Leadership Burnout in Hospitality: 5 Ways to Retain Restaurant Leaders (Part 2)

Sep 23, 2023
Marco Zappia and Adam Witherspoon at dining room table with Alison Arth

Photo captured by Libby Anderson

In most professions, if someone quits, you push a deadline back, you reschedule the presentation, you do what you need to do to make changes without compromising the end product. In the restaurant industry, the show must go on no matter what, and missing a beat has very real and immediate repercussions.

This unique business dynamic, coupled with how challenging it is to hire folks from dishwashers to Sous Chefs to General Managers, (not to mention how little leadership training exists in our profession), has a hamster wheel effect of making burnout more common, which puts more stress on existing team members, which then creates more burnout.

If you want off the hamster wheel, check out our 6-month 1-on-1 Leadership Development Program and apply to work with a coach who knows this business inside and out and has walked in your exact shoes.


One of the most measurable impacts of leadership burnout is the financial cost of turnover. The low end estimate of dollars spent per employee turned over is $15,000, which includes things like posting job ads, overtime incurred by other team members, hours spent on recruiting & training, and decreased efficiency as other team members are forced to pick up the slack. That number goes up as an employee’s responsibilities increase.

Some of the things on this list show up on your credit card statement (like posting job ads), while others don’t (waning performance), but all of them add up to damaging your bottom line and your willingness to stay in this work. If you’re wondering whether burnout is affecting you or your team, check out this post on identifying signs, and why it’s so common in the restaurant industry.


The five biggest things that get in the way of:

  • Getting clear about what an energizing role would look like for you
  • Setting and holding the boundaries needed to abide by your role
  • Allowing yourself to experience fulfillment in your work 
  • Feeling a sense of freedom and flexibility in your life
  • Feeling a sense of ownership over your own time
  • Prioritizing your health and well-being


  1. Getting stuck in codependence
  2. Not taking responsibility for your own energy
  3. Limiting beliefs
  4. Lack of vision
  5. Absence of meaningful support

Let’s look at each of them, one by one.


Leading high performing teams (yes, even in a labor shortage) demands that you shift from:

Codependence (people pleasing by setting loose or unclear boundaries and taking too much responsibility in an attempt to manage other people’s emotions)

Interdependence (recognizing that your individual well being, the well being of your team, and the well being of your business are interconnected and require setting clear boundaries to preserve the health of all three)

Danny Meyer’s teachings in Setting the Table were so influential. That book was my bible for conscious leadership as I got my sea legs leading operations and pumping out high profile openings for Daniel Boulud. If you’re reading this, I bet it was for you too. Danny taught us that when we prioritize stakeholders in the following order:

  1. Employees 
  2. Guests 
  3. Community 
  4. Suppliers 
  5. Investors

We make investor success inevitable.

As business owners and leaders, you create a waterfall of profitable, energizing outcomes when you focus on the experience of your team before all else.

I'm here for it. I believe it. I've practiced it.

And, I think it's incomplete. What lives upstream of the employee experience?

  1. Leaders
  2. Employees 
  3. Guests
  4. Community
  5. Suppliers
  6. Investors

My best guess is that when Danny wrote about employees, he intended to include leadership teams and owners. So many of us took this call to action (and maybe you have too) to embrace servant leadership too far, forgetting that we also need to focus on serving ourselves in that model if we hope for it to be effective in the long term.

You may have even unintentionally come to believe that the waterfall needs to be laced with the blood of your martyr wounds in order to achieve the intended outcome that Danny promises. If you are:

  • Chronically 20 minutes late for your kid’s game or date night with your partner
  • Regularly giving up your days off to make sure that the managers above or below you get theirs 
  • Always getting through this really hard day, week, or month believing that you’ll be able to find balance on the other side, only to be met by another crazy season that keeps you tied to the restaurant
  • Feeling totally out of touch with your friendships outside of work…or maybe even realizing that you have no friends outside of work

You may have accidentally adopted a false belief without even realizing it, that pegs you as a martyr responsible for fixing everyone’s everything before addressing what’s missing in your own life.


