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Just a few restaurant brands offered mental health benefits for their employees in the late 2010s. The pandemic provided a catalyst for many more to add such benefits in the past three years.

Restaurants bring mental health into focus

The pandemic and demand from younger generations have served as catalysts for more restaurant companies to add mental health programming and benefits.

The restaurant business continues to normalize since the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the industry four years ago. But as the bumpiness of the supply chain, staffing levels, permitting delays, and food costs start to smooth out, one major challenge remains: Many employees are not OK.

According to the American Psychological Association, 50% of adults ages 18–34 reported a mental illness in 2023, versus 31% in 2019. That number is likely compounded among restaurant workers, who are most at risk for substance abuse disorders and heavy alcohol use, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association. Overall, foodservice is considered one of the worst industries for mental health, according to a 2017 report from Mental Health America

After experiencing a historic labor shortage that impacted sales and operations in 2021 and much of 2022, it seems the industry is now doing more than ever to help its people. Prior to the pandemic, employee mental health programs in the industry were quite rare. In the late 2010s, Chipotle and Starbucks became pioneers here, with the former adding access to mental healthcare and the latter providing inpatient and outpatient mental healthcare and mental health training.


Restaurant companies have added benefits from personalized mental health assistance and free online therapy to memberships to meditation and relaxation apps.

Both have since continued to add and enhance their offerings, including Chipotle’s recent partnership with SupportLinc powered by CuraLinc Healthcare, which offers six free sessions with a licensed counselor or mental health coach, as well as access to resources and community support for legal, financial, and family matters.

According to Ilene Eskenazi, Chipotle’s chief human resources officer, offering new benefits that support workers’ mental wellbeing makes them more likely to stay.

“With our strong employee value proposition, we can secure talent that is enthusiastic about growing in parallel with the company and ensure a dependable workforce for the future,” Eskenazi said.


Chipotle’s retention numbers have returned to, and in some cases surpassed, pre-pandemic levels. During the company’s most recent earnings call, executives said turnover rates are lower than the industry average. Higher retention levels are something the entire industry aspires to; training is expensive, less stability leads to operational hiccups, and so forth. In other words, there’s a clear business case emerging from the addition of these types of programs and benefits, and a clearer return on investment. According to a report from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, more mental healthcare coverage could yield a financial return of $4 for every $1 spent.

The catalyst for change

And, as it turns out, millennial and Gen Z workers want such mental health support and policies. According to a recent Deloitte survey, 80% of millennial and Gen Z applicants heavily weigh such support. This growing demand was the impetus behind Chipotle’s newest benefits.

“Gen Z has led the charge in reshaping our society’s approach to mental health as they enter the early stages of their professional careers. More than 73% of our current restaurant employees are Gen Z, so it’s crucial for us to listen to the needs of these employees and offer benefits that align with their values,” Eskenazi said.


That said, the generational shift isn’t the only driver behind more mental health care. Since the pandemic, many executives have noted that adding such benefits is simply the right thing to do.

“The pandemic was the catalyst we needed to talk about this. The world had to pause, and we realized we had significant opportunities to change and make our employees’ lives better. This was a problem in the industry before, but when that pause happened, it became more real. We had the opportunity to look in the mirror and make this happen. We had to evolve,” said Fasika Melaku, Denny’s vice president of HR/chief learning officer.

Not only was the pandemic isolating, but it also blurred the lines between work and home in a way that perhaps we’ve never seen before, with children and pets crashing Zoom calls, crisis plans having to be activated outside of normal office hours, heightened care responsibilities that took our eye off the ball, and so forth.

“At one point, it was, ‘What happens at home stays at home, and what happens at work stays at work.’ That went away,” said Jill Waite, chief people officer at Portillo’s. “The workforce has changed and our relationship with employers, peers and supervisors has changed, and so expectations have changed. Employees want more.”


As such, more companies are sharpening their focus on mental health support for their team members, from entry level workers to the C-suite. In 2021, Portillo’s improved its benefits package, which included personalized mental health assistance through its medical plan. Yum Brands provides access to free dedicated mental health counselors and designated “live well days.” Noodles & Company began providing all employees and their families access to an emotional support line to speak to a trained mental health specialist at no cost and, just last year, announced a partnership with BetterHelp to offer guests a total of up to $1 million in free online therapy.

Also last year, First Watch began providing a complimentary annual membership to Calm, an app for meditation and relaxation, to all employees and up to five friends and family members. The chain also added telemedicine services to connect with a doctor, including one that specializes in mental health, in minutes, with no out-of-pocket expense.

Denny’s has long prioritized what it calls “empowered wellbeing” as part of its Denny’s Together initiative, created in response to a 1994 racial bias lawsuit against the brand. The objective is to create an authentic change in the mindset and behaviors of the team via programs such as “Go Beyond.” In June 2022, Kelli Valade was named CEO and began asking where mental health fits into Denny’s Together, and the company has since added more programs, including mental health and wellness summits that are open to everyone. The next summit is planned for April. Denny’s has also launched an app that helps employees and their families find a coach, support group or therapist within 20 minutes to help them through a crisis.


