Boosting Foodservice Employee Health and Performance for Better Staff Retention

Restaurants do many things well but one area in which restaurants can improve is in preparing their employees for the physically demanding work ahead of them. Safety regulations such as preventing slips and falls are standard solutions to keep employees safe in the workplace, but we leave much to be desired on the health side of health and safety. Preventing traumatic injuries is an obvious cost-benefit relationship to owners and managers. However, the daily demands restaurant work has on the human body can create a loss in productivity if it is not well-managed. 

To see this relationship, we need to become aware of the effect the workplace can have on human health and the ability to perform well at work. From there we can then start to create solutions that will prevent these drops in performance. 

Why does foodservice employee health need to be a top priority for owners?  

Unlike other industries, restaurants are reliant on the performance of their employees. Top restaurants require top talent to have a competitive edge in the market. However, for a person to become a talented chef, server, or bartender, etc., years of training and work will be put in. 

Unfortunately, the average tenure of a person in the restaurant industry is a short four and a half years. Retention and attraction is a multi-sided issue, but focusing on the health of your employees so that they can have a fruitful career is a current blind spot for restaurants.

If we are not addressing the health factors that are affected by the workplace, we will lose people to burnout. 

We cannot continue to ignore the physical and mental demands of the job and then be surprised when there are fewer people staying in the industry long term. Manage the physiological health of your employees and you will have increased engagement which will have a direct effect on employee retention. Giving your talent time to grow and engage with their work because they are less burnt-out from the daily requirements of the job. 

Workplace stressors have a direct effect on human health and when an employee’s health becomes compromised their performance will begin to suffer. A quick example of this is the effects on the human body from working in high heat conditions. 

Boosting Foodservice Employee Health and Performance for Better Staff Retention

A 2002 study*  found that workers had a 20 -25% higher heart rate during high heat working conditions compared with a room temperature control trial. The heart is a great indicator of workload because it reacts quickly to the bodies needs. If the heart is working 20% harder in high heat conditions it will have a direct effect on how fatigued the body feels. This will then have a compounding effect on performance since a fatigued person will manage simple cognitive and motor tasks about 25% slower than a person working in less fatiguing conditions.

I was raised as an athlete, and I always noticed that restaurants tried to solve problems in the opposite way that we looked at problems for athletes. Restaurants consistently accept that the job is difficult and fatiguing on the human body, but then ask how they can find an employee that can survive these conditions. With athletes, we see that the athlete has the skills needed to perform the task at hand and we ask how do I create the conditions to make their performance better.

As a restaurant owner, I challenge you to ask yourself: How do I promote the best performance out of my employees? You will then start to see the logic behind the solutions that will make the job easier and improve their health and performance.     

Building a restaurant that supports employee health 

When looking at how to support  employees’ health, I see many employers making a similar mistake that  reduces the effectiveness of any programming they implement. They implement an  umbrella approach that tries to raise employee health using only general interventions. 

Unfortunately, this makes it impossible to know if the strategy has succeeded or failed. To boost employee health and performance you need to know what problem you want to solve before you begin to find solutions. 

Find a performance issue you want to solve as your starting point, this will give direction and focus to the changes you implement. Here’s a few points to focus on and build your strategy around:

1) Directly improving the health of the employee via behaviour change and training

2) Reducing the stressor in the workers environment 

3) Creating business policies that improve health and performance

1) Directly improving the health of the employee via behaviour change and training

Changing habits at the employee level can be difficult. This is because the success of the interventions you may implement will be based on your team following them. Nevertheless, it may also be one of the most powerful tools to alter the culture and processes in your workplace for the better. 

Boosting Foodservice Employee Health and Performance for Better Staff Retention

Firstly, find the performance problem you would like to solve in your restaurant. Find the health factors that could influence this problem and implement a health-focused solution. 

Here’s an example:

You consistently have employees reporting in sick or having their shifts covered because of repetitive strain injuries they are experiencing. This really hit your business hard when the sous chef was unable to work due to injury to their lower back. You have a small team and training a new chef on short notice is not possible due to the complexity of the menu. 

