When you spend your days (and nights) behind the stick catering to everyone else’s needs and demands, it’s easy to neglect yourself. Making time for self care can seem impossible in the midst of grueling 60+ hour work weeks, endless hours on your feet, and shaking cocktails until muscles you didn’t know existed ache. But neglecting your own health leaves you at risk for burnout, weight gain, injury and more.
“We face the same obstacles that people in other career paths face — lack of time, money, motivation, resources — compounded by late hours and long shifts,” says Kirsten “Kitty” Amman, a former bartender and server who is now Boston’s brand ambassador for The Perfect Purée and, incidentally, a yoga instructor.
“When you’re working in a restaurant or bar, the needs of guests or fellow co-workers must almost always be privileged over one’s own. This takes its toll over time. Most people in our culture struggle with self care, so for bartenders and servers it’s like a double whammy.”
How do you find the time to take care of yourself when shifts end after midnight and days off are rare? Here are some tips from industry veterans and wellness professionals on maximizing self care and minimizing health risks in a high-pressure, high-stress environment.
“I’ve found that my best way to keep from burning out is to make sure I get a true dedicated day off. Sometimes, I will even turn off my phone for 24 hours,” says Ian Cox, GA/SC market manager for Infinium Spirits and president of USBG Atlanta. “Reading non-industry-related books in my down time definitely helps, too.”
While it might not be feasible to shut off your phone for an entire day, unplugging from work is crucial to maintaining some balance and sanity.
“In this industry, there is always something going on, whether it’s an event, party, or conference” explains Kellie Thorn, bartender and beverage director for Hugh Acheson. “You have to be selective about what [events] to attend and how many to attend. I am passionate about hospitality, and I love curating experiences for people, but I recognize that for me to do that well I have to take time to recharge.”
Paul Calvert, owner of Ticonderoga Club, agrees that down time is critical. “Writing, running, reading, not thinking about food and beverage, staying engaged in current events, and spending time with my sweetheart and our son all help me stay healthy.”
Work it out
Bartending is a physically taxing job, and your knees, feet, back, shoulders and joints can take a beating. Combine that with a post-shift round of drinks, late night drive-ins and endless industry-related events, and your waistline can also take a hit.
“The late hours affect your sleep and your diet drastically. When I get off work at 3 a.m., I find myself at either a 24-hour gym or a 24-hour grocery store,” quips Minero Atlanta bartender Patrick Schultz.
If you choose the former over than the latter, your body will suffer.
Shaun Gordon of Charleston’s Prohibition found himself in that “unhealthy spot” last year, weighing in at over 350 pounds, “not a place I wanted to be working behind a high volume craft cocktail bar,” he admits. A combination of weight training and “intense cardio” helped him lose 130 pounds and get him in better shape for managing his 12- to 13-hour shifts.
A former college football player, Cox agrees that “getting to the gym is key. Like any good athlete, you need to train your body to cope with the rigorous side of the business.”
Staff at San Diego’s Kettner Exchange hold each other accountable for their workouts, meeting every Friday morning to run the city’s convention center steps. “It’s a great way to stay in shape and stay committed to being active,” notes bar manager Steven Tuttle, who organizes the group runs.
Can’t find the time to work out? Jeff Banks of Brush Sushi Izakaya makes it part of his commute. The bartender started biking the ten miles round trip to his restaurant a few months ago and says he’s lost thirty pounds as a result.
Manage your mind
While it might seem counter-intuitive, “befriending stress is invaluable to self care,” says Lyn Talley, founder of Charleston-based Go Interactive Wellness, which provides on-site yoga, barre, Pilates, mindfulness and meditation classes to companies throughout the Southeast. “The reality is, those stressors like the crazy schedule, the long hours, the difficult customers are always going to be a part of our lives. Resisting the inevitable just makes it harder to cope with the pressure.”
Renowned mentor and self-proclaimed “mindful bartender” Gary “Gaz” Regan agrees. “This is a service industry. It requires human interaction and can be just as emotionally exhausting as it is physically,” he explains. He believes being aware of your stress and mindful of how you interact with others can completely transform your work environment.
“If you start practicing mindfulness, whether that’s taking the time to say hi to dishwashers and line cooks before your shift or asking your customer ‘how are you’ and actually waiting around for the answer, you’ll instantly start to reap the rewards,” he adds. “Mindfulness leads to happier customers. Happy customers tip better, and happy co-workers are more likely to cover your shift when you need time off or cut you more lemon twists when you run out at 11 p.m. on a busy night.”
Being surrounded by rich, fatty foods and an endless supply of booze can lead to unhealthy eating and drinking habits.
“The culture of stress release through drinking and drugs is an easy escape,” says Jen Gregory, Chattanooga USBG president and owner of the wine-based consulting business Vinthusiasm. “I always challenge people to try not drinking for two weeks, and see how much better you sleep and feel.”
Thorn swears by eating “loads” of fruits and vegetables and skipping the fast food. She also does a one-month detox twice a year, when she abstains from all alcohol and eat a full vegetarian diet “to hit an internal reset button.”
Tony Coxum of Kettner Exchange and several other local San Diego bartenders recently completed a similar reset. They did a two month “challenge” of the seemingly industry impossible — no drinking, strict diet and regular exercise, including Tuttle’s Friday stair running group.
“I happen to be fortunate enough to live and work on the coast in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and nothing re-energizes my mind and body better then to step away from everything industry related, lay down in the sand, and just relax,” says Gordon. “Obviously not everyone can live near an ocean, but in my opinion just getting away from work related issues and getting outside and finding your happy place is the key to both physical and mental rejuvenation.”
Atlanta’s Shanna Mayo, an alum of Leon’s Full Service, Victory Sandwich Bar, and most recently, Amer, concurs. “I spend most of my days and nights in a dark bar. Then I hang out in bars with my friends, or go to events in bars, or have lunches in a bar. My body desperately craves vitamin D. These days, I go on walks or bike rides once a day, read outside and hike on my day off.”
Bend and breathe
Others find time to recharge and re-set indoors. “I resisted yoga for years, naively thinking it was hippy bullshit,” admits Mayo. But now she’s a “total believer,” she says. “Stretching while forcing myself to slow down is the perfect one-two combo for my body and mind.”
Schultz also maintains a regular yoga practice, finding it “a great way to build stamina and strength.”
Regan takes regular yoga classes and meditates every morning, “even if it’s just 15 minutes.” For meditation newcomers, he recommends 8 Minute Meditation or the Meditation Oasis app, which has several dozen guided meditations, but adds “there’s really no right or wrong way” to meditate and find your zen.
“There was this guy who attending one of my Mindful Bartending workshops a few weeks ago. He meditates every day before he starts his shift, but not like I do. He gets in early, puts in his earbuds, plays some heavy metal music, and finds his zone. It clear his head and has the same effect as good meditation.”
The bottom line?
Just like there’s no perfect method for meditation, there’s no perfect prescription for self care. All that matters is that you do what works for you.