Behind the Bar To Your Health

8 Mental Health Tips for Bartenders During Bar and Restaurant Closures

Mental health experts offer concrete ways to cope with feelings of anxiety, guilt and stress.

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Liquor.com / Sofia Varano

The hospitality industry is undergoing an unprecedentedly difficult time right now, with bars closing and laying off employees or trying to figure out creative ways to stay afloat during the current COVID-19 crisis. It’s a lot to deal with. Three renowned mental health experts provide ways to get through each day while supporting colleagues and engaging in healthy self-care practices.

1. Be Supportive of Staff and Colleagues, but Don’t Shoulder Everything 

“Bartenders can become unintentional counselors themselves, especially with regulars,” says Beth Tuckwiller, Ph.D., an associate professor at George Washington University who’s also trained as a mental health counselor focused on well-being. It’s only natural to feel empathy toward anyone going through a tough time. But first reflect on your own feelings of burnout, stress or anxiety, especially those you were already feeling before the pandemic, and view the current period as an opportunity to reflect and reset. Empathize with others if you’re able, or visualize other people’s struggles as packages they’re handing to you that you set down on a bench, she says. In other words, forgive yourself if you need to disassociate a bit in the name of self-preservation.

2. Work on Self-Compassion

If your bar has been able to keep you working mixing to-go cocktails but a friend who works at another bar was let go, you’d feel compassion for them, right? So why does it seem more difficult to give ourselves grace in the same situation? “Self-compassion is the practice of treating ourselves the way we would a close friend … and it’s vital in combating feelings of guilt,” says Amanda Schofield, LMHC, RYT, a licensed mental health counselor, registered yoga teacher and founder of Empowered Wellness in Florida. She cites researcher Dr. Kristin Neff’s three components of self-compassion: mindfulness to be nonjudgmental, being understanding rather than overly critical, and recognizing that common humanity means we’re not alone in experiencing difficult times.

3. Focus on What You Can Control 

We can think about going through life either in the driver’s seat or the passenger seat, says Tuckwiller. Right now, as bars are shuttering and unemployment rates are up, with no end in sight, it’s much easier to picture the more helpless and self-defeating scenario. Instead, she says, imagine driving, albeit on a road under construction or with potholes, which bring challenges for sure but not insurmountable ones. In addition to adhering to WHO and CDC guidelines for staying healthy, “pick one purposeful, meaningful action per day that helps others,” she says. That could mean checking on a colleague, explicitly thanking the supermarket clerk or helping at an animal shelter. From a professional standpoint, take steps to apply for temporary unemployment, create a virtual work group, reimagine your menu or even start thinking about a reopening party, she says. “COVID-19 is disorienting, and everyone’s life is pivoted. … focusing on the things we are able to change makes us better able to cope and feel efficacious.”

4. Talk About Something Else (but if Conversation Strays, That’s OK)

“It’s OK to say ‘Can we talk about something else, I really need a break from COVID-19,’” says Abigail Schlesinger Vandegrift, Ph.D., the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “You can model behavior for others; they probably need a break too.” But be prepared for the topic to quickly switch back to the dire situation facing bars and restaurants, fears of getting sick while uninsured and what the post-coronavirus hospitality industry will look like. Still, turning off the news and finding another distraction, like Zooming with a friend or going for a walk, can go a long way in giving yourself a mental break.

5. Practice Mindfulness

Fifteen-minute guided meditations and 45-minute online yoga classes might work for some, but for those who are easily distracted or lack patience, they may exacerbate rather than alleviate feelings of stress or guilt. But you don’t have to go all-in to get the benefits, says Schofield. “If anxious thoughts of fear, worry and worst-case scenarios are overwhelming and constant, try challenging anxious thoughts with positive affirmations.” Repeating phrases like “I focus fully on the present moment” and “I feel inner peace throughout my body” can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, while alternate-nostril breathing is said to balance both hemispheres of the brain. Tuckwiller suggests taking brief “mindful moments” when you feel anxious or panicky feelings coming on, such as walking to a window, watching how the wind is moving through the trees and identifying how you’re thinking and feeling at that exact moment in time. She also points to the field of positive psychology, whose proponents tout the significance of appreciating beauty, so take a few minutes to do a virtual tour of The Louvre or watch a Kennedy Center performance.

6. If You Drink, Think About the Motivation Behind It

Alcohol can be the quickest and easiest solution to feeling a little better right now, at least in the short term, and it can be an acceptable coping mechanism in moderation. If it’s solely to numb or avoid feelings or situations, plot a course correction and manage your negative emotions a different way, says Tuckwiller. Maybe indulge in a drink or two every other day, and in between, think about future goals, connect with old friends, help others or problem-solve. “Whatever it is, do it purposefully and with intention,” she says.

7. Keep to a Daily Routine 

Take a shower, get dressed, put on makeup and fix your hair (if that’s something you do on a regular basis). “Sticking with a set daily routine with help with scheduling and doing self-care activities,” Schofield says. “Come up with a daily plan that prioritizes both physical and mental wellness,” like going for a social distance-approved walk or streaming an online boot camp or Zumba class.

8. Seek Support from Peers and Trained Professionals

Anyone having serious thoughts of depression or suicide should reach out to a professional for immediate treatment, says Tuckwiller. But for those with milder symptoms, staying connected while we’re navigating these uncharted waters is essential. After all, who knows better what a bartender is going through right now than another bar professional. “Start an online support group of other bartenders, and share creative ideas and goals to return to work when we get through COVID-19.” she says. “And we will.”

Mental Health Resources:

The Daily Challenge: Healthy Hospo and Licensed to Distill have collaborated to raise awareness and funding for better mental and physical health in the hospitality industry. They recently kicked off a series of weekly mental and physical challenges throughout the month of April, accessible on both organizations’ Facebook and Instagram sites. Each weekly challenge is paired with a generous sponsor who has pledged to cover the cost of at least 50 one-on-one online therapy sessions for beverage industry workers in need.

Online therapy: Sites like Talkspace and BetterHelp are an alternative to in-person therapy, which is less available right now anyway because of social distancing. The cost for these services ranges from $40 to $100 per week. Therapy options include messaging, chatting, phone calls and videoconferencing.

Open Path Psychotherapy Collective: This nonprofit directory of therapists offers sliding-scale rates to clients without health insurance or adequate coverage for mental health services. Therapists offer sessions between $30 and $60 for individuals who pay a lifetime membership fee of $59.

“Optimizing Self-Care in a COVID-19 World” Zoom seminar: On April 18 at 2 p.m. EDT, New York City licensed clinical social worker Dr. Sara Matsuzaka will give a 90-minute seminar focusing on what hospitality professionals can do during this stressful time, including a half-hour Q&A session and information about other Zoom programming from industry leaders on spiritual, mental, physical and social well-being. The virtual seminar is organized by Jack McGarry, the co-owner of The Dead Rabbit, who credits Matsuzaka with helping him take ownership of his addiction and mental health issues. “She is world-class—clear and real with her advice,” he says. Click here to access the Zoom link.

The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania: This organization strives to help people lead meaningful lives and enhance experiences related to work, play and love. Online resources include readings, videos and book recommendations.

Therapist directories: Sites including Psychology Today, GoodTherapy and Therapy Den have directories of professional psychologists, social workers and counselors searchable by location, specialty, accepted insurance plans and more. 

For more mental health organizations for bartenders, click here.