Your Server is Burnt-Out, and it's Killing Them.

Saturday Night, 10:00 PM

Inside the kitchen is a team of cooks, covered in sweat and grease, hands ablur, amidst the scents of hundreds of dishes boiling, sautéing, roasting and steaming. They yell in a well rehearsed mixture of Spanish and English. “Re-fire two mac & cheese para llevar!” A manager stands beside ten steaming plates of food on the outgoing window, sprinkling chives on a side of mashed potatoes, screaming “HANDS! I NEED HANDS!” as five servers swarm around the bread station. One stands in the center of the swarm, head down, elbows outstretched as they fend off the others while scooping softened butter into a ramekin to go onto their guest’s complimentary bread basket. Just inside the entryway to the kitchen, a bartender is sat on the floor, clutching their knees, swaying back and forth and choking back tears.

Out front, a lone bartender pulls four glasses of beer in quick succession. The bar is laden with dirty dishes, empty glasses, and the sweet scent of spilled margaritas. Twenty guests sit at the bar; behind them are four tables full of customers guests, for which the bartenders are also responsible. A frazzled server jogs into the kitchen with two hands piled with dirty dishes, scraps of steak, chewed gum and napkins squished into half-full glasses of Dr. Pepper, only to find the dish pit in chaos. They shove the dishes into any space they can find without scraping the plates into the trash. There isn’t time to clear them.

Without washing their hands, the server whips their guests’ dishes from the outgoing window and dash into the dining room; at the far end of the room is their target, table 54. Walking as quickly as they can without snapping into a jog, they pass section after section of tables. As they walk, guests straighten their backs, eyes searching for the servers own. Don’t make eye contact. Just keep walking, or you’ll never get there. Fingers snap at table 32:

“Ketchup?!” Damn. “Yes, please just give me a moment while I find your server.” “I don’t care where my server is, I need ketchup now!” Fuck. “Okay, just a minute, please.”

The server continues walking, finally managing to deliver the three dishes to table 54, force on a smile and say:

“Thanks for your patience, is there anything else I can get for you just now?” To which the guest replies: “I asked for a coke ten minutes ago.”


According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is defined 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.” Cynicism at work, irritability, lacking the energy to be productive, substance abuse, changes in sleep or appetite and physical complaints are all symptoms, and its consequences are severe. Unaddressed burnout can lead to depression, anxiety, vulnerability to illness, and even heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Causes include lack of control, an inability to influence decisions that affect your job, unclear job expectations, a chaotic work environment, little social support, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, such as micromanagement and harassment, and work-life imbalance.

Eric Garton wrote a great piece on burnout for the Harvard Business Review that describes burnout as an organizational problem, rather than a personal or talent management issue. Like many others, it focuses on burnout from a white-collar perspective, while those that suffer the most harm from the phenomenon are not found in offices, but in the sandwich shops downstairs. Burnout is an insidious enough problem when you’re working a 9-5 with health insurance and benefits, but to those with no stable income, no idea what hours they’ll be working next week, no paid time off and no health insurance, it’s a short path to unemployment, mental and physical illness, and substance abuse.

The scenario I described above is based on just a short snippet of a shift I once worked at a steakhouse-chain in Texas. To those not in the industry, It may sound exaggerated, but people who have experienced any time at all in a moderately busy foodservice environment will tell you that this is what their every day looks like; not just for ten minutes of the day, but for a shift that may extend from just a few hours, to twelve or more. While service may appear deceptively simple from the perspective of a guest, to those delivering the experience that we enjoy, each day is a battle. With little power over the terms of their employment, an intense working environment, low wages, and a society that regards their work as unimportant, service industry workers are plagued by burnout, and don’t have the means of escape, or the resources to deal with the effects of burnout that many white collar workers do.

Burger flipper

“You don’t want to wind up flipping burgers” is what my mother would say to me in an attempt to coax me into getting my homework done. Meanwhile, the right wing decries foodservice workers for having the gall to ask for a living wage, calling them “whopper assemblers,” justifying their thinking by stating: “It’s fast food. It’s menial. It’s mindless.” There’s no doubt that a stigma exists towards the foodservice industry. It’s a stigma that I felt sharply as I made my first foray into the industry, and that chip on my shoulder has stayed with me.

You’re cut, go home

The “cut” is the primary tool in controlling wage costs on a day to day, hour by hour basis by on-site management. Should management project that sales are not such that they can expect to meet their target wage-cost percentage for the day, they simply approach an employee and say: “You’re cut, go home.” Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Workers hours are varied depending on not just the time of year, but day to day footfall, and even the weather. As such, workers have little say in when they work, let alone any expectation of a consistent schedule, or even that the schedule they have been given will be honored by their employer. This renders employees unable to plan their lives outside of work, or to budget their finances. Uncertainty about their schedule and income compounds the day to day stress of the job.

On the topic of income, it’s no secret that service staff aren’t paid well. According to a 2014 report, 40% of all restaurant workers live in near-poverty, double the rate of those outside of the restaurant industry. Many foodservice workers find themselves living with multiple roommates in order to afford housing, and working two or three jobs in hopes of accumulating enough hours to make ends meet.

In the weeds

While the mainstream, white-collar consciousness may think of workplace stress as the domain of office workers drearily filing away their TPS reports under flickering fluorescent lights, high-powered lawyers dashing about in crisp suits gibbering on their air-pods, c-suite executives making big decisions around mahogany board-room tables, or surgeons pulling sutures taught while beads of sweat are dabbed from their foreheads, the every-day stress of overwhelmed foodservice staff is so palpable that the industry has its own term for it: “The Weeds.”

It seems as though we, as a society, mischaracterize workplace stress as relating only to office drudgery, high-stakes roles, and most of all, the middle and upper classes. Consideration of the every day anxieties of the working class seem to be all but absent, while at the same time, service industry workers experience substance abuse issues, depression and anxiety in numbers that soar above the national averages.

To be in the weeds is a fact of industry life; in an industry where staff is kept to an absolute minimum, the business model of most food and beverage establishments requires staff to be in a state of stress fairly constantly. This is compounded by the effects of poverty, the lack of control and planning ability, and the social stigma that comes part and parcel with the service industry.

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