EXPERT VIEW: How to design a commercial kitchen with mental health in mind

EXPERT VIEW: How to design a commercial kitchen with mental health in mind

With eight out of ten employees in hospitality having experienced mental health issues within their career, it is important that employers ensure that they are supporting the health and wellbeing of their staff – starting with the working environment. Matt Summers, head of design sales at Shine Catering Systems, explores how commercial kitchen design has a part to play in this…

The statistics on mental health are alarming. In a survey by the Burnt Chef Project, four out of five hospitality professionals have experienced mental health issues and two thirds of those said it had happened three times or more in their career.

Wellbeing is clearly a challenge for the industry. Employees have a greater responsibility than ever before to support the health and wellbeing of their employees, but this goes beyond box ticking exercises to meet workplace legislation.

Aside from protecting them, putting the physical health and mental wellbeing of employees first can help to create a more engaged workforce, increase productivity and attract better talent. In hospitality, like any industry, supporting employees is the first step towards delivering the best possible results for customers.

Let’s first look at some of the measures available in kitchen design to help do that.

Consider lighting and materials

One of the first things we ask at the start of any kitchen project is how can we make it a more comfortable environment for kitchen staff. There are a number of decisions we can make even before we get to cooking equipment, which is why we would always suggest getting kitchen design consultants right from the outset.

Consider the impact that the walls, floors and lighting have on chefs who are working long days in the same environment. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t put kitchens at the back of the building – or even in the basement – but the practicalities of the overall building design often demands this.

If natural light is not available then we will build in sufficient lighting to make sure chefs are not left working in dark conditions that can really impact wellbeing. Recommended lighting levels are a minimum of 500 lux in working areas and 300 lux in storage areas, which provides a better working environment and maintains safety.

The fabric design matters too. We’ve worked with projects where the client invested in stunning front of house environments and then wanted to install black tiles in the kitchen. Aside from the colour, which does nothing to support mood and morale amongst back of house staff, tiles are not safe or hygienic when they chip. We usually recommend smooth resin or vinyl floors with Whiterock cladding to walls – it’s bright, easy to clean and never chips to maintain safety in the kitchen.

Lower kitchen temperatures

One of the biggest ways in which the kitchen environment will impact chefs is temperature. Working long shifts in a hot, humid kitchen will inevitably take its toll both physically and mentally, so we look for ways to reduce the temperature in the kitchen.

Using electric appliances for induction cooking is the most effective method, steering away from gas flames to provide safer, lower temperature cooking. And there are other benefits too. Induction cooking costs less to run (offsetting the increased capital outlay required) and requires less ventilation, which in turn reduces noise in the kitchen to further support a more comfortable environment.

One of the biggest challenges we face is when individual chefs are given freedom to choose their equipment, rather than thinking about the long-term benefits.

If one executive chef prefers to still cook on a flame, for example, the kitchen could be missing out on the opportunity to improve sustainability, reduce long-term costs and improve the kitchen environment with induction, throughout a 10-20 year installation. All for a chef that could potentially move on before the kitchen has even been installed. The same if a contract catering company is being employed – often after the kitchen has been designed.

We try to guide and influence our clients to take a holistic approach, using a comprehensive kitchen design survey to understand the objectives based on customers, capacity, cooking types and much more.

Optimise kitchen flow

This is a simple consideration, but a vitally important one. Think about the space and travel distances in the kitchen – if we can prevent chefs from having to walk 10-15 metres every time they need something from the fridge, it not only supports kitchen productivity but it can have a positive impact on busy, exhausted staff too.

Overcoming challenges

The idea is simple – by taking a holistic approach, combining design best practice with investment in value-adding measures – we can help employers to support their employees’ health and wellbeing in the kitchen. The reality, of course, is sometimes different.

Unfortunately, on 90% of projects, budget still supersedes wellbeing – particularly in the public sector, where budgets are fixed and often already squeezed.

We need to move away from the mindset where the kitchen is an afterthought and capital outlay is king. This is still the approach too often, despite the kitchen being on the most expensive areas of any new build project.

Instead, we work with clients to try and consider lifecycle costs. The initial investment for induction cooking could be around £5,000 more for a 6-hob cooking station. However, it will more than pay for itself throughout the lifetime of the appliance in lower running costs and reduced ventilation requirements. This is before you factor in hidden costs such as wellbeing benefits, which – as we have identified – are more important than ever.

With innovative kitchen design and a little upfront investment, employers have the opportunity to mitigate the impact that kitchens have on the wellbeing of those who spend their working days inside them. Let’s take that opportunity.