As someone whose work centres on a better quality of life in the restaurant industry, the first thought that crossed my mind when COVID-19 forced restaurants to close was whether work-life balance still mattered when we’re not working.
As we got deeper into the pandemic, I watched as many people in hospitality evolved to finding new ways to work, while countless others had to come to terms with losing their jobs. Especially as chefs, our work is so much a part of our identity that the concept of work-life balance seemed to remain valid even when our world came to a standstill.
The question then became, what does work-life balance look like when our work and our lives are in such a state of flux? When our circumstances change from one day to the next? When we can only look back at what life used to be like, but are as yet unsure of what the future holds?
As much as we want to regain the sense of normality we once enjoyed, we have to accept that we’re still in some kind of in-between state, and we just don’t know when that’ll change.
It’s also important to acknowledge the fact that our intentions to maintain healthy habits like exercising, eating healthy, or taking walks, things that contribute to our well-being, are not always easy to keep up right now. In fact, many of us are struggling to take care of our health, both mental and physical.
For almost a year now, it seems we’re all collectively contemplating our uncertain futures – whether you’ve been forced to look for new work opportunities, or you’re trying to figure out how to save your restaurant, or you’re contemplating taking a new direction. Maybe your focus is only on how to weather this current storm so you can just get back to normal. In all of these ways, the brainstorming you’re doing isn’t a passive, stress-free activity, it can weigh on you.
So, let’s take a look at actions you can take, as well as attitudes you can adopt to support yourself through the uncertainty of the next few months (let’s hope it’s just a few more months of this).
If your well-being practices, routines, or workouts have been impacted by local restrictions on gyms or group gatherings, find an alternative that supports your health while still complying with your area’s Covid guidelines. As you consider your options, remember what benefits your old practice brought to your life, so you can find something that offers similar rewards. Stay flexible and keep adapting!
Some of us are working longer hours than we did before Covid. Either our teams are short-staffed, or safety measures add time to tasks, or we’ve had to pivot into uncharted waters, plus kids may be taking up more of our time at home. If you’re left with very little time for yourself, take a few minutes out of the day and spend them doing nothing at all, just disconnect and breathe. Even a few minutes—five to ten, if that is all you can afford—can do wonders for your mental health.
If you’re working fewer hours than usual, take it one day at a time. Engage in activities that help you stay present, especially when the past feels distant and the future is so uncertain. Direct your energy and attention to what you can control—how you spend your time each day.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to be conscious of how you define yourself when it comes to your work. Does your work form a big part of your personal identity? In hospitality, (as with any demanding profession) thoughts about our work often pervade our minds long after our shifts have ended. Plus, some of our closest connections are with co-workers who can seem more like family.
To suddenly feel cut off from work and co-workers takes a toll on your sense of self, especially when you invest so much emotional energy into building and growing both your career and your professional relationships. However, during these times, you can find other ways to stay connected—things like keeping up with your cooking skills in your home kitchen and keeping up with your professional network through social media or even chatting on FaceTime [which can help you feel less lonely, too].
There are always ways to feel connected to your work, even if they’re different than what you’re accustomed to. You’re no less of a chef if your fine dining restaurant has had to pivot to takeaway food, or if you’ve lost your core clientele, or if you only share your skills through online cooking classes. Take comfort in the words of the poet Rumi: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
I want to remind you that in hospitality, we’re already accustomed to working in seasons, and we’re always looking for ways to make the most of those seasons. They define how we go about our work (like how we cook our produce), what preparations we make (like how we ensure the comfort of our customers), and how we approach our work mentally (like being prepared for long shifts in December).
Perhaps the best way to approach the current situation is to view it as yet another season—one that you have not experienced before or do not understand. Lay aside ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ and any notions of how things are supposed to be. Simply begin by asking yourself: “What do I need to do for my well-being in this moment?”