. Acknowledging that “flexibility [in your schedule] allows people to get away with stuff that I couldn’t get away with if I were at a 9 to 5 job.” Due to long late-night hours and physically and mentally draining shifts, the intense side effects of inconsistent schedules are expected, often tolerated, and become the norm in many cases. Workers with an irregular work schedule are more likely to experience inconsistencies and challenges at home as well as barriers to self-care and the effort-recovery process[3] (also known as the ability to “switch off” after work activities). The major contributors to healthier habits and sobriety -- rest and routine -- are the primary aspects negatively impacted by inconsistent scheduling.


[1] Bush, D. M., & Lipardi, R. N. (n.d.). Substance Use and Substance Abuse by Industry.

[2] Why is alcohol abuse prevalent in the hospitality industry? (n.d.).

[3] Zoupanou, Zoe et al. “Recovery after work: the role of work beliefs in the unwinding process.” PloS one vol. 8,12 e81381. 11 Dec. 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081381

Exposure to and acceptance of harassing behavior, the pressure to meet high expectations, and the upholding of stereotypes distort what’s considered acceptable in the workplace when those interactions are tied to your income. On average, the hospitality industry compensates below minimum wage. This model leaves the bulk of the income for most workers to come from guests’ gratuities. When calculated with tips, the average hourly wage in hospitality is $8.90[1]. There’s a power dynamic that must be acknowledged when workers' incomes are directly attached to tipping. DJ highlights this further, “if my table is a pain in my butt ... if the guy at the other side of the bar is … harassing me, I might not have any recourse in that … It affects the interaction and how people treat servers.” As the representative, DJ points out, “servers are an inflection point from the company and client sides.” This pressures workers to focus on what makes money instead of what is safe and professional.

As an industry, we are team-oriented and teams are not immune to adversity. Leadership in hospitality sets the tone of the workplace. When teammates witness harrowing practices and management decisions, it can be alienating. Dustin warns that owners can “cause people that they employ a lot of unnecessary stress.” Former industry vet turned gardener, Claire Depondt, points out the negative impact of higher-ups ignoring and contributing to substance use in the workplace. They share that the owner of one of her establishments “basically turned a blind eye to all of us drinking ourselves to death on the job, and after.” However, neither Claire nor Dustin have exited the industry, and are making the most of the love of their work. They are staying committed to making the day-to-day easier for other teammates.

They are not alone. With dedicated community support, a rise in hospitality-focused groups, and increased mental health awareness, the path to recovery within the service industry is better lit. Workers are finding that they don't need to leave the industry they enjoy to practice healthier habits. So what does an inclusive and healthy hospitality culture look like? DJ Watson lays the foundation of the new normal, teaching us that addiction and recovery are spectrums. In everyday life, what we are looking at, DJ says, is “misuse, underuse, or overuse” that moves to “addiction.”

Simply put, we have to diversify the tools we use to navigate and mitigate addiction. This includes normalizing the full spectrum of addiction, and learning to recognize the phases people around us may be experiencing. By meeting our teammates where they are (functioning addiction, sobriety, recovery, etc.) we can offer resources and support. Hospitality leadership needs to make time in our workday and culture to learn to deal with, discuss, and engage our teammates around these spectrums. This creates empathy and understanding around what staff truly face making it easier to recognize burnout, and put transformative policies in place. Claire shares the strategies of her mother, Nancy, a former restaurant owner. Nancy invites other owners to the conversation and shares an opportunity for them to actively facilitate change, asking that they “do not turn a blind eye when you see it. Make it a part of the framework to have regular check-ins.”


[1] Mealey, L. (n.d.). Should restaurants offer employee health insurance? The Balance Small Business.


Access to recovery resources is another vital element. “The industry helps itself,” says Claire. She acknowledges the hospitality community as a source of hope in her journey. It’s true; hospitality-centered programs and empathetic support mainly come from industry workers filling the need within their own communities. In recent years, industry-specific support groups and resources have sprung up all across the nation. But that's not enough. Rehabilitation programs and therapy are costly. Dustin reminds us that "Deep down, only you will decide when you’ve had enough.” While the decision to live a happier, healthier, healed life is on us, we aren't medical professionals. The industry needs livable wages, safe working spaces, and healthcare. Fair and livable compensation includes having comprehensive health coverage. Health insurance is a game-changing tool for recovery, as well as prevention and maintenance. Despite 35% of employers offering health coverage[1], about 90% of hospitality workers are without health insurance. Many teammates cannot afford the monthly premiums or copayments that are offered on the marketplace. Leadership in hospitality has an opportunity to tip the scale on this decades-long plague by changing how they view universal healthcare and advocating in the fight for access. [2]

This change is feasible. For that to happen, owners will need to step up.

Inviting leaders and managers to be clear advocates in facilitating safe and sane workplaces is key. Ethical hiring, fair wages that include healthcare, maintaining proper HR departments, and scheduling shorter work shifts are steps in the right direction. According to DJ, together we can continue our understanding through “service education and information” led and facilitated by owners.  He addresses the nature of the relationship between leadership and staff, stating that we may “not be on the same page, but we are on the same team.”

Gradually we can find ways to answer the question DJ poses, “How do [we] work to find balance?” Each of us has a contribution to make. We are empowered by the collective, encouraged by transparent communication and transformed in our new approach to this long journey. The habits and work culture of the industry must shift. It is time to include “moderation in everything,” Dustin says. Hospitality workers know how to welcome, serve and anticipate a guest's needs. It is time we do the same for each other and ourselves to move the needle on the challenges of substance abuse and addiction that our industry faces.


[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Bureau of Labor Statistics data. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[2] Mealey, L. (n.d.). Should restaurants offer employee health insurance? The Balance Small Business.