Waiting for a Living

The good tips and lively human drama are gratifying, but the job also serves up high stress, exhaustion, and a fat menu of hazards.

It's an almost universal hazard of waiting tables: the dreaded nightmare about your job.

You know the one. You're exiting the kitchen door, arms loaded with precariously balanced plates, when you suddenly realize your section stretches out for miles, and you'll never, ever reach that table. You wake in a cold sweat, relieved it was just a dream, but all the same you can't get back to sleep. "Did I ever take the ketchup to that guy on table #9 tonight?" you wonder sleepily.

The nightmare can take other shapes as well. "Last night, I dreamed I forgot to bring this Coke to someone, and I woke up sleepwalking because this person had to have his Coke," said Liz, a 21-year-old waitress in San Francisco. "I have waitress dreams almost every night, and it's always something I did wrong. It's like you never dream you just got a $100 tip or something."

While waiting tables involves many health risks -- including repetitive stress injuries, secondhand smoke, sexual harassment, back problems and slippery floors -- stress is perhaps the most pernicious. More than 20 years ago, the federal government found that waiting tables was among the 12 jobs with the highest levels of employee stress.

Much of the stress that comes with waiting tables, unfortunately, is inherent in the nature of the job. Two hours may go by when you have no tables at all and then -- wham -- you're slammed with 20 tables of demanding customers and the cooks are back-logged. Add to that mix a rude or harassing customer, and your stress levels can shoot upwards. "I remember one guy who ordered fish and soon afterward complained that it hadn't arrived," one woman says, recalling her waitress days in New York City's East Village. "I told him politely that the cooks hadn't set out that dish yet and that I'd bring it as soon as they did. He started shouting, "What have you got against me, waitress? What did I ever do to you?" When he left, he complained to my boss, and I almost got fired."

"Stress can be a killer if it's not managed properly," says Tom Lukins, a safety consultant for the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA). The body is built to react to the stresses of normal life: it releases adrenaline, the heart rate increases, small blood vessels throughout the body constrict to give more blood flow to your brain and muscles so that you can confront the danger at hand -- a syndrome known as "fight or flight." Prolonged periods of stress, however, have been shown to cause or contribute to ulcers, migraines, strokes and heart attacks, chronic fatigue and even premature aging.

"I think it takes a lot for a waiter to hold in his frustration and anger much of the time," says Reid Coker, 28, who waited tables for almost five years in Chicago. "It's a highly stressful job. The problem is, a lot people don't understand how much work it can be, and they don't treat you like a human being. Another thing, it can also be stressful because of the uncertainty of income. You might make 200 bucks one night, and 20 the next night, so most waiters live a kind of hand to mouth kind of existence. You try to blow off the stress, but it's pretty hard.

To deal with stress or unwind after work, some waiters and waitresses turn to drugs or alcohol. Lisa S., 28, a waitress for three years in Denver, said that almost all the employees she worked with either smoked pot or used cocaine. "After working 12 hours, we'd go out to party until late. Then we'd go to work and be tired, so people would do a line (of cocaine) to wake up. It was just non-stop. It got so bad and I couldn't get out of the cycle, so I had to move all the way across the country to get away from it." Another waitress, 26-year-old Daniella of San Francisco, says she never used to drink much alcohol before she started waitressing. "But now," she says, "I just get too stressed and I need a drink -- or a few -- to wind down, especially if I want to be able to get to sleep that night."

Of course, "self-medicating" with drugs and alcohol is a risky way to deal with on-the-job stress, say occupational health specialists. In the long run, it will only cause more wear and tear on your body and could lead to addiction and serious health problems. In addition, drug or alcohol use while you're working increases the probability of workplace accidents. For tips on managing job stress, see Keeping Stress Off Your Plate, below.

'I'll have a waitress to go'

Besides stress and its fall-out, waitresses and waiters have to contend with a full menu of job hazards. Among them:

