Work Stress for Cooks and Chefs: Heat in the Kitchen

Wanted for Immediate Hire: Unique individual, with physical prowess, willing to be a team player and lose fingers, slip on grease, or be scalded while lifting heavy pots of hot liquids. Adaptable and eager to try new, hard to pronounce afflictions of the feet, back, neck and shoulders. High performance required in emotionally toughness, consistent acquiescence, and unflappable stoicism in the face of bullying and stress. Guaranteed promotion after 20 years of perfect service. Hiring cooks and chef apprentices now (as we are currently experiencing a staffing crisis).

As reported by CNBC, cooks were on their list for one of the most stressed professionals for 2014. The Houston Work Chronicle also listed chefs as having one of the most hazardous professions. Work stress for cooks and chefs is multi-layered—physical, emotional, and social.


The occupational hazards that cause physical work stress for cooks and chefs are numerous. A Huston Chronicle article listed some as: slippery floors, using sharp blades, working around dangerously hot surfaces, lifting heavy hot pots and pans, and use of powerful cleansers and sanitizers that are potentially toxic.

Also, from the long hours on their feet, cooks and chefs often develop “chef’s foot” (a term for a variety of foot ailments, the most common which is hallux rigidus). An article in Total Food Service indicates that lifting hot, heavy objects, held at a distance from the body, makes it easy to develop back problems, neck and shoulder strain, and sore knees. Additionally, chefs and cooks work long hours and find it challenging to make time for exercise.

The emotional and social stresses are significant as well.


Emerald Insight reported on a scholarly study done for the hospitality industry based on a survey of 40 chefs. Many feel undervalued, struggle with the excessive workload, and are regularly dealing with poor communication, and bullying in the work environment. The constant pressure to perform perfectly to mitigate any criticism from restaurant owners, customers, and food critics creates mental stress. Throw into the mix: staffing problems, training problems and high turnover rate and the heat of stresses fire up more.


Because of late night hours and split shifts, work stress for cooks and chefs often spills over into social time and relationships, For many in the profession, there is little time for family, friends or social activities.


ABC News reported on apprentice chefs turning to alcohol and drugs due to the work stress and bullying. The National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) surveyed first-year apprentice chefs and found that 65% of respondents were drinking at dangerous levels.

Dr. Ken Pidd from NCETA says verbal abuse and bullying are common in the industry. “We did hear some horror stories of people getting tongs heated up in hot oil then giving them to apprentices to pick up with their bare hands—to teach them how to use the proper equipment.”

Ruthie Rodgers is one of the most celebrated chefs in UK, known for her Michelin starred restaurant, “River Café.” The cafe has distanced itself from the macho aggressive culture that is typically part of the successful high pressured kitchens.

Rogers says that bullying is still common in some kitchens today, but that it needs to be reported rather than tolerated. A female chef I knew “told me she was taking some ramekins out at a very well-known London restaurant. She told me the head chef stood over her with a frying pan, and he said, ‘if those are not set properly, this frying pan will be on your head’. I said, ‘what you should have done was put them back in the oven, walked out and gone to the police.”


Learning effective communication and self-assertion was helpful to some when confronting bullying issues. Searching for opportunities in smaller kitchens was effective for others. Some cooks and chefs are developing stress remedies of their own by making time for relationships, and developing healthy hobbies. Steve Benjamin, right hand man for Joel Robuchon, de-stresses and lets off steam by surfing, golfing, skateboarding, and playing with his dog.

Another part of the remedy for work stress for cooks and chefs is for them to come to terms with where they want to be. A few comments from those who’ve done so:

I’d rather be on the line than anywhere else. No better legal high I can think of.” ;). – Dano1, Professional Chef [Forum, ChefTalk]

“…When I go to work it’s like going to a playground where the slides are Vulcan ovens, the flour bin is a sand box, and a catering van is an overgrown Tonka toy!” –Maniclowry, Professional Chef [Forum, ChefTalk]

There’s nothing like the high of plating 200 fine dining meals a night; you all work in such synchronicity…like a crazy ballet. A stressful, physically and mentally draining job at times, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world! On the downside…any wonder why so many chefs are burnouts??? Just reality folks.” Souchef [Forum, ChefTalk]

Seems that choosing your reality is a large part of the solution to work stress for cooks and chefs.

Aprons – Smocks – Chefwear