Let’s be real: most people, no matter their profession, have a tough time prioritizing their health. A third of the U.S. doesn’t sleep enough, fast food makes up about 11% of the American diet, and last year, an estimated 16.1 million Americans suffered from a depressive episode, to name a few. But, when it comes to wellness, working bartenders (and other members of the service industry) face a far different set of challenges than the average consumer. As we’ve reported in the past, the food service industry has among the highest rates of substance abuse, and many within the industry suffer from depression and anxiety. Even seemingly straightforward issues like proper nutrition, getting a good night’s sleep or preventing on-the-job injury are all particularly difficult to navigate when your job involves late nights and high stress.
Everyone has different struggles, and everyone approaches them in unique ways. So, we wanted to go straight to the source. We asked a handful of bartenders for their honest, firsthand feedback on how they keep themselves healthy and what their greatest daily challenges are. In the past, we’ve talked with licensed behavioral therapists, sleep researchers, nutritionists, physical therapists, physicians, sexual assault trauma experts, fitness professionals, career counselors, meditation coaches, behavioral scientists, communication coaches, and conflict resolution experts, to name a few, to offer the resources and support our industry deserves, and there will be more to come.
If you’re curious to know whether other members of the industry have the same challenges as you, if you want to see how fellow bartenders approach these all-too-common struggles, or if you just want a little solidarity, read on. And, as always, if you’re seriously struggling with some of these issues, always talk to a medical expert first and foremost, even if you aren’t insured — here are some organizations that can help with that.
Micaela Piccolo of Sweet Liberty (Miami Beach, FL)
One hour a day, four to five days a week. I found that just having a gym membership doesn’t work well for me. I need something that keeps me motivated, so I turned to ClassPass. You get access to all of the gyms nearby and can do anything from rowing and boxing to high interval trainings to an hour of gym time. It works perfectly for my ever-changing schedule. I also belong to a group chat with other bartenders in my city who are constantly trying to keep each other focused on a healthier lifestyle. The best thing is, when one of us skips a day or has a cheat day, there is positive reinforcement within the group without the guilt trip.
Protein-packed meals with tons of fresh veggies and fruits. To combat late night cravings, I’ve turned to keeping granola, yogurt, fruit and protein bars around the house and in my purse. I kill the craving as soon as it arrives with a little munching and it’s usually gone. That way I don’t feel gross having a full meal after work but also don’t go to bed with an empty stomach.
I struggle a ton with sleep. My schedule really varies daily and it’s something I am still figuring out the balance of. I usually have so much on my mind after a shift that I need to calm my thoughts. I’ve turned to podcasts intended for sleeping and sleep hypnosis. I feel refreshed after about 7 hours so I aim to get that every night, minimum.
I probably have a drink or two every other day. I don’t enjoy the way I feel the morning after so I rarely go out. I’ve turned to drinking lower ABV spirits and wine. I’ve also added more water intake to my daily routine which definitely helps.
I like to take a fitness class that makes me engage both physically and mentally. A lot of times, if you just run, you can get lost in your thoughts. I like to get lost in a book, go shopping for flowers, clean around the house and call friends and family. Working out is also a big factor in my every day happiness but sometimes my body is exhausted from a shift. It feels like I am going overboard and I have to remind myself to engage my brain in other ways.
I do but I’ve found immense strength in challenging myself every day.
You don’t have to completely change your life. Start small and make smaller decisions. Going home earlier, saying no to that last drink, waking up earlier to go for a walk. Living more consciously makes all the difference. Small steps will help you begin determining how you want your every day to be and it’ll only get easier from there.
Mark Schettler of Bar Tonique (New Orleans, LA)
Don’t have time right now — I have been injured, but I’m almost back!
I try my best to eat three square meals as often as possible, so that on days that I work my body doesn’t get used to a necessarily screwed up eating schedule. On days that I work, if I’m closing I eat my second meal as close to clocking in as I possibly can, and then either skip eating after work or keep it as healthy/ light/easy to digest as I possibly can. If I’m opening I try to eat while setting up/right at the last possible moment before opening the doors. Once I’m off the bar I try to eat as soon as possible so that I’ll be hungry for a third meal later. Late-night cravings I either get something healthy, or healthy-ish (read: no pizza or cheeseburgers, etc), or else I just don’t eat anything.
