Those who have worked in the hospitality industry say there are many mental health challenges unique to the profession. PHOTO: ASAEL PEÑA/UNSPLASH

A team of mental health advocates are launching the Hospitality Healing Project to provide professional mental and physical health services to Calgary’s food and hospitality industry. 

Co-founder Heesoo Cho says many of the individuals involved in developing the new program have extensive experience in the hospitality industry. 

“We saw an opportunity to provide additional support, resources, [and] an opportunity for services to those working in the space.”

Cho’s own career in the hospitality industry helped him recognize the pressures of working in that space. 

“From the long hours to the inconsistent income to just being around substances all the time, there is generally maybe a lack of awareness and mindfulness around how these pressures affect you from a mental health standpoint.”

Cho notes that incidents like losing a close friend in the restaurant industry to suicide in 2019 solidified the importance of establishing the program. 

“I know a lot of others in the space have a similar story,” Cho says. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also magnified many issues already affecting workers in the industry. 

“The expectations that are placed on these professionals, you know, you’re expected to show up in a certain manner with a certain energy, to ensure that your guests have a positive experience,” Cho says. “Sometimes sacrificing how you’re actually feeling or your mental bandwidth to do so.”

Cho co-founded the project because he felt there is a lack of awareness on how working in the hospitality industry can affect people. PHOTO: SUPPLIED BY HEESOO CHO

Cho has noticed the initiative’s recent launch has created significant interest from the hospitality industry, and he looks forward to seeing what aspects resonate with people the most. The project is collaborating with mental health and chronic pain service SABI Mind to offer free educational sessions and preferred rates for professional services to anyone in Calgary’s hospitality industry. 

“If it’s just a general discussion on mental health that provides an incremental positive impact in a person’s life, mission accomplished,” Cho says. “If it’s an individual actually going through therapy or counselling, then that’s also a positive impact that we hope to contribute to in individuals’ lives.”

Matthew Drummond–who works in the hospitality industry and has attended a meeting for the mental health initiative–believes the project is needed. 

“It’s providing a safe, relatable space for people working in hospitality where we’re able to share stories and connect on a level where we can just express the same feelings,” Drummond says. 

Drummond also says there are stressors that come with the inconsistency in the business, noting he has been laid off three times since the pandemic began. 

“The stresses behind not making consistent money, all of a sudden having to enforce all these rules that a lot of us felt like we shouldn’t be the ones having to enforce, really caused an extra stress to the work environment and created a lot of hostility between patrons and staff, which was unfortunate but that was just the reality of it.” 

Drummond adds that there are mental health challenges unique to the hospitality industry. 

“I think it’s having to really put on a show every time you’re working. A lot of people I know, including myself, deal with a lot of personal stuff, but when you get to work, you’re essentially slapping on that mask and pretending all is well, when a lot of the time, it isn’t.” 

The initiative follows in the footsteps of nonprofit organizations like Not 9 to 5, which has had success providing mental health training for the food service sector. Cho hopes this project will also have a positive impact on the industry and provide workers with the support they need. 

“It’s all about meeting the individual where they’re at, hence the diversity of the service options,” Cho says. “If nothing else, we hope to inspire a bit of curiosity for individual mental health journeys, but also from an industry perspective.”

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