Addiction in the Service Industry

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Waiters, Bartenders, & Chefs

Serve an endless stream of customers develop addiction in the service industryFor millions of people, going to hotels, restaurants, or bars is a leisurely activity; they are places of celebration to spend time with friends and family. For the tens of thousands of people who work at those institutions, the grind and rush of demanding customers, long hours, and intense conditions can be anything but pleasurable. In having to move at the speed of light to serve an endless stream of customers, addiction in the service industry has become a big problem.

Why the High Rates of Substance Abuse in this Industry?

There are probably several reasons for the high rates of substance abuse in the food service and accommodations industry. We can speculate on several:

  • Because most of the individuals in this industry are younger (under the age of 30) and younger individuals have overall higher rates of substance abuse than older individuals, this partially explains the findings. SAMHSA supports this notion to some degree.
  • Low wages and the need to work more than one job, or to work numerous double shifts, by individuals in this industry may drive the use of stimulants and even painkillers.
  • Individuals in this workgroup also have numerous other responsibilities, such as attending school or dealing with young children. Stress as a result of these responsibilities may explain the high rates of substance use disorders in this group.
  • Individuals in the food service and accommodations industry work in a festive environment where individuals are often celebrating or partying. These workers often do the same. These individuals are often younger, under a lot of pressure, and adhere to the notion of “working hard and playing hard.”
  • Accessibility to drugs is related to substance use disorders. Individuals in the food service and accommodations industry have easy access to alcohol. Alcohol abuse is often combined with abuse of other drugs.
  • Many jobs in the food service and accommodations industry are repetitious and often boring. These often lead to issues with job satisfaction, which increases stress and the probability of substance abuse.

Some of the effects of the high rates of substance use disorders in the industry include:

  • High rates of absenteeism
  • A decrease in work efficiency
  • High turnover rates
  • Increased injuries and accidents
  • Higher rates of theft and other crimes
  • Higher rates of health-related issues to employees that cost companies in terms of productivity and health benefits

Drugs, Alcohol, and the Restaurant Business

According to the Addiction journal, it is widely understood that personnel in the hotel and restaurant businesses have higher rates of drinking than other groups in the service industry. Statistics from the United States Department of Health and Human Services indicate that 17 percent of restaurant workers use drugs. The figure is, at best, an estimate; it is hard to verify, as many restaurants do not screen their workers or perform onsite drug tests, and drugs are not the only substances available to chefs, wait staff, and other restaurant employees. Alcohol accounts for at least 30 percent of a restaurant’s sales, so there is plenty of booze on hand for workers to help themselves to, either at the end of a long day or to cope with the rush of impatient and rude customers. With many employees covering extra shifts and working overtime to get by on their wages, some spend more time at their place of work than they do at home; this, says the Boston Globe, creates such an atmosphere of stress and tension that one of the easiest and most widespread ways of getting some relief is by knocking back a drink, or sharing marijuana and other drugs to take the edge off or to keep going for another hour.

The 17 percent figure is a conservative estimate. Jason Sheehan, a former chef and recovering drug addict, told the Daily Beast that the true number is probably 100 percent. The kitchens at restaurants are often crowded, fast-paced environments, with orders for meals (sometimes complicated meals, with very specific instructions pertaining to food allergies) coming in every few seconds. Cooks are also responsible for hygiene, sanitation, and proper cleanup procedures. There is no such thing as a calm restaurant kitchen; there are dozens of details to coordinate and, as a result, a lot of yelling, spread out over the course of an entire day, every day of the week.

For some workers, as much as drug consumption helps them stay focused and alert, it also helps them stay awake. When their workday is finally over, switching “off” may not come easily or naturally, so there are other drugs to take.

