Restaurant workers have had it especially hard during the pandemic, enduring more than two years of Covid risks, job insecurity and bad customer behavior. At one restaurant group in Colorado, stressed-out employees are getting help from their employer in one creative way: an on-staff therapist.
Last summer, Qiana Torres Flores saw a LinkedIn job ad from Denver-based Bonanno Concepts, which has 10 restaurants, calling for a wellness director. Reading the job description "blew my mind," Flores, 35, tells CNBC Make It. She'd heard of residential care counselors in hospitals, or therapists who help corporate executives mediate and learn to communicate, but nothing like this.
"I was shocked and really excited at the opportunity to create something new and do it at this level with folks really needing it," she says. Flores joined the company in September and is tasked with developing a wellness program to make mental health care more approachable and accessible to the restaurant's staff. "Folks working in the dish pit to the executive chef can come have a counseling session with me."
Flores offers one-on-one counseling as well as group mindfulness sessions to the company's 400 employees. She's also a certified yoga instructor and has led groups through stretching sessions to alleviate pain and prevent injury.
Workers signed up immediately.
Nikki Perri, 23, works as a server at French 75, one of Bonanno's restaurants. She joined in November and remembers being impressed when she heard of the therapy benefit in interviews. She's worked in the industry for six years and has never heard of anything like it.
"It takes courage to get help in general," Perri says, "and even more courage to get help through work because there are stigmas. So I appreciate that we're reminded frequently that Qiana is here to help us."
It's the opposite of Perri's experience working in restaurants for low wages and zero benefits. She says having Flores as a staff resource makes her feel her employer is "invested in us not only as employees, but also as human beings," she says. "I hope more people hop on this trend. It's effective."
When Bonanno Concepts was having a hard time hiring in 2021, the owners put out a survey to figure out what employees wanted most from their employer. Mental health support was No. 1, followed by job security and then more pay.
Chef and owner Frank Bonanno told Colorado Public Radio their health insurance is good, but most psychologist and psychiatrists are paid for out-of-pocket, "and we were looking for a way to make our employees happy."
While providing better mental health access costs the company money, they hope it will help them hire and keep in-demand employees.
With Flores as their new wellness director, she's glad to see a greater acceptance of discussing mental health in the workplace. She's seen a shift in the restaurant industry since celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in 2018.
"In the restaurant industry, there's a culture of, 'Buck up and do your service and swallow your emotions, then handle them somewhere else,'" Flores says. "To have folks making time for their mental health who are in the restaurant industry on a regular basis, that feels really huge."
So far, Flores has not heard of other restaurant-based therapists like her but recognizes there are many advocacy groups that provide mental health and wellbeing resources for restaurant workers, like Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness.
Having a behavioral health clinician onsite is a "huge step" in moving the conversation of mental health from awareness to action, says Anastasia Kuznetsova, cofounder and creative director of Made of Millions, a mental health advocacy nonprofit.
"Asking for an accommodation could lead to being overlooked for a promotion or being fired," she says. "So we're in a place where we need to start delivering that messaging" to support mental health at work, and where employers are "making an effort to build places that truly support staff by acting."
Back in the Denver restaurants, "part of my role here is to chip away at the stigma and make sure those [challenging] conversations come out of the walk-in and are a part of the normal workday," Flores says. "The notion of leaving your baggage at the door, I don't think many people can really do that."