Not because it’s nice to feel good or because self-care is cool or because over-working isn’t trending right now. It’s your responsibility to be in work that allows you to feel a sense of purpose, energy, curiosity, and connection to that work because if you don’t, no one else will. At least not for very long. You reap what you sow.

Sometimes, just seeing this thought error that sounds like “I have to suffer in order for my team to thrive,” clearly is enough to spark action and get you moving in the direction of taking responsibility for your own experience so that you’re authentically able to inspire more prosperity for the folks you lead.

You might be used to thinking that the hours you spend getting a good workout in, going for a walk with your spouse, writing in your journal, or playing with your kid will only be harmful if they’re taking away time that could be spent on answering emails, getting behind the line to support the team because someone called out, or staying that extra hour through the second seating push.

Sometimes, you DO need to burn the midnight oil to meet an extraordinary moment in your restaurant. But, a lot of times, you don’t. Choosing to do so anyway is emptying your gas tank, and when we empty our gas tank without taking the time to refill it, we start to show up in ineffective and harmful ways.

Oftentimes, seeing isn’t enough to shift your behavior. I know it wasn’t enough to shift mine.


You cannot create a result in your life that you do not believe is possible. Our brains HATE dissonance. When you hold a belief, think a thought, or tell yourself a story, your brain goes straight to work on collecting data and finding information to make that belief, thought or story true. That’s its job.

Here are some of the sneaky, under the hood, often totally undetectable thoughts that I’ve carried and that my colleagues and clients have shared that have unintentionally birthed the painful results I know you feel ready to move on from.



“Being the person who fights every fire, picks up all the shit, and endlessly accommodates my team is how I’ve always led, and it’s gotten me some great results even though it’s really painful for me. If I change the way I lead, I’ll lose the positive outcomes I’ve achieved, so I have to keep going this way.”

It feels too scary to try a new way of leading, so you don’t. You stay on the burnout hamster wheel. 

“My team won’t respect me if I’m not killing myself in the trenches with them, while also trying to do all of the aspects of my leadership role.” 

You never define, follow through with, or communicate the boundaries of your role. Your team doesn’t respect you unless you’re in the trenches with them, because they don’t know anything about the other full time job you’re shouldering, nor do they understand how they’re being impacted by your lack of focus on it. 

“I can’t have a harmonious life and a successful business. Suffering is what’s keeping our heads above water, and trying a healthier schedule or experiencing more fulfillment in my job isn’t safe to pursue.”

You quit before you start the journey of understanding what else your life could look like, while also maintaining (and growing) your professional success. 

“It’s not possible to have a sustainable leadership role in a restaurant” 

You take no action, and your results stay the same.


I wonder if any of these sound familiar to you?

The more you unknowingly think thoughts like these, the harder your brain works to prove them right, and the more data you get to support that these aren’t just thoughts. They’re the truth.

And, once you’ve decided that living and leading differently than you are now isn’t an option that’s on the table, anything that you attempt to implement to fix this problem won’t work because your brain doesn’t want it to work…that would create the cognitive dissonance that we’re hard-wired to avoid.

Something that feels essential to name and affirm is that the staffing shortage in our profession is a real and powerful circumstance right now. Thinking the thought of “10 qualified people will show up to their scheduled interviews this week!” won’t magically make that so. I wish it could. It also feels essential to name and affirm that blaming staffing challenges for all of the pain you’re experiencing as a leader will not in any way help you to feel less pain as a leader. You cannot control this circumstance, but you can choose how you relate to it.

If you want a new result, you have to decide that something else might be true. Let’s pause for a moment and consider what those thoughts could sound like:



“I wonder if it’s possible to hold onto my current success and make my leadership even more impactful while also enjoying my work more.”

You feel willing to experiment with new ways of leading without tight attachment to how those experiments turn out.

“I think it’s possible that my team would be even more successful if I prioritize my own energy and sense of purpose in my work rather than prioritizing the number of hours I’m at the restaurant and how much fire fighting I’m willing to do.”

You feel safe creating a clear and engaging job role for yourself and communicating it to your team or sharing dialogue with your boss about what that would look like for you. 

“I don’t know exactly what sustainability looks like for restaurant leaders because I don’t have a model for it, but I do know I’m a creative and collaborative person who’s really good at figuring shit out.”