I get between five to seven hours a night. I don’t struggle falling asleep after a shift because I either start winding down mentally while closing (do the bank, etc first, knock out anything else that requires active thought, put on NPR and start winding down mentally), and/or I plan to give myself an hour or more to veg out upon getting home. I certainly struggle to wake up after a shift way more than I do falling asleep!
I don’t drink after a closing shift because that’s like 5 a.m. and is completely unappealing at that point. If I’m off earlier (7 or 8 p.m., or 1 or 2 a.m.), I do whatever I want. I wasn’t going to get anymore productivity out of that day anyway, so if I wanna drink and be social then that’s what I do. On nights off I rarely drink to excess, and hardly drink at home at all. I’m old & boring enough to prefer not being hungover, and old & comfortable with myself enough to not need to be wasted to socialize.
I listen to what my mind and body are telling me and respond to that. I understand that I’m not a superhero, I’m an imperfect person that comes with required maintenance. Everybody does what works for them, I think biggest thing for me is mindfulness and being responsive to whatever comes of that.
Yes and no. Every industry brings its own unique health challenges, and so I’d certainly suggest that on its face it isn’t especially “harder.” I’d lose my mind if I had to do the work of an accountant, but an accountant might be completely overwhelmed by the near limitless access to alcohol and mental/emotional rigors of engaging bar patrons in limitless circumstances. So I do harken back to the idea of mindfulness to point out that some people come into this business with an inherently better suited skill-set than others, and that not everyone can or should or is entitled to being a bartender. It’s OK if your body/mind are telling you that you can’t.
That being said, yes, it can be difficult, even given valuable predispositions, to maintain health. I’ve been dealing with an arm/back injury for the last ten months that I suffered taking out an over-filled trash. Believe it or not, it can be difficult to listen to people have the same passionately ill-informed and abrasive political arguments, let alone show up to work and put on a happy face when you’re dealing with whatever tumultuousness there may be in your own personal life. But I will say this for it all — no one takes better care of each other than we do. Not everyone, and not all the time, but I can’t recall even hearing of a time that a call for help was rebuffed. If you do need help taking of yourself, there are certainly much much worse industries to find oneself in.
Practice listening to yourself. Be honest and be responsive to what you hear back, let what you know is good and the right thing to do guide you. Never hesitate to ask for help or admit that something isn’t working for you or stand up for what you know is right. Hospitality is at the core of what we all do, we all just want to take care of other people, and that will always extends to one another. And if you find yourself in a situation not conducive to a healthy approach: GET OUT NOW. You can try to change it later if you still care to, but don’t waste another minute of your short time here in a situation like that.
Daniel Castro of La Banane (Toronto, ON)
Before leaving for a shift: Push ups is a constant, stretches, every other day I’ll make time for the gym.
Post shift: If I’m home watching a basketball game or binge watch a tv series, I’ll use that time to pick up weights and go at it while watching.rn
The goal is to always break a sweat. Everyday.
Changed five years ago when I started dating my now newlywed wife. Before shift: Try to have a full, home-cooked meal, one that will provide good energy and sustenance (you’re lucky if you can squeeze in a healthy meal during a shift). During a shift: fiber/protein bars, LOTS of water, and fruit medley stored in a tupperware. Post shift: A substantial, lighter meal like a full serving salad bowl. If I know I’ll be up for a long while, then I’ll add some protein.
I average 7-8 hours. Going into days off, 10 hours. Fortunately, I don’t have much trouble falling asleep when it’s time to: listening to podcasts, audiobooks or film commentary usually helps with that.
I nearly do all of my drinking at home — which would be about a couple glasses of wine a week. In other words, going into a day off.
Reading books on mindfulness as well as anything with addiction/self-help, working out, listening to WWOZ (always brings a smile to my face).
It’s not easy. I’m fortunate I’ve found a way to be disciplined and I thank my wife for playing a huge role in that. I wanted to change for both myself, and for her. I’ll stress again how tough it is for anyone in this industry.