How could we change behaviour and give proper training to prevent this problem?

  • Supply your team members with information on proper footwear and how to reduce tension in their feet. Many local foot professionals are more than happy to come in to do a quick seminar for your team if they can also support their business. 
  • Build a pre-shift warm up routine to promote movement and prep the joints and muscles for the work day. 
  • Promote safe lifting techniques and positions to maintain while working that protect the back, hips, knees, shoulders, neck, and hands. 

2) Reducing stressors in the work environment 

How we set up our workspaces can be an effective way to mitigate fatigue and the chance of injury in the workplace. These kinds of changes make the job easier and help prevent injury. 

Using the low back injury case as an example, we can augment the space the employee works in to solve this problem.

A common cause for low back and shoulder pain is improper workstation height. Causing the employee to slump into an improper posture. This will eventually place increased pressure on the lower back. Reduce the slump and you will reduce the chances of injury. 

Boosting Foodservice Employee Health and Performance for Better Staff Retention

  • Augmenting the height of the workstation

Most standard workstations are anywhere from 90 – 100cm in height. But the type of work that the chef is doing should dictate the workspace level.

If a chef is doing heavy work on the top of the work table (think carving a large piece of meat.) Then you will want the workstation to sit around the employee hips for proper leverage.

If a chef is doing high- precision work, the work surface should be raised to allow for a more ergonomic elbow and shoulder position. Aiming for 90 – 110 angle in the elbows without needing to raise or rotate the shoulders.

This can all be done safely using simple step stools or raising the cutting board by placing another cutting board under it (use a wet cloth to keep the cutting board from slipping.). This adaptation can account for all employee heights and strength levels. 

  • Analyzing the weight of objects and the risk they pose to employees 

Lifting heavy objects like kegs or sacks of flour is one of the common ways people injure their lower back. Understanding how daily tasks (like lifting kegs) can be improved, or adjusted can mean a day of work in the restaurant is easier on an employee’s body. 

One thing that can be done is to utilize the NIOSH equation to calculate the risks of lifting specific objects. You can also easily mitigate many problems by augmenting the way heavy objects are transported in your workplace. 

Many kegs, bags of sugar, flour, and other heavy object can be transported easier with a dolly. This will prevent the need to carry these objects long distances and instead focus on safely lifting objects to store them properly. You can also move more than one at a time when a dolly is employed making the task shorter in general. 

3) Creating business policies that improve health and performance

This is where you can have some fun and use your creativity to support your employee’s health. Since every team and workplace will be different, the solutions can become quite specific and exciting for supporting employees. 

Boosting Foodservice Employee Health and Performance for Better Staff Retention

Is there a part of the workday where your employees seem tired? Where or when do errors commonly occur in service? Look at performance critically and think of how, as an employer, you can create solutions and implement policies that work for your team.

Continuing with the low back pain example:

  • Reduce injury rates with maximum weight policies.

Implement maximum weight lifting policies in your restaurant. Instead of forcing employees to carry a full 20kg bag of sugar, find a small container they can transfer the sugar into to carry a lighter amount. Or remove the risk altogether by ordering smaller bags of sugar.

  • Create a microbreak policy from employees doing stationary work.

If a person is in a less than ideal posture for an extended period of time there is a risk of injury over time. Launching a policy for employees to do one 30 second stretch every 30 minutes will alleviate this problem. 

  • Create a policy that servers will always place plates down standing directly next to the guest. 

This will reduce the reach they will have to do and lower the chances of placing strain on the lower back.   

This process of finding a problem in employee performance and then connecting the health-based solution attached to it will create fantastic returns for your business. Directly, it helps to solve a problem you are having. Secondarily, it will boost engagement with your team members by showing that the business is invested in their health at work. Finally, you will attract top talent to your restaurant and can be a selling point of why you are a great place to work at.  

You employee’s health is directly connected to their performance. To find solutions that will boost your business start with the performance issue and find solutions based from that starting point.  

*Article Cited:

  1. RODAHL, Occupational Health Conditions in Extreme Environments, The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, Volume 47, Issue 3, April 2003, Pages 241–252,