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How to deal with work stress, according to bartenders

Think you're stressed out on the job? Try being behind a bar.
Image: A bartender pours cocktails
Bartending is one of the twenty-two professions that made the U.S. News & World Reports' list of most stressful jobs. Stefano Oppo / Getty Images

Bartending might seem like a fun, carefree job — how stressful could it be to make craft cocktails and pour wine and microbrews to thirsty guests? Very, according to U.S. News & World Reports. Using their own data and data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, the company recently released a list of most stressful jobs of 2017. Bartending is one of the twenty-two professions that made the list, right alongside anesthesiologist, paramedic and patrol officer.

Constantly interfacing with public — especially an inebriated public — can be trying, especially when you have to do it cheerfully and for prolonged periods on your feet, without a break. That said, the kind of stress a bartender faces depends very much on the type of bar. If you’re at a dive bar, you have to be security in addition to a charming host.

“Do you have to cut someone off and have them scream in your face?” asks Colin Carroll, the bar manager at Trifecta, a popular restaurant in Portland, Oregon. In a sophisticated spot like Trifecta, that doesn’t occur. But Carroll has stress of a different sort.

“There are ten tickets with 13 different cocktails and 'where the hell is my flat bread?' There’s always a running checklist of five to 10 things to do,” says Carroll, who is always prioritizing things in his head from most to least important. For Carroll, who has bartended for 11 years, this creates a low but ever-present level of anxiety.

Bartending is also physically draining. Carroll works 50 hours a week, the majority of it on his feet.

“Especially as you get older, it takes its toll on your body,” says Carroll, 36.

Exercise, Even If You're Tired, Is Key to Blowing Off Steam

“It’s hard to maintain a fitness regime because you are so exhausted,” Carroll says. “But it’s totally necessary, because it makes you feel better.” Carroll tries to do stretches, run and lift weights when he wakes up in the morning. Sometimes he and his son will box together at the gym. Every once in awhile, he will treat himself to a sports massage. “I wear clogs now, too. And I’m unapologetic about it,” Carroll explains.

When Andrew Almanza, lead mixologist at DJT at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, gets hit with a rush of people, his solution is to power through it with caffeine. But two years ago, to counteract the demands of the job, he started doing Bikram yoga two days a week.

You need to go from fight or flight to ‘rest and digest.'

It’s important to have some kind of stress management routine when you work at a high-stress job, says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the Stress-Proof Brain. “Whether that’s meditation, yoga, running, nature walking, it doesn’t matter, just as long as your nervous system can decompress,” Greenberg says. “You need to go from fight or flight to ‘rest and digest,’” she says. If your nervous system is in a state of hyperarousal — as it is when you are undergoing stress — it’s harder to have healthy digestion. To counter-act the negative affects of stress, she recommends doing these activities at least five days a week.

It's Not Just Mental Stress — Being Behind a Bar Can Hurt

Research shows that the most stressful jobs — which are also the ones that lead to negative health consequences—are those that combine a high level of demand with low control of your circumstances.

While standing behind the sleek granite bar at the Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, Lillian Hargrove shows me the space behind the bar — a two-foot-wide area full of glasses, liquor bottles and other equipment.

“There are about three feet between where my hips are and where your glass goes,” says Hargrove, stretching over to show me the acrobatics she regularly performs to serve drinks. This constant movement of leaning into the bar creates lower back pain, says Hargrove, who has been bartending for a decade. The “double rail” — a second rail for liquor bottles located beneath the “speedrail”— is also a problem. Bartenders repeatedly bump into this while serving drinks. “We have so many bruises on our shins,” says Hargrove. Add to that all the dipping, squatting and stooping she does and she is exhausted by the end of her shift. “Sometimes I use the handle of the espresso machine to get the kinks out of my back,” says Hargrove, laughing.

Her fondest wish would be if her company got a bar redesign by former bartender Tobin Ellis. Ellis began designing bars because he knew from experience that all the walking, stooping and bending bartenders do causes a lot of physical pain. Ellis' bar station, which won a Good Design Award in 2015, is at many of the country’s top cocktail bars.

“Career bartenders know that at some point they will probably be dealing with a host of repetitive stress injuries including chronic back problems, rotator cuff injuries, carpal tunnel and lateral epicondylitis,” Ellis says. Most bars are designed by architects or designers, who are usually unaware of the unique physical challenges a bartender faces. Add to that that most bar equipment has not been redesigned since the 1950s and you have a recipe for bruises, scrapes, and sore feet, backs and legs. "This is the opposite of what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends in what they call a ‘neutral work position,’” explains Ellis.

What if you can’t snap your fingers and change your environment and working conditions? Greenberg recommends yoga stretches when you get home at the end of the night. Legs-up-the-wall pose is an ideal restorative pose for people who work on their feet.

How to Reduce Stress in the Moment

When it comes to the in-the-moment stress of having customers in front of you all the time, Greenberg and Hargrove have some winning strategies that we can all borrow.

“If you start feeling shaken up, ground yourself. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice your body. Slow down, slow your breath down. Take big belly breathes,” says Greenberg. Furthermore, if a customer is rude to you, don’t react and don’t take it personally. “It might be the alcohol speaking.”

Hargrove, who loves being a bartender, has her own way of dealing with the rare difficult customer.

“I keep smiling,” Hargrove tells me. “It’s kind of hard to yell at someone who is happy.”

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