Mental health awareness in the workplace has become a prominent topic of discussion over the past few years. The Covid-19 pandemic profoundly impacted workers’ personal and professional lives across all industries: burnout is at an all time high in the medical industry; thousands of public-school teachers left their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022; and stories about “quiet quitting” permeated news outlets as workers reconsidered how they viewed their jobs.
Specifically, food service and hospitality workers dealt with an abundance of taxing circumstances, from businesses being understaffed to supply shortages to being tasked with enforcing mask mandates and proper distancing protocols for patrons. Handling hostile customers suddenly became a more regular occurrence for service workers, with workers reporting aggressive, even harassing behavior from customers who refused to comply with state and local mandates. Coupled with low wages, it’s no coincidence that service and hospitality are some of the most stressful industries to work in the United States.
Everyone’s approach to handling stress at work differs, but it’s important to have tactics in place to diffuse tension and help baristas stay grounded to avoid burnout.
The University of New Hampshire defines grounding as “a self-soothing skill to use when you are having a bad day or dealing with a lot of stress, overwhelming feelings, and/or intense anxiety. Grounding is a technique that helps keep you in the present and helps reorient you to the here-and-now and to reality.”
When working a service job, grounding techniques can help you remain calm when an angry customer lashes out at you, when orders relentlessly pile up, or when you feel exasperated and need a quick breather to calm down your nerves.
Along with looking at data and online research, we chatted with Tabia Lewis (who uses they/them pronouns), a former barista at Tipico Coffee in Buffalo, New York. Lewis knows firsthand how demanding it is to be a barista and has developed methods of staying calm and keeping grounded that can help others establish a routine of their own. Grounding techniques and mindfulness are more than catchy buzzwords and phrases. When implemented, these practices can establish a healthy coping strategy when confronted with feelings of distress.
“Don’t Talk To Me Until I’ve Had My Coffee”
It isn’t uncommon to deal with agitated customers all day, whether in the morning hours as commuters rush to grab their caffeine on their way to work or in the late afternoons for a quick pick me up. Baristas carry a heavy burden and serving customers while simultaneously crafting quality drinks can be challenging.
When Lewis feels the stressors of multitasking, they take a moment to assess the situation and prioritize what actions to take to ensure success. “I was working the shift alone, and there was a group that came into the shop fifteen minutes before we closed, and they all wanted pour overs,” they say. Instead of making small talk and being more personable while making the order, Lewis adjusted their typical work style and momentarily stepped away from the bar after letting the guests know they would be in the back while preparing their order. This act allowed them to focus more on completing the pour overs quickly.
“I understand that presentation is important, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to make this order happen if I’m doing things how I’m ‘supposed’ to.” Being personable and affable to guests is one of the many roles a barista plays, but it may not always be achievable to chat up guests and get things done. Above all else, specialty coffee consumers expect quality drinks, and Lewis worked to deliver that.
Honing in on specific tasks and placing all of your attention on what’s in front of you is a perfect example of a grounding technique to use while working with coffee. Focusing solely on dosing, grinding, and brewing coffee to standard instead of juggling the tasks in tandem with conversing with guests allowed Lewis to calm down while brewing the four pour-overs in succession just minutes before the shop closed.
Balancing multiple technical tasks that require focus and care while remaining personable can be demanding and overwhelming, negatively affecting a barista’s mental state. To combat the stressors of a busy service job, counterbalancing high-pressure situations with practices to help navigate through difficult times can be essential in recalibrating one’s mood and improving work performance.
Presence Is Key
Getting caught up in the minutiae of everyday work duties can bog you down if you’re not focused and clear-headed. Distractions can lead to poor work performance and making mistakes. Lewis found it worsened their mindset when they were in a state of disarray.
“At times, I would get distracted and find other tasks to do while in the middle of a task,” they say. “I then would easily forget about the first task, so I would spiral and think, ‘What am I doing? Why haven’t I gotten a single thing done today?'”
During busy times, grounding can help clear your head and improve productivity. Beyond a specific technique, one way to ground yourself is to focus on one concrete, straightforward task.
With over 70,000 members, the r/barista page on Reddit provides hundreds of personal accounts of baristas maintaining their cool during stressful times. Many share that they like to focus on cleaning tasks like thoroughly washing milk pitchers, utensils, and jugs to center their attention on the moment and relieve stress and anxiety during high-volume hours.
“I’ve always found that washing dishes for a while helps if I’m feeling scattered,” one member says. “Putting my hands in the water is grounding, plus with my hands busy, my mind could rest for a few breaths.”
Another member said, “If I was running a shift and needed to calm down for a moment, I’d deploy myself on washing dishes for a bit and would do this for anyone else if they seemed stressed.”
Conversing with coworkers, joking, and laughing can also be beneficial to keeping present and upbeat.
Lewis would find moments of levity at work to have some fun and help decompress. “Sometimes I would dance and sing along to the music playing,” they said, noting that taking a second to be silly would help ease them into a better frame of mind.
Not everyone is into on-the-spot barista karaoke, so if you’re shy or not musically inclined, other techniques may be up your alley. Healthline lists deep breathing exercises, observing your surroundings, and engaging with your senses, such as touch or smell, to help center yourself in your body and environment while on the job. Taking a moment to slow down your pace—noticing the heat of a pitcher while steaming milk, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the mechanical humming noises of the espresso machine—can help you engage fully and ground in the present.
More important than jamming out to help calm nerves, Lewis says the best grounding method for them was slowing down their pace, “…even if there is a rush,” they say. “If I don’t, I’m more likely to make mistakes and get frustrated.”
Another commenter on the barista subreddit shared that simply paying attention to their physical presence was helpful. “Being aware of my body, observing my muscle memory, and not rushing a drink of water.”
Grounding techniques don’t have to be complicated to be effective. Simply taking your time and slowing down is paramount when your body and senses run out of whack—even taking a short break from the workspace can work wonders. “Sometimes I go to the bathroom… just to get away from the espresso machine and breathe.”
Stop And Smell The Coffee
Managing stress isn’t an all-or-nothing battle, and there will inevitably be times when stressful situations will bring you over the edge. “[I’m] not the best, but that comes with time,” says Lewis when asked how well they manage stress. But they acknowledge these skills come with time. “I’m still young, so I have a lot of learning to do.”
It takes patience and practice to build a go-to grounding routine, especially during high-pressure situations. There’s a learning curve as you determine what works best for you, and helpful tactics usually come through trial and error. While some of the suggestions in this piece, like stretching or running your hands under cold water, are quick and easy ways to ground yourself, you might need something else. It’s always important to remember to try new things and think about what keeps you present and focused.