You open up dialogue with your team and other like-minded leaders to explore possibilities. 

“It’s possible that my own suffering isn’t what’s creating the success of my business, and it could even be possible that it’s holding us back.”

You tinker with your schedule and job responsibilities to see what the results are of making small changes. 


Notice that when you think the thoughts in the first chart, you probably feel emotions like anxiety, resignation, resentment, discouragement, even shame. Those are not emotions that will lead you to take actions that generate positive results.

The thoughts in the second chart open the door to curiosity, self-trust, openness, and willingness. Now you’re cooking with gas.


If you’ve opened a restaurant, you’ve probably experienced that 1-3 month period after the doors officially open when everyday feels like an endless list of fires to fight. Everyone is doing everything, the days all blur into each other, and the idea of pulling your head up and intentionally shifting into clear job roles and systems & structure that support a shared vision of success feel simultaneously impossible and absolutely necessary.

To me, this period always feels like being in a 6 year old’s soccer game. No one really has a defined position on the field, and we’re all so focused on chasing the ball that we forget there’s even a goal. It’s dizzying to watch, and even more dizzying to be a player on the field.

Covid forced most of us back into years of being in a 6 year’s old soccer game. Maybe you’re still in that mentality. What’s needed now is a willingness to trust that stepping off the field so you can meaningfully come up with a game plan, define clear roles for your team, and consistently coach that team towards a shared goal is more valuable than the endless firefighting work that will always exist on the field.

The reason that so many people, maybe you too, don’t feel they can take that leap of faith and step off the field? They don't have meaningful, qualified support. 


If you own or lead a hospitality business of any kind—a restaurant, bar, catering company, winery, cafe—I’d bet my top dollar that you’re 1) exhausted, and 2) feel alone in leading.

Getting out of burnout requires creativity and the ability to see new possibilities. I’ve never met anyone (myself included) who is capable of zooming out and accessing new ways of thinking when they are exhausted and alone. Both of those conditions tend to contribute to a narrowing of the mind, not an expansion of it.


Even if you have a high-performing leadership team that you can rely on for feedback, their support can be limited by the fact that your team is inside the frame of your business with you, and this can restrict their ability to see what’s possible outside of it.


Photo captured by Libby Anderson

What would change for you if you had an objective, experienced thought partner who took responsibility for carving out space in your calendar every week to think with you about your vision for your life and your business, supported you in creating a plan to reach it, and walked alongside you while you pursued it, working through roadblocks, cheerleading your wins, and holding your hand through setbacks and pivots every step of the way?

I didn’t invest in this type of support in myself and my business for years simply because I didn’t know it existed. It does.

If any part of this post resonated with you, we got you. You don’t have to climb out of the weeds alone. In our 1-on-1 coaching program for hospitality leaders, we’ll walk with you as you take that leap of faith off of the field and into your rightful role as your team’s (and your own) best coach and support you in crafting a clear vision for your business and your life. If you’re ready to step out of burnout and into your own energy, I invite you to answer these 10 questions to explore whether working with a coach at Salt & Roe might be the right thing at the right time to create the shift you’re craving.

Here’s what I hope you’re taking with you after joining Pre-Shift for leaders today:

  • Emotional codependence keeps us stuck in a pattern of prioritizing everyone else’s experience before our own in a way that harms our well-being and leads to burnout
  • Limiting beliefs hold an illusion of helpfulness. Thinking that there’s no way out of the situation you’re in can momentarily make you feel better, but in the long-term those bad stories hold us back from creating something better  
  • Lacking a vision of where you want to go keeps you stuck. If you want a new outcome in your business and in your relationships, you have to be willing to articulate a vision that’s clear enough to move towards 
  • Not having the right support in place to motivate, guide, and cheerlead you on your journey as you attempt to make shift happen can feel isolating and lead to burnout
  • By signing up for our newsletter, joining our community of likeminded hospitality people on Instagram, or maybe even completing an application to hire a coach at Salt & Roe, you’re investing in your leadership and your self-trust to confidently learn how to manage your mind, clarify your vision, and hire thought partnership to support your development in this industry and in your own skin

Cheers to leading yourself into the life and job of your dreams.


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