Find a hobby you love just as much, if not more, than bartending. It’ll re-direct your energy towards something that could be even more fulfilling & hopefully, be the catalyst in the change you’re looking for.
I find A LOT of parallels between our profession & the world of sports. In regards to mindfulness, execution & bringing out the best in yourself & others, start with these two: “The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford as well as “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections” by John Wooden.
Kimberly Patton-Bragg of Three Muses Maple St. (New Orleans, LA)
When I can before work. A little yoga, swim if I can, boot camp and fencing on my rare nights off.
I try to keep bad stuff out of the house but all I honestly want is fatty, crunchy, salty foods at night.
I have sleep apnea and have to sleep with a mask. Four or five hours in, I wake up due to dry mouth, deal with my new kitten, and look at the phone excessively for about an hour until I sleep and repeat the process.
Depends on the day, but at home on days off wine, if anything.
I started doing a meditation app six months ago, and yoga.
I’m 46, 5’2″, overweight, stressed, and have no time to deal with it within an industry that absconds people with the aforementioned issues.
Greta Gillespie Harper of Pirata (Pittsburgh, PA)
Because of my busy schedule I haven’t exercised for about three years other than being behind the bar. I subscribe to the idea that you can only focus on three things as priorities: career, kids, friends & social life, exercise, spouse, hobbies. I focus on my career, kids, spouse right now so the other aspects fall back. Exercise is at the bottom for me right now.
I try to eat one balanced meal a day. Because I work in higher-end locations, it is usually fresh, homemade and nutritious. I stay away from processed anything when it comes to food. Limit beer to a minium because of weight gain and limit carbs. To limit late night cravings I try to not drink because drinking weakens any self imposed following of rules. To be honest, I am in the process of opening a restaurant, and the 16-20 hour (stressful) days have put a huge damper on nutrition and rule following.
I get anywhere from three to six hours of sleep a night on nights that I work, more on days off. I have struggled with falling asleep after a shift (not lately because 16-20 hour days are brutal and i fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow), but reading — I try to read a book a day — and playing Candy Crush relax my mind enough to fall asleep after an hour.
I have also learned that drinking interferes with my sleep patterns so I have limited drinking on nights where I know I need some zz’s.
I have an hour drive to and from work so that limits my drinking substantially. Also, as a very busy bar manager and working bartender, I have to test and taste drinks, spirits, wine, and beer constantly. It becomes a chore to drink some days. Additionally, I’m almost 40: hangovers last two days now and I can’t afford to have three non-productive days in a row. My life and everyone elses around me would be in shambles.
I will say that there is nothing better than coming home after a particularly stressful day and drinking two ounces of really good bourbon on my back deck with nothing but me, the night sky and my sipper.
I am very competitive, but only with myself. I have learned that everyone has their own path and their own means of traversing that path, so I’m harder on myself than anyone else, but I don’t forget to give myself some slack for not being perfect. Like I mentioned above; I limit my focus to three things (over time they all change rankings) and that keeps me somewhat balanced.
I am curious by nature and require a ton of continuous learning so I read voraciously. I also tell all of my problems to the night sky (on my deck… see above…) but overall have found that being introspective and taking the time to figure out how my body, soul, and mind function — what my strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles are, and where my personal boundaries are in various situations — has helped tremendously.
I am also very fortunate to live two very different lives. I have an industry life that is very busy and full, and a home/community life that is also busy and full. Living an hour outside of the city and having a family makes me focus on things other than this industry; while it makes things busier and more challenging it also provides balance mentally and spiritually.
Just living a good life on your terms is a struggle every day, for every human on the planet — not just this industry. I do the best I can each day. Go to bed with a clear conscious and wake up to a new day, fresh slate. On the days I wake up, I do the best i can until my head hits the pillow. That’s mental and physical health to me.
Live a life that is half outside of this industry. Find friends and hobbies far removed from the bar culture. Nurture yourself and learn who you are, take that time, it makes all the difference. And most importantly, don’t give a f—k what anyone else thinks. Take those risks, live your life, it’s your path no one else’s. Oh, and no one really has their shit together, so stop judging yourself.