I want to quit coffee

Coffee is hard. It doesn't pay big money. It's not considered to be a prestigious career choice. And the path for professional development is not clear.

But more importantly, this industry is pretty hard on mental health. Particularly at a barista-level.

Long hours, shift based work, constant customer facing, lots of emotional labour and low pay. Time after time, baristas get home exhausted. Too tired to cook a proper meal - ending up with a cheap takeaway or ready-made food. Too tired to engage in social activities - leading to a sense of loneliness. While not having energy to even look for ways to change the situation.

  • Have you experienced prolonged stress at work?
  • Have you lost your passion?
  • Have you had a breakdown?
  • Did you want to quit coffee?

If you said yes to any of these, read on. 

We identify ourselves as coffee professionals. We have passion and values. We choose to work in coffee.

With scarce exceptions most people start at an entry-level - being a barista or barback. Hospitality is hard -  humbling, stressful and draining - no matter how good you are. Coffee businesses operate on small margins and that doesn't help either.

Talor Browne has conducted a survey about mental health in coffee industry. The results are terrifying. 66% experienced work related anxiety, 40% suffered from depression, 34% from insomnia. Those are not marginal numbers. The scale of the problem is big. I highly encourage you to read through the results here and watch Talor's presentation here.

Emotional labour
The big part of a service industry is emotional labour. Which I define as regulating emotions dealing with customers, colleagues or your boss. It's tough to provide a good service when you have a bad day. Professional feedback gives place to a frustration-driven criticism when you're tired.

Basic care and empathy for customers are more draining than a deep emotional labour. It's the unexpectedness and shallowness that make it harder and less meaningful. Such emotional labour leads to higher stress levels, which can result in an aggressive behaviour (Szczygiel, 2009).

Poor career prospects
The perspectives for baristas are terrifying. Many think coffee is a dead-end job. After two years there's very little more to learn. And unless you're extremely extroverted you will struggle to put the same amount of passion you did at the start. Most baristas will quit coffee. Progression is very limited. Few managing positions, even fewer in wholesale, training or roasting. Let alone green coffee, product development or research jobs.

The most difficult is the first step - leaving the bar. That's a mental barrier and an important validation point.

But many will never make it to that point. So many young, talented and hard-working baristas will abandon their passion. They will quit coffee. 

Why is that?
Research shows that a burnout is likely to occur within first few years of one's career (Maslach, 1976). The first time you get ambitious and want to achieve, you don't know how to deal with stress or where to set the boundaries. It could work if you had some support, otherwise you're most likely to wear out. Retaining those individuals could benefit the industry. I know so many people who loved coffee, learned quickly and showed a great potential, who left for other industries.

Occupational stress
Cafe environment is stressful. Overstimulation, emotional labour, physically tiring aspects of the job - that's a lot. These factors are exacerbated in high-volume environment and can wreck havoc on baristas' mental health.

In this article I will define an occupational stress as a feeling of strain and pressure caused by work. 

A normal type of stress doesn't have lasting consequences and can have a positive impact. It can increase performance, but only up to a certain level. There's a positive stress up to that level and a negative stress beyond that point it. That is illustrated by a Yerkes-Dodson curve.

The upper curve on the graph is often neglected, but it's relevant to the cafe environment. Overwhelming, negative stress makes cognitively absorbing tasks more difficult. However it doesn't influence simple tasks in the same way. For an experienced barista, making a flat white barely engages his attention. That allows for a conversation with customers or watching a trainee even during busy periods. For this simple task the negative stress doesn't affect the performance as much. It might actually help the barista make the drinks faster. But being more stressed is not a better way to make coffee.  Being overly stressed is bad for mental health. The risk is that such an issue will be overlooked, because the performance doesn't appear to suffer.

When is the stress negative? The best explanation is from the United States National Institute For Occupational Safety And Health:

"The harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker”

Occupational stress is a given. There's no way to avoid it. But it's the sustained strain that should be avoided as chronic stress has a whole range of consequences.

Individual factors:

  •  Genetic (Introversion leads to higher stress levels)
  •  Learned (utilising stress-management techniques)
  •  Personality-based (competitive people experience higher levels of stress)

Environmental factors:

  •  Time pressure (keeping a waiting time below 7 minutes)
  •  A lot of emotional labour (remaining calm in busy periods)
  •  Responsibility (for people or quality)
  •  Long hours and shift working
  •  Inability to have satisfaction of finished product (being forced to produce drinks of suboptimal quality)
  •  Poor working conditions (small space or distant bathroom)
  •  Lack of control (not having autonomy)
  •  Lack of support (no training or feedback)
  •  Weak working relationships (with colleagues or management)
  •  Unclear job description (can I handle food?)
  •  Unclear company objectives or values (what are company standards?)
  •  Lack of communication (last minute shift-filling)
  •  Low pay and lack of career prospects (no professional development or pay-rise scheme)

Chronic stress and its consequences
When individual lacks work-life balance, high levels of occupational stress can lead to a chronic stress. That condition has a wide range of consequences. Poor sleep, anxiety, irritability and lack of concentration, substance abuse and chronic illnesses. For company, it results in increased sickness absence, high turnover and decreased productivity.

