Mental Health

A Restaurant Wellness Program Tackles Service Worker Burnout

The Lakehouse's Deborah Friend Wilson prioritizes her staff's well-being with a pioneer idea.

By Ann Karneus July 1, 2022

Jason Wilson and Deborah Friend Wilson team up to improve their staff's mental health at the Lakehouse.

Image: Jim Garner

Food service workers are exhausted. According to a 2017 workplace health survey, 43 percent of people in the food service industry said that work-related stress led them to engage in unhealthy behaviors like drinking or crying regularly. Half said that stress affected their relationships with friends and family. 

And that was before the stress of the pandemic and its shockingly understaffed restaurantssurreal public health measures, increasingly abusive customers, stagnant wages, and disproportionate mortality rates. How do you even begin to address mental health in a field where abuse is not only normalized but often glorified?

Enter Deborah Friend Wilson of the Lakehouse in Bellevue, which she co-owns with chef (and husband) Jason Wilson. Since reopening the restaurant last fall, Wilson has created a wellness program for employees offering a variety of voluntary trainings, support networks, and well-being resources. “We don't need to toughen up people to survive," she says. "I think we need to make space for people to exist in what we all know is a really high-pressure environment."

Together with psychologist Jackie Leibsohn, Wilson launched Balanced Plate Consulting, which will expand customized wellness programs to other restaurants and, down the line, even other industries.

In the program, Wilson has weekly one-on-ones with roughly 40 percent of the staff. It's a time to discuss everything from minor squabbles to deeper issues like alcohol or drug use. Wilson is nearly six years sober herself, and much of her work begins with destigmatizing conversations around mental health and addiction to promote an “emotionally safe culture,” explains Wilson. 

Lakehouse employees can also ask to receive peer support training, where they learn about active listening, signs of mental health issues, and emotional support strategies. Those who complete the training don a check-in pin, which alerts others that they are a resource. Sommelier Simon Pringle, who participates in the check-in program, says he gets approached about all kinds of issues, even the ones not related to work. “We care about each other," he says.

At the daily pre-service meetings, after menu specials and housekeeping are discussed, everyone shares three words to describe how they’re feeling. Wilson says that these simple rituals not only help employees get in touch with their own emotions, but help them consider their coworkers' as well. 

Riley Mallot, a server, adds, “The wellness program isn't here so I perform better. They’re here because they want us to actually feel that way.”

A lot of Wilson’s work hinges on opening up metaphorical spaces for emotion to exist, but there’s also a literal space for it too. Beneath the restaurant, an industrial elevator ferries you to a small foyer near the loading dock with cement floors and huge ventilation pipes above. Beyond a nondescript door lies the wellness room. 

Before the pandemic, it doubled as a makeshift locker room and “a gross storage closet where we just stored old Christmas trees. And it smelled like beer.” Now it's stocked with yoga mats, blankets for optimal nap experiences, bowls of snacks, and books on health and wellness—a dedicated space at work for Lakehouse staff to unwind, think, and relax.

Jason Schwizer, a server, says, “Part of my job is being emotionally dishonest with people. And so having a space where it's okay to show the things that we're trying to cover up is really therapeutic.”

Wilson recognizes this wellness program won’t single-handedly fix broader injustices across the industry, but prioritizing workers' mental health is certainly a start. “I'd like to think that we all leave the workplace with tools that are not just better for the restaurant, but better for our families."

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