Anyone who has ever stepped foot in a professional kitchen knows the stresses of the environment: the intense heat, pressure and long hours worked. It’s a gruelling job that most people pursue because of passion. However, a survey by Unite, England’s largest work union, has found a large percent of chefs in London are working at risk of increased mental and physical damage because of “punishing long hours”.
It’s been an issue of debate for a while now, but the new figures in Unite’s survey point towards numerous issues and the union are calling for them to be addressed. They surveyed 87 chefs working in pubs, restaurants and hotels in London and some of the results are shocking.
One that stands out is that 78 percent of those surveyed said they'd had an accident or near miss at work due to fatigue. 44 percent said they worked between 48-60 hours a week and 69 percent of those people said long hours have had an impact on their health.
There’s a reason people are struggling to find cooks right now
Health, physical and mental, is one of the most important discussions taking place within the industry and these figures show exactly why. Over half of the chefs who answered the questionnaire said they had suffered depression due to being overworked and a large percentage admitted to using substances to get through their shift. 56 percent said they had used painkillers, 27 percent alcohol and 41 percent ticked the ‘other stimulants’ box. The overall number of chefs interviewed is small, but when half said they need painkillers to finish a shift, it’s indicative of a much larger problem.
Unite is calling for a number of changes to be made in London to combat the shocking findings. First they want 11 hours rest time to become standard, one day off a week to be offered and they want to see an end to 48-hour week opt-out clauses in workers’ contracts.
“The industry needs to change, the excessive working hours and brutal kitchen culture are harming real people and driving talented chefs out of the profession,” said Unite regional officer, Dave Turnbull.
Fortunately, the issue is not being avoided by the industry, this is something echoed by many chefs and restaurants owners. We highlighted the issue ourselves with a piece on the sustainability of the chef back in 2016 and numerous figures in the industry have pushed the topic to the forefront throughout 2017. Magnus Nilsson has reduced his working hours for this very reason and chef Daniel Patterson made an honest and emotional plea, admitting his own struggle with depression, in an article that acted as a sharp wake-up for the industry. “I mean, how many chefs you think are depressed, anyway? Like 95%?” He wrote in the first line.
Why Nilsson has dropped his staff shifts to eight hours a week.
Kat Kinsman, a writer and editor from New York, set up a website, Chefs With Issues, as a direct answer to the problem. A simple website packed wiith resources and information that help chefs cope with some of the immense pressures within the industry.
Watch Kinsman present the idea at the MAD Symposium (an food event in Copenhagen attended by many of the restaurant industry's leading chefs).
It seems chefs, unions and observers are all calling for the same thing. The writer Jay Rayner wrote about the same topic this week in The Guardian and Rene Redzepi, arguably one of the world’s most influential kitchen figures, published a tell-all about his own assessment of his kitchen management style and why he had decided to change it. “Maybe the old way has worked so far. But in the long run, it burns people out," wrote the Danish chef. "There’s a reason people are struggling to find cooks right now. Our industry is populated by young people. As they get older, they fall out of the trade because they can only take the abuse when they’re young and strong. How many of your cooks are thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four years old? Maybe the head chef and the sous chef—that’s it.”
As Redzepi mentioned, these new ideas coincide with a growing chef shortage across the industry, this shortage is also one of the catalysts for the changes being tested in many restaurants. Econimical demands coupled with the social, and now political pressure of a group like Unite, all point towards an obvious coming change. This is positive and it should be encouraged: we really should look after those we pay to nurture us.
Anna Haugh at Food on The Edge encouraging chefs to speak out and be kinder leaders.