Permanent stress could cause burnout or rust-out. Both conditions lead to anxiety and depression.

Lack of respect
In a healthy working environment employees are respected. People valued as professionals are generally more satisfied with their jobs. Lack of that creates a set of problems leading to occupational stress and depersonalisation of workers. There 2 types of respect in the workplace.

Owed respect
That should be a given. At all times, regardless of performance. It includes fair pay, professionalism, expressing appreciation of personal identity, supporting personal development and trust.

Owned respect
That is dependable on worker's performance. It's about recognition of good work. People acknowledged for their success will want to repeat it. Whereas in a culture where there's no incentive to do more or better than an absolute minimum, the quality of work suffers. That respect should be expressed regularly and directly.

Abusive environment and labour cost
Tight profit margins incentivise abusive environments. The most dreadful thing is a labour cost. When company starts pushing it too much, things go downhill.

Speaking from my experience I had stayed overtime unpaid on multiple occasions. Often my manager knew, but was pressured to cut down the labour cost. I was also told off for fussing over details - such as cleaning the drip tray or tip of the steam wand. In order to have the satisfaction in finished job and the environment in which I'd enjoy working I was staying overtime. For free.

On another occasion, I was doing a weekend shift requiring two people. Quality of my work would suffer if I was alone. The day before I learned the other person was not coming. I got a permission to find someone to fill it in. But even though I checked a couple of times with upper management, that person was never paid for that shift.

Decreasing labour cost as a business objective leads to other things as well. Cutting hours makes people overworked and less gets done, along with a decreasing quality of drinks and service. Cutting numbers of people on the shift has an even more dramatic effect. A human being is not a machine - doing two persons job is not effective and far from sustainable.

The most ridiculous thing I heard was when someone from top management said he loved when people are sick, because it drives the labour cost down.

What the fuck was that?

Meanwhile, no one in the room said a word.

Sick pay is another thing. A lack of it makes people come to work anyway. I remember one day I came to work with a throat inflammation, unable to speak. You can imagine the customer service that followed. If people were paid sick days, they would not risk their condition getting worse or making other staff sick.

Burnout is associated with being overworked. But is not a synonym for a job dissatisfaction. Someone who is just not happy with their work might become excited when offered a promotion. People experiencing burnout would be dissatisfied with opportunities for personal growth and development on the job (Maslach, 1981).

A burned out person will suffer from 3 main disorders:

  1.  Emotional exhaustion - lack of psychological energy, being unable to perform emotional labour, low mood, irritability, constant anger
  2.  Depersonalisation - inability to feel a sense of self, as if thoughts or feelings didn't belong to you, loss of identity, emptiness
  3.  Lack of purpose and meaning - social withdrawal, negative thinking, depression, suicidal thoughts

I would argue that coffee professionals are more likely to experience burnout. So many of us have huge passion for what we do. And we are ready to sacrifice for coffee. However, highly engaged, committed and ambitious people are more subject to burnout (Maslach, 2001). Accepting to work below Living Wage, staying longer to cover gaps in rota and putting a lot extra are common. There's nothing wrong with strong commitment and integrity, but there have to be boundaries. I've seen models where 'going the extra mile' aka 'we actually expect from you more than what's in your job description' was encouraged. 

The process of burning out
According to Herbert Fraudenberger there are 12 steps of burnout (Fraudenberger, 1974). It's difficult to acknowledge them if you suffer from depersonalisation. If you notice someone advancing through these, raise it up. You could save someone's career or mental health.

