Substance abuse in the hospitality industry


To the guest, it all looks so nice. Gorgeous surroundings, great food and drink and charming staff who seem to be thrilled to do your bidding. What could be so wrong with a job in the hospitality industry?

Unfortunately, there is a whole lot going on that customers will never know about. Long hours, high stress, low pay and lack of compliance with employment law are only a few of the problems the hospitality industry is riddled with.

Hospitality culture

People who work in the hospitality industry – housekeepers, waiting staff, bartenders, chefs and counter workers – know that their job entails providing high-quality and professional service to customers at a relentless pace. What may be less known is the toll on mental and physical health this kind of work takes and the substance abuse that often goes on behind the scenes of the hospitality industry.

Author of the book ‘Kitchen Confidential’ Anthony Bourdain said that the hospitality industry is “drenched in drugs and alcohol.” In most jobs, drinking at the office (or coming to work drunk or high) would be an instantly sackable offence; in the hospitality business, it is par for the course, almost a badge of pride.

Highest rates of substance abuse

The abuse of alcohol is no real surprise. After all, the hospitality industry serves up a lot of booze, but illicit drug use is common too. We don’t know the exact extent of the problem is in Ireland, but figures from the USA show that drug use is higher in the hospitality industry than any other, and hospitality workers get third place in the heavy drinking stakes, just below miners and construction workers.

Food services get the worst figures in the USA; 19.1% of food workers will have used illegal drugs at least once in any given month and 16.9% of food service workers have a substance abuse disorder.

Camaraderie and exhaustion

Hospitality work is exhausting and stressful. The tiring conditions and a sense of camaraderie mean that hospitality workers often party hard to let off steam.  You’re surrounded by alcohol all day and after a long night of dealing with sometimes difficult customers, nothing sounds better than a drink. Then another person gets off of their shift and another, and before you know it you’ve got a party…and it’s Tuesday.

Once the shift is over, ‘checking out mentally’ with the help of substances is often the only way to unwind enough to get some sleep. The combination of high pressure work and substance availability keeps the hospitality industry top of the list for substance abuse problems.

Why hospitality in particular?

First, the hospitality industry has one of the lowest barriers of entry – no degree, no problem. A history of drug use? You’re still likely to get a job.

And unlike other industries, where there is a standard of drug and alcohol-free workplaces, hospitality workers are around it every shift. In addition, hours are late and often long, with many suffering from insomnia on their off hours. The stress of a busy kitchen/restaurant/pub, lack of sleep and readiness of drugs and alcohol can often lead to substance abuse, or fuel an addiction.

To exacerbate the situation, the fear of losing work in a sometimes cut-throat industry with very high turnover is real. This can result in those most in need of help staying in an environment that fosters the abuse.

Anxiety in the kitchen

Many employees in the service and hospitality industries spend more time at their respective jobs than they do at home. Being forced to cover extra shifts, or voluntarily working overtime to augment the low salaries, creates a fertile ground for anxiety. With alcohol already on the premises, getting buzzed creates a much-needed (if dangerous) break from the drudgery of long, late shifts, as well as a bonding experience with other like-minded employees.

Underpaid hospitality workers

The Guardian newspaper in the UK interviewed a chef who says that even the fanciest establishments are riddled with alcohol binges and drug abuse. Once again, the stressful atmosphere created by client expectations features in the story, but he says that the financial problems of underpaid hospitality workers could contribute to the overall malaise. Without a union to back them up, hospitality workers take what they get, and compensate for their troubles with alcohol and drug use.

Not just alcohol and illicit drugs

An Australian study found that hospitality workers and blue-collar workers were more likely to abuse addictive painkillers and other pharmaceuticals. Bearing in mind that long hours on one’s feet in uncomfortable working conditions could promote painkiller use to ease aches and pains, it’s hardly surprising that this can easily turn into abuse or addiction.

Work pressure

The higher your workplace pressures, and the greater the availability of drugs and alcohol, the more likely you are to feel the need to “zone out” after hours. Long working hours also promote painkiller and stimulant abuse, since staying awake and pain-free are often among the survival priorities workers seek to address through drug use. Hospitality employers are often highly demanding, expecting double shifts and unimpaired customer service from overtired employees. It’s a fact that chefs are among the professionals with the lowest life-expectancy.

What can be done?

Despite greater attention being given to the problem of substance abuse within the hospitality business, it remains an industry where the free flow of alcohol has been integral to the bottom line for generations (and likely will be in the future).

For people who suffer from the strain of the manic work, there is still stigma about admitting to substance abuse issues in that kind of environment. Bartenders, waiting staff and wine experts who have made the decision to not drink rarely speak up, for fear that talking about their issues suggests that they are incapable of working with alcohol at all.

But it comes down to a culture that celebrates excess. The idea of “recovery” is seen as a liability and an impediment to getting the job done. For those who break the cycle of substance abuse in the hospitality industry, being silent about their struggles is often seen as the only way to keep their job.

For many others, the customers and orders never stop coming – and alcohol or drugs are always nearby.

Tabor Group

Tabor Group is a leading provider of residential addiction treatment services in Ireland. We provide support and care to hundreds of clients suffering from addictions to alcohol, substances, gambling and eating disorders. For more information on Tabor Group’s services click here.