Hospitality sector reaches drink and drugs crisis point

10 October 2003 by
Hospitality sector reaches drink and drugs crisis point

Alcohol and drug abuse is reaching epidemic proportions across the hospitality sector, as more industry professionals struggle to cope with stress at work and stay awake during shifts.

An exclusive Caterer survey has revealed that 97% of hospitality professionals believe alcohol and drug abuse to be a problem for the industry, with more than one in two respondents reporting that the combined effects have reached "worrying" levels.

The survey of almost 1,000 hospitality professionals found that 40% of respondents had seen colleagues take illegal drugs while at work, and 59% had seen colleagues drinking to excess on duty.

Alcohol emerged as the bigger problem of the two, with 99% of respondents identifying it as a problem for the industry.

"The only thing that surprises me about that figure is what the other 1% was thinking," said Peter Kay of the alcohol education charity, the Ark Foundation. "There is without doubt a drink and drug culture within the industry. In the old days what always appealed to me and others was the image of the hard-drinking chef. Now that image has become a problem because no one has addressed the culture."

The spectre of widespread alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace has raised health and safety concerns. Kay estimated that a quarter of accidents in kitchens were alcohol-related.

Harry Shapiro, from the advisory organisation Drugscope, said it was a common misconception that cocaine and amphetamines (two of the three most widely used drugs listed in the survey) helped in stressful situations. "Cocaine and speed keep you awake, but it just adds to the jitteriness, anger and paranoia," he said, adding that drug-takers were more likely to lose control when under stress.

The most common reasons given by people who took drugs at their place of work were "to stay awake during shift" (48%) and "to help cope with stress" (also 48%).

Asked if long hours were to blame for the rise in drug-taking, Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said they were "an excuse, not a reason". He added: "Lots of people work long hours and they don't take drugs."

Cotton questioned whether alcohol and drug abuse was any worse in the hospitality industry than in other industries, but accepted the problem needed to be tackled. He said more education was vital, both for youngsters and for managers.

The survey also revealed that of those caught drinking to excess at work, more than half (54%) received no subsequent warning, prompting Drugscope's Shapiro to call on the industry to clarify its position on drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

"Rather than dumping a situation at the door of the individual, companies and operations should develop coherent policies", he said.

Could testing help prevent problems?

Following the death of his head chef David Dempsey in May this year, Gordon Ramsay, in an interview with the Observer Food Monthly magazine, said: "In future I'd like every new member of staff to give a urine sample to see any substances they've taken."

Reaction in our survey to this sort of testing ranged between support and disbelief. While some thought testing was the only way to monitor substance abuse, many felt too many staff would be sacked if mandatory checks were introduced in an already stretched industry.

Jim Stephenson, chief executive of Hospitality Action, said: "Recruitment is meant to be a problem and that kind of draconian measure wouldn't help."

But should hospitality operators think seriously about such a plan if they want to make their businesses drug-free? Costs and the need to alter existing employees' contracts before testing could begin are just two of the complications that could make it unworkable.

Yolande Burgin, director of an independent inquiry into drug testing in the workplace, to be published next spring, warned: "You have to really think properly about what you want out of it and what you would do with the results. Don't use excessive force as a replacement for poor management."

How to deal with drug and alcohol dependency

Recognising and dealing with potential staff substance misuse problems at work could save your employee, yourself and your business a lot of trouble. A number of charities are on hand to offer support. The charity Drugscope offers the following advice to employers.

  • Changes in work attendance, increased errors, mood swings, anxiety, overtiredness and appetite loss can all be indicators of substance abuse. But don't jump to the wrong conclusion. If you feel there's something wrong with a person or they are acting strangely, talk to them.
  • Businesses must establish structured drugs policies, ideally after staff consultation. These should treat alcohol or drug problems as health issues before they become disciplinary ones.
  • If disciplinary action becomes necessary (though it must be kept separate from personal help) it should be followed by a review. Successive offences should lead to second warnings, written warnings and then dismissal - but coherence and calm are vital.
  • Alcohol and drug education must be given to new recruits and then throughout employment.

One organisation that can help with education is the Ark Foundation, established two years ago by Michael Quinn, one-time executive chef at the Ritz in London. His battle with alcoholism was told in Caterer (28 June 2001) and the Ark Foundation set up afterwards with the help of ex-Savoy general manager Willie Bauer.

The foundation aims to tackle alcohol and drug dependency in the hospitality industry through education. Peter Kay, a former chef with personal experience of alcoholism, has been running lectures in catering colleges since last year and more than 4,000 students have now heard about the dangers of excessive alcohol and drug consumption.

In July, the foundation was absorbed into the industry's main charity, Hospitality Action, whose chief executive Jim Stephenson says: "We need to deal with young people coming into the industry, get to them with education before they're exposed to alcohol." He added that as the industry grew, it would need to implement a more structured approach to this issue to avoid large-scale problems in the future.

Contact the Ark Foundation at Hospitality Action, tel: 020 7301 2923 or info@hospitalityaction. If you're worried about a person involved with drugs or would like advice for yourself, contact Talk to Frank, tel: 0800 776600, or e-mail

For more information on any issue surrounding drugs, contact Drugscope, tel: 08707 743682, or visit

Top chefs speak out

Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor, the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire
"In London, service finishes later, so people go out later and then for longer, and in that environment drink and drugs play their roles. That can be a problem for younger, more impressionable chefs: peer pressure and the hours. They go out after work, get exhausted - not through work, but lack of sleep - and then take drugs next time they go out. It spirals."

Michael Caines, chef-director, Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon
"It's a reflection on society - the problems of binge-drinking and the increase of drug culture. I wonder if it's getting worse or whether we're more sensitive to it. However, the pressure of the hours do mean people can fall foul - so I take a very disciplined approach and try to influence people around me. The licensing laws in this country don't help, though. People can't drink after work so they try to get warmed up while working."


Beyond the figures - what else our readers had to say
"The constant pressure on performance, to satisfy the public, for chefs and front-of-house staff, combined with little or no breaks, breeds the type of atmosphere that encourages alcohol and substance abuse."

"The culture of the catering industry is work hard, play hard and unwind fast with drink and drugs - especially drugs - as being ‘up' and full of energy is a must."

"A drug culture at work is born out of a lack of managerial and supervisory intervention. Anywhere that allows drugs in the workplace will have far greater problems to contend with, such as absenteeism, theft and malicious damage."

"Consumption of alcohol in hotels is second only to that of the medical profession, the major factor being antisocial hours and compensating for this when the opportunity arises."

"I still drink heavily now, and know for a fact that some of my kitchen team use drugs for the same effect, but as this doesn't affect their work I turn a blind eye. Sad but true!"

"I know employers are not nannies, but they need to take steps to make their employees aware that alcohol and drug abuse simply aren't acceptable, and where work is affected, serious action must be taken."

"Sadly, I've seen too many middle-aged chefs fall by the wayside in later years as they struggle to cope with family pressures and unsocial hours."

"We must make this industry more rewarding and less soul-destroying. The industry seems to be reverting to a time when one wasn't proud to be a chef. It's deskilling."

"A full brigade in a five-star hotel high on speed led to poor results."

"Drinking to excess on the job led to the crash of my cheffing career and the break-up of my marriage."

"In the Armed Forces, we have to undertake drug testing. This is done without warning and if found with drugs in your blood you're dismissed. This should be carried out in all industries."

"Having recently fired a chef for alcohol and drug abuse I'm well aware of how serious this problem is. His behaviour caused major disruption to my business."

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