12 steps of burnout:

  1.  Excessive ambition or need to prove yourself - seemingly harmless especially when you want to progress, but leads to further steps. "I wanna be a roaster"
  2.  Pushing yourself to work harder - staying after hours, engaging in new projects, competition etc. Work&life balance has already shifted at this point "I know I cleaned the fridge yesterday, but I'm gonna do it again anyway"
  3.  Neglecting personal care or needs - less sleep, skipping a meal or choosing not to socialise in order to work. "I will not go home until I finish my signature drink, even though it's 10pm and I'm opening tomorrow"
  4.  Displacement of conflict - with inevitable mistakes come inability to own them and excuses. "Sorry, it must've been my colleague putting the order through wrong"
  5.  Changes in values to validate self-worth - values, friends and family become dismissed "I don't care about weighing shots for lattes"
  6.  Denial of problems and blame - blaming the environment and people around "It's the manager's fault"
  7.  Social withdrawal - isolation "Sorry guys, today I need to work on something, maybe next time"
  8.  Behaviour changes - people around you see apparent changes "No, I'm fine, I'm just trying to focus on work"
  9.  Confusion of identity - depersonalisation, seeing oneself as not valuable, neglecting one's own needs "I don't care about coffee anymore"
  10.  Inner emptiness - anxiety, feeling useless, tired. At this point you're likely to abuse alcohol or drugs to overcome these feelings "Let's just get properly drunk tonight"
  11.  Depression - indifference, hopelessness, exhaustion "My life doesn't have sense"
  12.  Collapse - suicidal thoughts or attempts "I've just imagined jumping in front of this train"

It's not just work that leads that far. It's a combination of things. It's about a skewed life balance and a lack of support network. Focusing heavily on work and trying your hardest for an extended period of time is disastrous.

I'm not an occupational therapist and my understanding of the subject is limited. But I have experienced all the stages of burnout. The quotes are my words. From the social withdrawal to the last stage it went down very quickly. Fortunately I didn't spend a lot of time in the last stage. But that's only because I had a person I could ask for help.

Having the support is the most important thing.

I'm eternally grateful for having that opportunity.

But there's also a second condition which seems harmless, yet could lead as far as the burnout.

This occurs when there's a lack of engagement. Rust-out is usually caused by a shallow, meaningless work or when the majority of tasks are far from what you would like to be doing.

Imagine if somebody wanted to make coffee, but they are forced to stand at the till and take orders entire day. Or when someone spent too much time on the bar and sees no meaning in making coffee in that environment anymore. For example when barista wants to make great quality drinks, but his head barista doesn't care as much (by pushing the waiting time more than quality). It's hard to stay motivated in such environment. It's not obvious, but it's also very stressful.

Rust-out stems from the chronic stress. However this stress is not coming from doing too much. Unsuited job demands, inability to have satisfaction in finished product, lack of autonomy or support, poor communication and no career prospects are its main contributors.

A good question to ask yourself if you suspect being rust-out: would I mind if I was fired?

If losing that job doesn't stress you more than the job itself you might suffer from the lack of engagement.

What to do if in Burn/Rust - Out
There's a number of interventions that could be made. At first, I recommend looking at the working environment. It's also a great idea to learn how to deal with stress and create more balance in your life. Alternatively, you can work your way out of the situation.

Working environment
There are always environmental factors. They are  difficult to change. Definitely speak to your supervisors. Almost everybody wants to avoid the cost of staff rotation, so it's in company's interest to help you. There are many interventions you could ask for:

  •  Decreasing volume/ intensity of work - is there another location with less volume? Could you reduce your hours? Or maybe even take a longer holiday (also knows as a career break)?
  •  Enlarging your job - any chance for promotion? New tasks, new responsibilities?
  •  Enriching your job - creating more satisfaction, doing things you already do better, focusing more on quality
  •  Changing physical environment - air conditioning, heating, appropriate lighting etc.
  •  More autonomy - ability to choose location, guest coffees or working hours
  •  Support - is there a personal development scheme, could the company cover your competition costs or sponsor courses?
  •  Improve work relationships - get closer to people you work with, particularly your manager
  •  Clarify your role - ask for feedback, ask if you meet the company's objectives, go through your job description with your manager
  •  Don't take your work home - leave work problems at work, don't think about them at home, don't check work email. Communicate you would not respond to work-related messages after certain time. You need strict boundaries.

Finding meaning and identity
It's important to find your inner self - your identity. Depersonalisation is one of the worst manifestation of burnout/rustout. Practice self-awareness, focus on your thoughts and feelings. Embrace them. Talk about it with people you're close with. Let them talk about you and listen closely.

Establish who you are, what you want to do and what you find meaningful. Follow it.

Name your values. Are you career focused? Is money important? Ethics and integrity over performance? Align your environment to them. You don't want to overwork yourself when you want to have a meaningful family life. 

Notice your negative thoughts
Negative thinking takes form of negative distortions, for example: overgeneralisation, catastrophic thinking, polarising, unsupported extrapolations or taking things personally. "I was criticised at the meeting, surely I will be fired" or "I didn't reply to my boss's email within 2 hours, I can forget about that promotion"
They occur automatically, but if noticed, can be addressed and changed. If you practice self-awareness, you might be able to work through some of those distortions on your own. If deeply rooted and difficult to change they may call for a therapy.