Inside the Culinary Underbelly

In 2000, celebrity chef and award-winner Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, his memoir on the various professional kitchens where he served as chef. The book details the industry as being “insular, chaotic, drenched in drugs and alcohol.” Commercial kitchens, Bourdain wrote, are intense, unpleasant, and often dangerous to work in, and the only way many of the people who work there survive is by being enslaved to the idea of cooking. Fifteen years later, writes the Sacramento Bee, not much has changed; if anything, conditions might have worsened. The rise of social media has made the restaurant business far more competitive and adversarial than it used to be, and cooks, wait staff, and other employees are mercilessly pushed to strive for excellence for fear of the damage that one bad online review can do. As a result, says the Bee, people who work in the kitchens and behind the bar are very familiar with drug use.
Substance abuse among restaurant and hotel workersThe extent of the familiarity has been looked at by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which found that among all industries in the United States, restaurant and hotel workers have the highest rates of substance abuse. Regarding dangerous alcohol consumption, employees in restaurants and hotels came behind only labor-intensive workers, such as those who work in mining and construction. SAMHSA’s investigation found that 19.1 percent of workers in various food services had used illegal drugs in one month prior to being asked. Unsurprisingly, that industry’s rate of substance use disorder was 16.9 percent, the highest compared to other lines of work. “Heavy alcohol use,” which is drinking five or more drinks in one sitting on five or more days in the preceding 30 days was an occurrence in 12 percent of employees at restaurants and hotels.

Substance abuse is part of the culture in the service industry, especially in establishments where there is a focus on alcohol, such as brewpubs. A cook in such an establishment, and a recovering addict, tells the Sacramento Bee that, for many workers, using amphetamines for energy and activity becomes an indispensable tool to get through heavy stress and intense periods of work in environments that are often cramped and stifling hot. Even when the last customers leave and the doors are finally closed, employees unwind by drinking the beer, wine, or liquor that is always around.

Staying Sober in the Kitchen

Even when some workers in the service industry go clean, they don’t go too far from the work. That is the story of Tim Hanni, a professional chef who is one of the only Americans to be certified as a Master of Wine and accredited by the Society of Wine Educators as a Certified Wine Educator. Hanni grew up with alcohol, both positively and negatively; he was a founding member of a group of wine professionals, but his father was an alcoholic, and so was Hanni. His second wife had been sober for 12 years but relapsed after meeting Hanni. The lifestyle of being a celebrity wine connoisseur got to Hanni who started drinking harder and faster, and blacking out regularly.

Realizing he was in trouble, Hanni – a legend in the wine industry, according to the Sacramento Bee – quit drinking, becoming probably the only abstaining wine professional in the world; it has been over two decades since he had his last drink. But he is still a wine professional; his fascination with the science behind the sense of taste leads him to sipping wine and then spitting it out. His home is full of crystal decanters, distilled chardonnay, and even winemaking equipment. A local addiction specialist told the Bee that “maintaining sobriety while working in the alcohol industry can be accomplished under very select circumstances,” but would never recommend this to his other clients.
Alcoholism between wine professionalsA blog on Psych Central wonders if “the stress of the culinary training,” and the experience that comes from putting that training into practice, creates a culture of excess. Even the act of professional cooking could be seen as a way of channeling the chaotic energy that comes from living and working in a high-pressure environment. Other research suggests that “violence and bullying are also commonplace amongst chefs working in high-end kitchens,” a point echoed by award-winning chef Barbara Lynch, who told NPR that her time working under restaurateur and celebrity chef Todd English was marked by both his passion for cooking, and his verbal abuse toward her. “It seems reasonable to assume,” Psych Central says, “that one way to deal with this stress or bullying is by turning to alcohol or substance abuse.”

What Makes Celebrity Chefs Tick?

Writing in The Daily Beast, Jason Sheehan notes that the fame and fortune lavished upon celebrity chefs (with endless book deals and reality television shows thrown their way) make them into rock stars, with all the vices associated with that lifestyle, where scandals regarding drug abuse and other exploits are rewarded with more coverage and exposure. Alton Brown, the “Food Network poster boy,” wrote a 1,250-word blog post where he laid out clear rules for the limits of his fan interactions; he would not pose for smartphone pictures, he would not sign any “cleavage autographs,” and he would not talk to fans in restrooms.
chefs and alcoholismHowever, some chefs and people in the service industry are drawn less to the fame and more “the heat and noise and fury” of working in a professional kitchen. Much like investment bankers who pride themselves on getting only a few hours of sleep a night, or having multiple divorces in their lives because of the time spent at the office, or who survive on a diet of pills, alcohol, and cocaine, the most driven and obsessed people in the kitchens of restaurants and hotels love the idea of their bodies and minds being machines, existing in a frenzy of creation and adrenaline. Through that perspective, doing whatever it took to stay on top of their game, or simply to stay awake after being on their feet for 18 daily hours and 100 weekly hours of grueling labor, was not a crutch but a battle scar to show off to others.

