Service Hell: Tipped Employees Suffer Poor Mental Health

The next time you feel yourself ready to unload on a waiter who just brought you the wrong order or seemed to take an awful long time getting to your table, consider reminding yourself that this person is not only a fellow human being but one working in an industry that’s rife with unhappiness.

A new study from researchers at Oregon Health & Science University finds that service workers who depend on tips for most of their income–particularly women–are at greater risk for depression, sleep problems and stress compared with employees who work in non-tipped positions. The study is published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology and included a survey of 2,815 women and 2,586 men ages 24 to 33 years old.

“The higher prevalence of mental health problems may be linked to the precarious nature of service work, including lower and unpredictable wages, insufficient benefits, and a lack of control over work hours and assigned shifts,” said lead study author Sarah Andrea, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at the OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health. “On average, tipped workers are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty relative to untipped workers.”

Beyond the precarious financial situation many tipped workers find themselves in (the Pew Research Center has found that such jobs offer base pay rates up to 71 percent lower than the federal minimum wage), the struggle to contain the emotions that can arise from dealing with difficult customers or sexual harassment from customers and managers is also a factor, said Andrea. Women comprise 56 percent of all service workers and 67 percent of all tipped workers, she said.

“While the idea that ‘the customer is always right’ may be a valid business plan, our study results indicate that mentality may negatively impact employee health, especially women,” said study co-author Janne Boone-Heinonen, associate professor of epidemiology at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health.

The low hourly rate that many tipped workers receive–as little as $2.13 in most states, with tips expected to make up the rest–has become a flash point this election year. Voters in Washington D.C. recently approved a ballot initiative this June that would mandate a minimum hourly wage of $15 for tipped workers. The DC council is mulling whether to override the initiative in the face of strong opposition from the city’s restaurant owners and some tipped workers, who fear their tips will go down sharply if the initiative goes into effect.

In some high-cost locations, restaurant owners themselves are taking desperate measures to help their tipped employees survive. Restaurateur Zareen Khan, who owns two popular Pakistani-Indian restaurants in the hyper-expensive San Francisco Bay Area, recently bought a house located 15 minutes from her Palo Alto restaurant for her employees to stay in. The four full-time employees each pay $500 a month, amounting to a fraction of the mortgage, The Mercury News reports.

“They are my key employees,” Khan told the paper, “but every employee right now is a key employee.”

Other restaurant owners are taking a more holistic approach to helping employees deal with the stress of working in the industry. Anne Spaeth, founder of The Lynhall restaurant in Minneapolis, started the Nourish series, an education program focused on promoting personal growth and emotional well-being. She’s also established the Long Table fund, a charitable resource designed to provide crisis mental health care resources for restaurant workers. Profits from Nourish events will support the fund.

The restaurant industry, which is also burdened by high rates of substance addiction among servers and kitchen staff, needs to focus on creating better environments for its workers, Spaeth told

“I feel like we are putting a stake in the sand at The Lynhall and saying, ‘Our management team will have these values and that will translate across that higher level.’ These values will then flow down to everyone else on the staff. The result can only be good for everyone.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.