Burnout in the Service Industry

I must have read dozens of articles on the workplace morale killer known as ‘burnout.’ While the condition appears to be widely known, it seems as though the prevailing public opinion centers burnout around people donning gray suits, preparing their TPS reports beneath the fluorescent lights of their sparsely decorated offices. During my working life, I’ve found myself everywhere from a standing desk in my living room, to sales floors, offices, behind bars, in kitchens, and behind espresso machines; taking each of those experiences into account, I’ve never seen burnout function with such fierce alacrity as in the service industry.

What is burnout?

According the Mayo Clinic, answering yes to any of the following questions could indicate that you’re experiencing burnout:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as: “a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”

Why is this such a problem in the service industry?

Let’s look at some of the risk factors the Mayo Clinic lists for burnout in the workplace, and see how they relate to the service industry. As an example, let’s pretend that your name is Amy, and you’re working as a server in a restaurant.

Lack of Control

As a server, you have no say in the schedule you’ll work, the day to day activities you’ll complete, or the amount of work you’ll do on any given day, with respect to both time and labor. You may be scheduled different hours each week, with no way of anticipating your schedule, or planning around it. On any given day, you may find yourself serving a different section, or group of tables, as the day before. You may be assigned extra sidework, such as polishing glasses, washing cutlery, setting tables, or mopping the dining room. You may not be serving at all, and may instead be put on another position, with little to no warning. Finally, you may find your restaurant understaffed for the day, meaning that you may be required to work as many as twelve or more hours, often without a meal break.

Unclear Job Expectations

Your training is likely to have been little to none. Management is often too busy to stop and teach new hires, and a formal training program doesn’t exist in your restaurant. As a result, you find yourself in trouble for small things that you didn’t know were missteps, such as inadverdently covering the label of a bottle of wine as you pour a glass for a guest, or delivering cutlery to a table with their food, instead of delivering it preemptively. Furthermore, the expectations placed upon you are largely dictated by the guests you’ll serve. For instance, you had a complaint lodged against you for taking an empty dish from a table before all guests had completed their meal. Despite this being standard practice, the guest complaint carries weight, and you find yourself being disciplined regardless.

Dysfunctional Workplace Dynamics

You are often subject to verbal abuse and sexual harassment from the guests of the restaurant. Management does not address it, so you learn to ignore it.

Poor Job Fit

You don’t enjoy your work, but going to college was never an option for you financially, and this is the only industry you know. You feel trapped.

Extremes in Activity

Your restaurant is very busy; for the entire length of your shift, there is no one who will cover your section to enable you to take a break. It’s difficult to even find the time to use the bathroom.

Work-Life Imbalance

You find yourself working ten to twelve hour shifts, sometimes for up to a couple of weeks consecutively. All of your personal time is spent resting for the next shift.

When you couple these common scenarios with the fact that a full 40% of food-service workers live in near-poverty, with an overall poverty rate of 16.7% (vs. 6.3% for all other industries) and the mental health impacts of poverty in mind, it’s easy to see why burnout is such an issue.

These issues don’t just apply to the font-lines. Salaried management are often used as a cost saving measure when cut-throat labor-cost targets have to be met, sometimes effectively reducing their hourly pay rate beneath that of their subordinates.

How burnout affects employers

How burnout affects employees

How burnout can be mitigated

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