Sunday’s forecast is calling for a high of one degree.
There’s a chance of snow, too.
For most, those are the kind of conditions that call for turning on the fireplace, putting on some fleecy sweats and curling up with a hot beverage.
For Adam Hynam-Smith, it’s the perfect day to go for a dip in Lake Ontario.
The chef and co-owner of Dispatch restaurant in St. Catharines has been borrowing a page from Wim Hof, the Dutch motivational speaker with his eponymous method espousing the benefits of cold exposure for mental health.
Research published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that a dunk in icy water combined with the proper breathing technique can lead to a more controlled stress response. As someone who makes his living in an industry devastated by the pandemic, Hynam-Smith has struggled with stress, anxiety and depression, especially over the past 20 months.
He’s not the only one. On any given Sunday morning when the beach days of summer are a distant memory and most of us are keen to stay indoors, Hynam-Smith and upwards of a dozen others — initially from the hospitality industry but now from a cross-section of professions — sidle up to the shoreline at Charles Daley Park. There, they immerse themselves in the relief promised by Hof, a freezing lake, and the companionship of others going through their own struggles.
They do it under the banner of Be Well Fitness, a grassroots community initiative organized on Instagram (@be.well.fitness) by Hynam-Smith and his restaurant manager and sommelier Mike Kapusty in March 2020. They created the account to connect and offer support to other hospitality workers trying to survive the instability the pandemic thrust upon an industry rife with demons that existed long before any lockdown.
“With Be Well, we want to take away the stigma and have people be comfortable talking about their fight with mental health and physical health, and their needs in the industry,” Hynam-Smith said. “You need to have somewhere you can go for help without judgment.”
It started in spring 2020 with long runs, bike rides and open invitations to those seeking emotional support. Together, participants went on physical and mental journeys that Hynam-Smith said took him, personally, “through hurt lockers” and “deep emotional holes” conjuring a gamut of negative emotions needing a positive outlet.
Last winter, those warm weather activities morphed into cold water dips and strong bonds between the people doing them. Meanwhile, at Dispatch, itself, the team made checking in with each other a regular part of every shift, making adjustments to workload to help anyone struggling.
Last month, Hynam-Smith, the Dispatch team and Be Well Fitness were recognized by enRoute Magazine as an industry change maker. The accolades came two years after the prestigious glossy named Dispatch one of Canada’s best new restaurants.
The recognition is an honour, Hynam-Smith said, not because it casts a national spotlight on his team and restaurant, which he co-owns with his wife Tamara Jensen. The effort being noted at all by a magazine publishing an annual issue on — and making money off — restaurants represents a significant turning point for an industry that’s long upheld toxic masculinity, overwork, underpay, an abusive kitchen structure and escape in drugs and alcohol over self-care.
Comprehensive numbers demonstrating the mental health needs of Canada’s hospitality workers don’t exist. But iHASCO, an online health and safety training organization in the United Kingdom cites research from The Royal Society for Public Health, which found one in five hospitality workers suffers from work-related stress and mental health issues. Additionally, 84 per cent of those working in an industry where gruelling 70-90-hour work weeks are the norm noted increasing stress directly related to their jobs.
Further, a survey by Nestlé found eight in 10 chefs have experienced poor mental health during their careers and nearly half feel more needs to be done to support mental health and well-being at work.
As someone who’s worked in restaurants since he was a teen, Hynam-Smith has had his own struggles with drinking to cope with toxic work environments brought on, in part, by a professional kitchen’s brigade hierarchy created to “break” a person.
“There’s a reason you do it in the military. Why the (hell) are we doing it in this industry?” Hynam-Smith said. “Why are we doing this in a community business that employs community people? Why are we taking that practice that we use to prepare people for war? Why are we using that in the mainstream and ruining people’s lives?”
The pandemic, he added, brought industry issues to the fore as repeated lockdowns, lost income and, in some cases, destroyed livelihoods piled even more on an already overtaxed workforce.
“When you’re forced to stop and you have to battle through possibly losing everything, watching what’s happening in the industry and to the people in it, laying off staff — all of this takes a deep toll,” Hynam-Smith said. “I’ve spoken to people having trouble getting out of bed. I’ve received calls from people who are having suicidal thoughts. I’ve received phone calls from people who have turned their back on the industry. When that happens, it’s taxing.”
And he’s made a few calls himself in search of similar, he added.
But Be Well Fitness created a place to share what he and others, even those outside the hospitality industry, are going through “in the rawest form.” Those runs, rides and dunks, scheduled or impromptu, offered a chance to converse about issues someone may not have talked about before — and become healthier mentally and physically in the process, Hynam-Smith explained.
“Being forced to stop and look around, despite being in a very dark place myself at the time — and I’m still working through things and will be for some time — we need to make it more acceptable for people to get therapy and not feel shame for getting help.”
As the group continues to grow, Hynam-Smith hopes to create something more formal with connections to therapists, life coaches and other industry advocacy groups. In the meantime, there are cold water dips and conversation — and no pressure for anyone who shows up to do either until they’re ready.
“With Be Well, we want people to feel as though they have somewhere to go, with other people take a healthier direction, surround themselves with like-minded people and where they can reach out and get the help they need or the help finding the help they need,” he said.
“It’s going through something with other people who are going through it, too, and knowing you’re not being judged and you’re safe.”
This story originally appeared in the St. Catharines Standard.