Lifestyle and well-being
Sometimes stress is referred to as an indicator of not being mindful. You want to be able to deal with stress and relax. Meditation is very helpful. If you don't know how to start, download Headspace or Oak (free) app on your phone or find guided meditations on YouTube. Like this one.

It's important to eat and sleep well. Staff meals usually don't provide for long, intensive shifts. Make sure you eat enough, being stressed makes you less hungry than you should be. Learn more about quality sleep - aim for at least 7 hours, wind down and put that phone down an hour before bed. If you struggle to fall asleep early, reduce caffeine after 2pm, get earplugs (silicone ones are super comfortable) and meditate.

Cut down alcohol. If you drink every single day after a shift - you have a problem. Even if it's nowhere near addiction, that's a disastrous habit. As long as alcohol is metabolised, you body will not regenerate or fall into a deep sleep.

Take care of your body. Stretch after work, do yoga or go swimming. If you're active, you get stronger and work becomes less tiring. If you consider serious running - I would recommend factoring in the standing nature of your job.

If you experience pain on the job, LET YOUR MANAGER KNOW. Maybe it's just your poor technique, early stages of RSI or something that will force you to quit coffee and affect for the rest of your life. It's not worth being quiet about it.

Working your way out of the company
If you didn't get the support or were unable to change environmental factors you might consider an exit. There's a chance the company doesn't have resources or capability to help you. It could also have a toxic culture and treat you like an expendable commodity. You could simply change jobs - doing the same thing. Or look into a career progression.

But you need to tread very carefully. You don't want to burnout doing that. Considering your work&life balance, shift focus from paid job to personal development. Yes, your performance might suffer and meeting the company's objectives might be more difficult. But you have to do what's right for you.

It's good to have a professional goal. It goes in line with finding meaning. Often, the best way to progress is to change company. But you might be in a position where it makes sense to stay for another couple months. Use space and resources available to your own advantage. Increase your value on the job market. Enter competition, take courses, organise events, find a mentor or start a professional blog. There's very little you need to enter Brewers Cup or organise a cupping.

Instances of chronic stress, burnout and rustout don't mean that affected individuals are bad employees. Conversely, they are ambitious, value-driven high performers who believe in quality and growth. Very often it's the company that should take the blame. Having a recognition system and intervention plan is very important. Entry-level coffee professionals struggle to live in a healthy, balanced way. Often they feel lonely with their problems and are not able to afford to properly take care of themselves.

Having a career is tantamount to experiencing a lot of the occupational stress. Wherever you can, reduce it. Learn how to deal with it as much as possible. Stay self-aware, find your boundaries and don't cross them.

If you notice first symptoms of burnout or rust-out - slow down and take care of yourself. It's never worth to push beyond your limits. Meaningful, long-term solutions are about sustainable use of your resources.

Life balance is a complex, interconnected web. Throughout time, the focus may shift. But whatever you pursue, never neglect your values or yourself.

I would like to finish quoting one of my best friends, who I used to work with on an extremely busy bar, making 1400 drinks a day. This sentence inspires me to this today:

We're already under quite a lot of pressure, let's not stress each other more.

Many thanks to everyone who helped in the process of writing this. Stories and experiences that have been shared with me, greatly enhanced my perspective on the topic.

  1. Bamber, M.R., (2011), Overcoming Your Workplace Stress 
  2. Brosnan, L., Todd, G., (2009), Overcoming Stress
  3. Clouston, T.J., (2015), Challenging Stress, Burnout and Rust-out
  4. Cooper, C., Kahn, H. (2013), 50 Things You Can Do Today To Manage Stress At Work
  5. Evans-Howe, S. (2013), Managing Stress At Work
  6. Fraudenberger, H.J. (1974), Staff Burn-Out, Winter
  7. Maslach, C., Schaufel, W.B, Leiter, M.D., (2001), Job Burnout, Annual Review of Psychology 51(1), 397-425
  8. Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., (1981), The measurement of experienced burnout 
  9. Szczygiel, D., (2009), Emotional Labour in a Service Industry - definition, theory and research. Psychologia Spoleczna, 43(11), 155-166 

Pictures (in order):
  1. Photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash
  2. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
  3. By Yerkes and Dodson 1908
  4. Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash
  5. Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash
  6. Photo by Ryan Whitlow on Unsplash
  7. Photo by Duncan Kyhl on Unsplash
  8. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


Post a Comment