Sheehan wrote that of all the explanations as to why addiction is so rampant in the service industry, the truest “is that chefs are just wired for drug use from the start.” David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine told Scientific American that while there is no such thing as a link between creativity and drug use, “there is a link between addiction and things that are a prerequisite for creativity.” Sheehan identifies some of these things as “a yen for experimentation and excess,” which some people find in the arts and music, and others find in the creation of high cuisine or in working at a bar. People in that part of the service industry have to be willing to expand their taste buds, and that sense of risk translates too well to expanding their boundaries and horizons when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

Chefs have to be curious, wrote Sheehan, because it is in their nature to take risks and go on adventures, even without ever leaving their kitchen. In much the same way that David Linden at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine said that addiction and the “prerequisites of creativity” go together, Sheehan observed that there is something in the DNA of great restaurateurs that makes them crave new experiences and new thrills, and then push themselves to the brink of their physical and mental endurance to realize those experiences in culinary form. Ultimately, said Sheehan, there is no difference between wondering what a new ingredient or concoction might taste like, and what a joint of marijuana or line of coke might feel like. When Sheehan was offered his first hit of crystal meth, he says he never even thought of saying “no.”

The Pressure on Bartenders

While the chefs occupy the kitchen, bartenders are, for many customers, the point of contact upon entry into an establishment. Being in the front of the house, with gallons of alcohol everywhere, bartenders are granted “unlimited access to free liquor,” says a sober bartender writing for The FixIn that environment and lifestyle, simply saying “no” to alcohol isn’t an option; put another way, “the option to ease up on my drinking got thrown out of the car.”

To that point, Business Insider put together a list of the lines of work that had the highest reported cases of alcoholism based on death certificates compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. By cataloguing those death certificates by cause of death and occupation, Business Insider reported that bartenders have a 2.33 times greater likelihood of dying from alcoholism than the national average.

Bartending is, in and of itself, a very stressful job, not unlike the hustle and bustle that professional chefs love. There is the creation of precise drink orders by demanding and sometimes belligerent customers (sometimes threatening physical harm if drinks are not made to order), with time and perfection of the essence. Being a bartender also entails being very physically active and skilled, with repetitive (but precise) actions being carried out for exceedingly long periods of time, with no chance of rest, while maintaining an attitude of the utmost professionalism and charm.
Bartenders Struggle with Alcoholism and AddictionBartenders have an added level of stress to deal with, in that they are responsible for deciding which of their customers to cut off while ensuring that the ones they serve are not underage (or should otherwise not drink), even as the bartenders themselves constantly field requests for service, both from potentially problematic customers, to the dozens of legitimate customers waiting for service.

The service industry does not take holidays and weekends off, and the same is true for the bartenders who see their busiest work around the times everyone else is looking forward to getting away from the office. Over 50 percent of bartenders worked overtime in 2012, said the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with many of them earning far below the median hourly wage, sometimes as little as $9 an hour. The pay is usually supplemented by tips or overtime wages, but contributes to the overwhelming amount of stress that many bartenders experience on the job. A 2013 study noted that even though bartenders are responsible for the health and safety of their patrons, 71 percent of 424 interviewed bartenders drank while on the job, 6 percent used drugs other than alcohol while on the job, and 33 percent said they drank even when they didn’t want to drink “because of pressure to drink at work.”