“Denny’s is passionate about coming to the table to have meaningful conversations and destigmatizing mental health,” Melaku said. “We are also committed to sharing this growth with the communities we work in, as seen in our Mental Health Series. We ourselves may not have all the tools, but let’s talk about it and bring people together and then keep talking about it.”

“Talking about it” is how First Watch derives its benefits as well. CPO Laura Sorensen said the company recently began more clearly articulating its vision, mission, and values with an ultimate focus on “being kind.” As part of that focus, mental health “just becomes a natural part of the conversation,” she said. To feed into that conversation, the chain launched a “WHY” Tour — an acronym for “we hear you” — in which Sorensen, CEO Chris Tomasso, and other executives host 22 different 90-minute calls with hourly employees. The 22 calls ensure each market is represented, and during those 90 minutes everything is fair game.

“We question them about their entire employment experience. It’s like an engagement survey on steroids. And because we’re doing it where we’re actually talking to and listening to them instead of through a one-dimensional piece of paper, it’s more effective to help change people’s lives for the better,” Sorensen said.


Through these tours, First Watch is able to understand if it’s offering the right programs and benefits and adjust accordingly. The company also recently added a texting platform for frontline workers, so managers are better able to communicate what resources are available to them, as well as a personalized coach program, so employees struggling with mental health can be assigned a dedicated coach who comes up with a plan to help.

Meanwhile, Portillo’s pulls input from both regular roundtables and its Total Rewards survey asking employees what needs to be prioritized. With that data, Waite said, the company is better able to not only provide mental health support, but also create tailored programs that focus on the root causes of mental health issues, such as substance abuse, financial struggles, nutritional deprivation, etc.

“Our provider provides access to work/life services, so our team members and their families are able to get a holistic assessment to each individual needs, versus a peanut butter approach,” she said.

Portillo’s also rolls mental wellness components, such as stress management, into its leadership training program. Managers have coaches that focus on things like how to supervise a working parent or deal with a loss. They’re also trained to know what resources to provide if an employee is in need. Waite describes the training as a combination of soft skills and job skills, and it starts at the crew chief level, before an employee is promoted to manager.

“We start early to make sure they’re prepared and confident. If they don’t feel confident, that weighs on them. We give them the keys so they’re ready and able to support team members right away. It not only helps the leader with their own mental health, but also enables them to better support their team and facilitate conversations they may need to be having in their restaurants,” Waite said.

Holistic approach

Waite’s point about confidence illustrates another component to the broader mental health conversation: While programs that focus specifically on mental wellness are critical to make progress with this work, it requires much more of a holistic approach. The American Psychological Association shows that most adults (77%) are chronically stressed about money, for instance. For restaurant workers specifically, 66% say they are at least somewhat stressed about their finances, according to a recent study by YouGov and commissioned by DailyPay.

The underlying causes of mental unwellness vary wildly from employee to employee, and that’s why Waite believes solutions will continuously evolve. For starters, many restaurant companies have started adding financial literacy resources, 401Ks, educational benefits, same-day pay options, and even immigration reimbursement to ease as much burden on their employees as possible.

First Watch recently began receiving a lot of feedback from their employees about the stress of childcare — employees who may need to miss a shift or find a babysitter to cover their shift, for instance. Inadequate childcare can also add to financial stress.

“We heard over and over about the dilemma over childcare and also in many cases elder care, so we rolled out a partnership in January with Bright Horizons, a leading provider of backup child and elder care, to every single one of our employees. We’re basically subsidizing those costs,” Sorensen said.

Under this new program, if an employee needs backup care, they can drop a child off at a Bright Horizons location and pay just $10 for the entire day. If they don’t feel comfortable doing that, they can have someone come to their home for just $4 an hour and First Watch picks up the rest of the cost.

“The response when we rolled this out was incredible, including from people who don’t even have kids, because when someone is off of work because of care issues, it impacts everyone,” Sorensen said.

This is just the start of what is likely to come from these companies as they all continue their listening tours and roundtables and summits, pulling input from employees who now expect more. Many restaurant companies are ready and willing to meet this changing demand.

“This will be a continued conversation as the workforce evolves and we’ll see more education, training, acceptance that these conversations are real and it’s OK to have them,” Waite said.

“Companies will continue to move forward here,” Sorensen added. “This is the new expectation and employees are right to have those expectations.”

As Melaku notes, however, mental health and mental fitness must be part of the companies’ culture and not just a program put into place or an occasional conversation.

“We have to think about science and behavior change and build it into our ethos. Our movement is intentional, and we have to talk about it,” she said. “This is the chance to make a real change in our industry, so our employees don’t go work somewhere else. We have an opportunity to help shape this for the employees starting in the industry tomorrow and those in the industry today.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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