Alex Hardy Supporting a team member through a personal crisis

There are times when bad reviews and dreadful appetizers aren’t the worst part of a chef’s week. Spouses and parents get sick. Homes flood and catch fire. Even award winners lose relatives and face struggles.

Building a strong team means fostering an environment where individuals feel able to speak up when they're experiencing a personal crisis, and where their managers and team mates step up in support. This can be easier said than done, so we asked four chefs to share their advice.

Check in and offer support.

You don’t have to have all the right words to make their world less bewildering. Feeling valued and supported made dealing with a stage three ovarian cancer diagnosis at work less harrowing for Chef Elle Simone Scott, Founder of mentorship and networking organization SheChef & TV talent on America’s Test Kitchen.

“Having someone to open up to was helpful for me. I was able to tell my immediate manager because of our relationship, even when things were still questionable, which was helpful for me,” Scott says. “Just asking what I needed made a difference in how I was able to handle myself and not have to hide anything.”

Be compassionate and flexible.

Tragedy doesn’t discriminate. A little creativity can help make an unfortunate situation a bit less unbearable.

“It could be any of us having a hard time,” says Naama Tamir, Managing Partner at Lighthouse in Brooklyn and Lighthouse Outpost in Manhattan, New York. Being open-minded and understanding is part of why she says her team feels like a family.

“Sometimes the solution is financial and involves figuring out a loan or navigating a changing family dynamic. So that can mean changing someone's schedule or moving things around to accommodate them. If there's a physical concern, an injury or illness, we can make it so they can sit down or modify their activities if necessary.” And everybody get paid time off.

Respect your professional boundaries.

Consider your resources and relationship as well. “Be fair, be firm, be consistent,” says Gilles Perrin, Culinary Director at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel Dubai. Be supportive without forgetting your goals and targets, he stresses.

“It is crucial to understand your employee and see how you can support, and what could be done to bring them back in line or to let them go (and sometimes this is the best solution for him/her and also for the team).”

Know what’s important to your team.

What is a forgettable fact to you could be life-changing for your colleague. Scott says, “If you're dealing with people from various backgrounds, you have to be mindful of what is considered an emergency for them and have some cultural competency about who's on your team and their values.”

“Abuela not eating may be just as much of a family emergency as a broken limb or sick child,” she adds.

Engage regularly and spot signs of trouble. According to Chef Kwame Onwuachi, Kith and Kin and Philly Wing Fry Owner regular, casual check-ins help prevent burnout and can lead to discussions about stressors and life changes that may affect someone’s work.

“With my sous chefs, I can tell when they’re breaking down mentally, and I’ll tell them, ‘Hey, you need a mental health day. Take the day and do what you need to do.’"

The former Top Chef contestant says, “Being a chef is more observing and listening rather than just reacting. It's more than saying, ‘Yes, chef’ to everything.”