  • Sexual harassment. Cocktail waitresses in particular sometimes face sexual harassment from their clients, and even their employers or co-workers. Though the old line "I'll have a waitress to go" appears to be going the way of the typewriter, some waitresses still report being harassed or even stalked by customers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has strict laws against all forms of sexual harassment. If a client is verbally or physically harassing you, your employer has an obligation to step in and put an end to the harassment.
  • Repetitive stress injury, including carpal tunnel syndrome. "That's the biggest problem we deal with," says Jim DuPont, the president of Local 2850 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union in northern California. If several employees in a given restaurant suffer from wrist problems from carrying heavy trays and the employer refuses to act on it, DuPont says, employees may want to call the local branch of OSHA. It can require the restaurant to either use lighter dishes or allow waitpersons to use push carts.
  • Slippery floors, which can lead to accidents. Slips and falls are the most prevalent cause of injuries in restaurants, says Cal-OSHA's Lukins. In 2007, of the more than 10,000 reported injuries that occurred on the job in the United States resulting in missed work, the majority, or 3,790, involved "floor ground surfaces." Employers are required by law to make sure work stations remain dry, clean and safe. Be sure to wear good sure-grip shoes as well -- regular tennis shoes don't cut it.
  • Burns. In one federal study, hot grease in fast-food restaurants accounted for half of the burn injuries, and for more than 40 percent of the burns in full-service cafes. Slippery floors often play a part in burn injuries, too. In Minnesota, for example, federal researchers found that a 17-year-old deli waitress slipped on a wet floor and then, as she fell, stepped into a bucket of hot grease (it was sitting out while workers changed the grease in the deep fryer).
  • Varicose veins. Blue veins that spider across the legs are for the most part hereditary, and almost always occur in women. If you're prone to them, they will become more visible or swell after spending a lot of time on your feet. Doctors recommend wearing elastic support hose, available in most drug stores, but regular panty hose can also help by helping put pressure on your veins.
  • Backaches and sore muscle. Being on your feet for so long is bound to bring on aches and pains. Try to take regular breaks (and make sure you sit down during them); avoid carrying trays that are too heavy for you, and, again, invest in a good pair of shoes. Regular exercise -- like abdominals for your lower back or weights for your arms -- can help you feel better.
  • Secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke can cause or aggravate many respiratory problems, including bronchitis and asthma, and increase the risk of heart attack and some types of cancers. (A California study found that the ban on smoking in San Francisco workplaces had resulted in waiters and waitresses suffering fewer colds and lung problems as a result.) Unless you live in California or another one of the 23 U.S. states or 592 municipalities that has banned cigarette smoking from all restaurants and bars, however, you'll probably be breathing in a fair amount of your customers' smoke on the job. Waiters and waitresses may have to join a campaign to bar smoking in public places, says DuPont, whose union backed the California ban. (Thirty-five U.S. states and more than 22,000 municipalities have some restrictions on smoking in public.)
  • Noise. Excessive and constant noise (such as loud music or the clamor of customers' conversations) is one of the primary causes of job stress and fatigue. A study of urban music club employees, including waiters, waitresses and bartenders, found that the clubs' noise levels far exceeded the maximum exposure limit allowed by the government, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The authors concluded, in fact, that the employees were at significant risk of hearing loss. And a May 2000 study by two audiologists at the University of California at San Francisco concluded that noisy restaurants -- those with decibel levels of 85 or higher -- may harm the hearing of their employees. Unfortunately, there are few easy remedies for people who work in restaurants and bars. Some servers choose to wear light-duty earplugs, but most don't because they would prevent them from hearing customer orders. Another option is to turn the music down, install carpeting, add acoustic ceiling panels, or install foam padding under tables to absorb sound that's bouncing off the floor.
  • Other hazards. Cuts, heavy lifting and poor sanitation are other realities of many restaurant jobs. Try to slow down when you're working with knives or around dangerous equipment: Most injuries happen when you're trying to move too fast or do too many things at once. If you need to lift something heavy, make sure to bend at your knees, not your back. Last but not least, your employer is required to keep the restaurant clean and free of rotting foods or other substances that could attract disease-carrying vermin. If roaches and mice make a guest appearance, OSHA can be called in to enforce sanitation standards.

Keeping stress off the menu

OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have designed several programs to help employers reduce job stress for their workers, although none of them specifically address restaurant work. Professional waitresses and other experts, however, offer the following advice:

  • Get enough sleep and eat right. Your body is much more able to juggle dozens of tasks at once if it's well-rested and well-fueled.
  • If possible, talk to management and/or the rest of the wait and bus staff about inventing new ways to make the rushes go smoother. For example, you should make sure the restaurant is well-stocked before the rush hits, says Liz of San Francisco, or you could persuade the buspersons to help carry plates out to your tables when you're busy.
  • Keep reminding yourself that things just aren't going to go as smoothly and quickly as you'd like them to when you're busy. "Give your customers a smile and let them know you're slammed and their orders may take a little longer than usual," suggests Daniella, another San Francisco waitress.
  • When you have rude customers, tell them you're doing the best you can and try not to let their attitude get to you: they were probably in a bad mood before they came into the restaurant.

If the entire wait staff is suffering symptoms of stress -- sleep disturbances, headaches, short tempers, upset stomachs, etc. -- and your employer refuses to look for solutions, you may want to take the issue up with your local OSHA office and/or your union.

Despite its drawbacks, the job of waiter or waitress is the ideal job for some people. The hours are flexible, the fast pace and social interaction fend off boredom, and the tips are a nice bonus. "One rude customer can ruin your day," says Daniella. "But the hours fit my schedule, I get to talk to people all day, and for every rude customer you have, you get one of these," she adds as she pockets a $10 tip and gets a hug goodbye from one of her regular customers.

Further Resources

Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE)

http://www.unitehere.org/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

http://www.osha.gov

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (for sexual harassment issues).

http://www.eeoc.gov

Americans for Non-Smokers Rights (for information on smoke-free restaurant campaigns).

http://www.no-smoke.org

References

"How many smokefree laws?" American Foundation for Nonsmokers Rights, January 2011.

Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away from Work, 2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics http://www.bls.gov

Occupational Hazards in Eating and Drinking Places, Bureau of Labor Statistics http://www.bls.gov

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