OStarbucks Canada, why are you so far ahead of the game when it comes to taking care of your food service workers’ mental health? Starbucks Canada announced Wednesday that the coffee chain will offer its employees $5000 a year (about $3787 USD) to cover the cost of therapy, up from a previous $400 ($303 USD). Canada does indeed have a national healthcare system that takes care of the basic needs of its citizens, but according to the Globe and Mail, social workers and therapists in that system are often overtaxed and difficult to access, and private care is prohibitively expensive for most people.
In the US, full-time Starbucks employees and hourly employees (“partners” in company parlance) who work 240 total hours over a three-consecutive-month period may become eligible for a benefits program called “Your Special Blend.” This includes the chance to opt into a variety of healthcare plans, which include mental health treatment. In 2015, Starbucks was named the ninth best place to work in Canada by Great Place to Work, and that same year, Career Bliss rated Starbucks as the happiest place to work, according to independent employee reviews that took into consideration “work-life balance, management, compensation and benefits, job security, the nature of the employee’s work, the employer’s company culture, and workplace environment.”
Today is National Depression Screening Day, so it seems worth noting that this is an absolute anomaly in the world of food service. With very rare exceptions, the people slinging your java, baking your pastries, and ringing up your check in coffeehouses, fast food joints, family restaurants, and white-tablecloth palaces of gastronomy across the United States have very limited access to affordable mental healthcare. And it’s an industry where it’s desperately needed.
On January 1, I launched a website called Chefs with Issues to provide resources for restaurant workers in crisis, and to start a conversation about the mental health struggles that run rampant through the industry, but are too taboo to discuss. I also launched an unofficial survey (the initial survey was not board-certified, but the resulting data is) to see exactly what people were dealing with, if they’re getting assistance from their place of employment, and if they feel they can be open with their employer about it. I imagined that I’d get a few dozen responses, maybe 100 if word got out.
As of this week, more than 1500 restaurant employees—mostly kitchen workers, but also waitstaff, management, and other people in the business—have responded. While it's obviously a self-selecting group who would be taking a mental health survey in the first place (only 7 percent said they'd never suffered from mental health issues), the results were pretty clear. 83.8 percent say they suffer from depression, 73.5 percent from anxiety. 75.8 percent indicated that they use alcohol to cope with these conditions (marijuana and other drugs, both legal and not, were also frequently deployed), while others turned to eating, sex, and overspending. Only 3.9 percent said their issues had nothing to do with their profession.
But for the most part, the profession isn't doing much to help. Just 18.1 percent of respondents say they have access to mental healthcare through workplace insurance, 15 percent through a partner's insurance, 10.4% through insurance they pay for, and 6.1 percent through Obamacare. Only 14 percent felt free to discuss their situation with their boss or management.
Yes, food service establishments run on incredibly tight margins, and would almost certainly have to increase the cost to consumers if they were to provide these benefits to their employees, but somehow Starbucks has managed to make mental health a priority for the company. This may currently be out of reach for businesses with infinitely smaller infrastructures, but at least it's stirring up the conversation.