How to Handle Substance Abuse in the Hospitality Industry

Continuing to work in the hospitality field while in recovery is a challenge, however, there are several ways to maintain your recovery while staying employed. There are also ways for restaurant owners and hospitality leads to support their staff.

By Stephen Bitsoli

The hospitality industry is infamous for substance abuse issues, particularly in bars and restaurants. 80% of male and 64% of female food service workers engage in risky, potentially harmful patterns of drinking, according to a 2009 study published in The American Journal Of Drug And Alcohol Abuse

While the reasons for alcohol abuse are frequently job-related, the survey also indicated that individuals predisposed to alcoholism or drug abuse often choose to work in the field of hospitality.

Job-Related Causes of Substance Abuse

In a 2015 SAMHSA report that cites data findings from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUHs) 2008 to 2010 and 2011 to 2012, the rate of illicit drug use among full-time employees in the past month was highest in the hospitality industry. In fact, 19.1% of accommodations and food service employees had used drugs in the past month, which was more than 5% higher than the second highest industry on the list.  

There are several reasons why food service workers—waitstaff, cooks, bartenders, and bussers—experience a  higher rate of substance use disorders.

  1. They start in the industry at a young age when people are more susceptible to substance abuse. They frequently spend time with coworkers outside of and after work, using substances to relax, unwind, and decompress. Additionally, hospitality workers are given limited work breaks per shift, typically no longer than 15 minutes. A common workaround for industry workers is to take smoke breaks, especially after a stressful rush. 
  2. Wages are low, so they need to work long, irregular hours, late nights, and extra shifts to pay their bills. They face verbal abuse from management, co-workers, and customers that causes wear and tear on their bodies, anxiety, stress, and depression. 
  3. Employees often have easy access to alcohol and drugs, making substance use an attractive and convenient way to self-medicate for these problems.

Why Do Addicted People Stay in the Industry?

Generally, workers in the hospitality field are there because that is all they know. Some follow in the footsteps of a parent or sibling, and most long-term employees do not attend college. 

The long hours and crazy schedule leave few opportunities to rest, let alone train or even look for a different type of job. If they have other obligations—such as childcare or another job—balancing work and schooling are even more difficult. Most restaurant jobs don’t offer paid vacations. 

This leaves older food service workers with very few options.

Working in Hospitality While in Recovery

Continuing to work in the hospitality field while in recovery is a challenge. Not only is alcohol around everywhere, but serving alcohol is often part of the job and can’t be avoided. Bartenders are sometimes required to hygienically taste drinks before serving them. 

The food service industry overall has made great strides in substance abuse prevention and rules are changing. Some ways to maintain your recovery while staying employed include:

  • Practice accountability. Find another sober co-worker and check on each other periodically. Get together after work to have a coffee and discuss what went well and what didn’t. 
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity increases the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain that help people deal with both substance cravings and feelings of stress, anxiety, and boredom. 
  • Keep yourself busy. Clean up, organize, or work the floor during downtimes so you aren’t tempted to drink. 
  • Start a diary. Writing down that you want to stay sober, why you want to, and how you plan to accomplish it helps reinforce your resolve. So does re-reading it often, such as before a shift and during a lull. 
  • Practice meditation, yoga, or prayer. These mindful practices can help you focus and relax without resorting to substance use. 
  • Get a roommate or a pet. The presence of another person or animal to interact with or care for is a distraction from your problems. 
  • Talk to your manager. Working behind the bar if you have an alcohol use disorder is not ideal. Maybe you can work at another station with less access to alcohol. 
  • Consider a career change. If working in food service means you can’t control your drinking, start looking for a different job before you get fired. Being around alcohol is a trigger for drinking.

How Restaurant Owners and Hospitality Leaders Can Better Support Their Staff 

For workers to come clean about their substance abuse and choose to get help, management and owners must be willing to work with them, not just fire them. That means removing the stigma of substance use and mental health disorders. 

Neither does it mean managers can’t remove employees with bad attitudes or who are unwilling to get sober. After all, substance abuse can lead to workplace accidents and injuries, employee absenteeism, and productivity loss. However, it is important to provide your employees with help and support before resorting to firing as the first or only option. 

Lax alcohol use policies also contribute to the problem. The tradition of shift drinks, where the boss buys each staff member a drink at the end of shift, encourages drinking and inappropriate behavior, and may even decrease work performance. It’s also a liability. 

Many hospitality industry-focused groups are working to provide mental health support for their workers.


What are the three most common forms of substance abuse?

Marijuana use, cocaine use, and heroin use are the three most common forms of substance abuse.

What qualifies as substance abuse?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Substance abuse, as a recognized medical brain disorder, refers to the abuse of illegal substances, such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Or it may be the abuse of legal substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, or prescription medicines.”

What are some examples of substance addictions?

According to Harvard Health Medical School, “The most common addictions involve the use of alcohol, tobacco, other legal and illegal drugs, and other mood-altering substances. The use of these substances may be physically and psychologically harmful to the user, and may also lead to antisocial behavior.”


  • – Alcohol Rehab in Colorado Springs, CO
  • – Dimensions of Problem Drinking among Young Adult Restaurant Workers
  • – Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry
  • – Health Behaviors in the Service Sector: Substance Use Among Restaurant Employees
  • – In An Industry Rife With Substance Abuse, Restaurant Workers Help Their Own
  • – How the Restaurant Industry is Tackling its Substance Abuse Problem
  • –  Is This Restaurant Tradition Bad For Work Culture or a Tool For Change?
  • –  22 Organizations Supporting Mental Health Along the Food Chain

About the Author

Stephen Bitsoli received his degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit. The Michigan native is a professional writer and guest blogger and was a journalist for more than 20 years. Since 2016, he’s used that experience and passion in writing well-organized, comprehensive, and comprehensible articles on the complex and changing world of substance abuse and treatment. He’s won awards for his newspaper articles and was the top-ranked blogger at an international website in 2018. A lifelong reader, he enjoys learning and sharing what he’s learned.



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