Crossing the Line Every Day

The more a bartender was verbally assaulted and threatened, the greater the on-the-job stress levels. Bars and nightclubs can be surprisingly violent environments, and bartenders usually see the worst of it. Bartenders attest to:

  • Being yelled at with the use of foul language
  • Being physically threatened
  • Being spat at, punched, kicked, or otherwise attacked, including with the use of thrown objects
  • Being threatened with a weapon (real or improvised)
  • Breaking up fights

For female bartenders, “the line is crossed, and it’s crossed daily.” The Washington Post notes that women who serve alcoholic beverages to men are constantly exposed to unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment, and, on occasion, threats of sexual assault and rape. A number of female bartenders have to contend with the inherent double standards in their workplaces, such as the assumption that they are only behind the bar because of their physical attractiveness, and not because of their skill or experience in creating and serving drinks.
Work environment of bartenders poses a risk for the development of alcohol use disordersThe researchers in the study noted that the work environment bartenders find themselves in “poses a risk for the development of alcohol use disorders.” This, in combination with the abundance of alcohol and the pressure for the bartenders themselves to drink, creates health risks for the bartenders themselves and also for their colleagues and customers.

Another study on job-related stress and the danger of alcohol dependence, published in the journal of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Researchnoted that people who work in jobs that have high demands (whether physical or psychological), but offer the employees low control, are at an increased risk for abusing alcohol to the point of dependence. Bartending is one such job. Bartenders are expected to be on their feet for hours, move rapidly, perform crowd control and make drinks to order, and have little to no say in their job tasks. The Alcoholism study found that employees who were in jobs that had high psychological demands and that offered low control were 27.5 times more likely to become dependent on alcohol to cope. On the other hand, employees in jobs that had high physical demands and low control were (only) 3.4 times likely to develop an alcohol disorder.

Waiters vs. Neurosurgeons

The dynamic of having high psychological demands and low control over the nature of work is what makes the service industry exceptionally pressured, so much so that “it’s more stressful to be a waiter than a neurosurgeon,” in the words of Vice magazine. Research published in the Neurology journal reported that waiters have an increased chance of developing stress-related heart problems and are 58 percent more likely to experience an ischemic stroke, a blockage of blood flow to the brain. Female waiters are at a much higher risk of developing a stroke than their male counterparts, at 33 percent to 22 percent.

A key element in the determination of stress is not only whether the job confers any sense of empowerment or control to the employee, but whether the employee feels respected and valued. Other high-stress jobs (such as scientists, doctors, and emergency responders) are comparably mentally draining but engender an element of respectability from those outside the profession. Ninety percent of American parents want their children to grow up to become doctors, according to Voice of Americabut research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal found that being a waiter, fast food worker, dishwasher, or cook ranked very low in terms of warmth and friendliness by others. New York Magazine observed that the public assumes that those who do not make much above minimum wage are bad at their jobs and perceive a greater range of negative experiences with people employed in those professions, primarily because bad encounters are better remembered, “given the sheer number of interactions we have with fast-food workers,” and, for that matter, people in the service industry in general.

Low Control, High Demands, and High Stress

As an example of this, a 19-year-old McDonald’s worker was “fired for gross misconduct” when she gave extra chocolate to a colleague on an item that cost the equivalent of just $1. Notwithstanding her previous status as an “exemplary employee,” her supervisors dismissed her on the grounds of giving away food without payment, a matter she described as “trivial.” A British court ruled that her firing was unfair and awarded her $3,700 in compensation.

The poor perception of wait staff and bartenders speaks to the low control they have in their respective jobs, while doctors, scientists, police officers, and firefighters report having higher levels of autonomy in their professions.

For these reasons, addiction rates in the service industry are critically high. Even managers are prone to the “easily accessible alcohol and long, unsocial hours,” which can lead to, or exacerbate, the development or presence of mental health disorders.

The low wages in the food industry are another source of stress, with many workers having to take on second (or even third) jobs to make ends meet. Waiters often need to have other streams of income lined up, so it comes as no surprise that 18.6 percent of employees in food preparation and distribution abuse some form of drugs, usually amphetamines, to help them keep up and stay awake.

A Rampant Problem and Small Steps

Any line of work has some element of stress to it, but perhaps the biggest problem of addiction in the service industry is how insidious it is. For most of the general public, the only interaction with wait staff are a few moments of conversation regarding food orders and the bill, so physical exhaustion, low wages, and demanding kitchen are virtually invisible to the naked eye. Bartenders may be the center of attention, but they have to put up with an endless stream of customers, many of them drunk and abusive, while staying on their feet for hours at a time and constantly ensuring that the front of the house is operating smoothly and professionally. Celebrity chefs are drawn to the creative and experimental experience of high cuisine and rewarded with lucrative book deals and television shows; under the surface, however, the same impulses that fuel their taste buds can also drive them toward substance abuse and dependence, which simply adds to the allure. A glut of reality television (and even entire channels dedicated to the subject) has made the restaurant industry on the whole more competitive and more vicious. Under it all, there is little to no public conception of how the intense pressure of the service industry can cause its employees to rely on drug use to make the machine run.

Celebrity chefs have a lot of money they can fall back on, but for the people working the front lines, there is rarely any such safety net. Two professional chefs told that most restaurants do not drug test their employees, many of whom “work hard and play hard,” to the point where “drug and alcohol abuse is rampant in this industry.”

However, the problem has reached a point where it is receiving the right kind of attention. The Boston Globe wrote of how bigger restaurants are giving their employees benefits like maternity leave and even mental health counseling on a 24/7 basis (following the death of an employee). Corporate management acknowledges that perfectionism doesn’t come easily after physically and mentally demanding 12-hour shifts, and some offices are having more conversations with their line employees about how to increase health and wellness. One restaurant offers its employees discounted memberships to a gym, for example; a small start to address the widespread problem of addiction in the service industry, but a start nonetheless.

Does the Food Service and Accommodations Industry Offer Help?

Many of the larger corporations have human resources departments, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and health and wellness programs that can offer assistance to individuals who have substance use disorders in the workplace. Supervisors can refer individuals with issues to these programs. However, it is unclear as to how often these are used. Due to the relative availability of these types of positions, many individuals may resign from their current position and move on to a different one as opposed to having to deal with this extremely difficult issue.

What Can Workplaces Do?

Company policymakers and management can take a number of steps to battle the high rates of substance use disorders in the food service and accommodations industry. First, promoting EAPs can allow the workplace to help employees in need and to provide referrals to appropriate sources for them. Other actions that can be taken by the workplace include the following:

  • Workplaces must establish policies and procedures to provide for employees suspected of having substance abuse issues. Managers and other employees need to have resources to rely on if needed.
  • Policies and procedures should be made well known to employees so everyone understands that they will be treated the same way.
  • Managers, supervisors, and other employees should be educated to recognize the signs of individuals who have substance abuse problems in the workplace. Managers and supervisors should be required to attend formal educational seminars on this topic.

Establishing a formal procedure and policy regarding substance abuse in the workplace is extremely important. It is a key issue in assisting employees with these issues and reducing the rates of substance abuse in the workplace. As a result, there are several factors that should be included in the policy and its development.

  • Policies and procedures should be created by both management and workers.
  • The policy should have a statement of purpose and clear objectives.
  • The policy should define substance abuse and substance use disorders.
  • The policy should specify all individuals covered by the program and explain employees’ rights to confidentiality.
  • Clear arrangements should be made for:
    • Employee education regarding substance abuse and a substance-free awareness programs
    • Training in identifying individuals with substance abuse issues
    • Clear provisions for providing assistance for individuals with these disorders
    • Clear policies on how to deal with intoxicated workers
    • Clear policies explaining when individuals are required to engage in drug or alcohol testing
    • Clear and concise exhalations of all disciplinary actions and the conditions under which they are used


  • USBG National Charity Foundation: This organization is dedicated to enhancing the stability and overall wellbeing of those in the service industry. USBG features educational opportunities on social responsibility, which can help to boost life in recovery.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse: NIDA offers many resources to those struggling with substance abuse issues.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous: Both AA and NA offer 12-Step-based peer support to those in recovery.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: SAMHSA offers a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to help individuals find addiction and mental health treatment in their area.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration details figures on substance abuse by various professions.
  • The National Business Group on Health provides a guide to substance abuse in the workplace.

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