[Study] Is Workplace Happiness All About Pay? What 1,900+ Restaurant Staff Think

[Study] Is Workplace Happiness All About Pay? What 1,900+ Restaurant Staff Think
Dew Smith

By Dew Smith

Understanding the behaviors and sentiment of your restaurant employees is essential when you’re looking to optimize your operation, reduce your restaurant turnover, and become more efficient. Unhappy employees can lead to poor service, no accountability with staff (no shows, lates, and calling in sick), and leave you struggling just to properly staff your shifts and serve your clients. Not to mention, battling with turnover that costs you thousands and constantly having to train new hires can make it difficult to grow your business.

Restaurateurs are always fighting this battle. The restaurant industry is notorious for its high turnover rate, with a widely-cited 73% turnover rate haunting the industry and its young workforce.

The 7shifts mission is to improve happiness and efficiency in the workplace, and so we decided to figure out: does a happy workforce lead to an efficient restaurant?

We surveyed thousands of our 300,000+ restaurant users—from cooks to servers, juice bars to pizzerias—to determine what makes them happy in their restaurant, and what managers can do to improve workplace satisfaction.

We wanted to find out: is it pay or workplace engagement that affects restaurant turnover and impacts employee happiness the most?

The Restaurant Employee Persona: Based on 1,900+ Responses

Understanding restaurant workplace happiness starts with understanding the employees. Here’s what we found out when we surveyed 1,900+ restaurant staff members from all over North America.

Restaurant employee age stats

  • 32% of restaurant employees are between 16-20 years old
  • 32% are 21-25 years old
  • 16% are 26-30 years old
  • 14% are 31-40 years old
  • 6% are over 41
  • 1% are younger than 16

*Rounded to the nearest whole number

Breakdown of restaurant employees by age
Restaurant employee age statistics

When you look at the restaurant workforce minus managers, owners, and operators, you find that restaurant employees are young—with most being between 16 and 25 years old. This is around high school and college age, which could partially explain why restaurant turnover is so high. As students graduate high school or college, they leave the restaurant industry to pursue other career paths.

While the average age of total restaurant workers is about 29, the individual contributors that serve your guests, prep your food, and keep your kitchen operational are much younger. It’s these staff members who need to be kept happy and retained so you can grow your business.

Spread of restaurant employee ages by restaurant type

Restaurant employee role stats

  • 51% are Servers/Bartenders
  • 22% are Cooks
  • 8% are Hosts/Hostesses
  • 13% are Other (Baker, Barback, Busser, Cashier, etc.)
Percentage of restaurant roles
Restaurant employee job statistics

The restaurant workforce that we’re surveying—the individual contributors—is skewed to servers and bartenders. Front of house (FOH) represents over half the workforce, with back of house (BOH)—namely cooks—making up the remaining.

Complete restaurant role statistics reported by the government are different, as they look at a much larger scope—from construction managers, to chief executives, and so on.

Restaurant employee wage stats

  • 44% of restaurant employees report making between $11 and $15/hour.
  • 33% make between $6-$10/hour
  • Only 16% of restaurant employees make a base of under $5/hour, and 94% of these are servers or bartenders who make up the rest of their income through tips.
Spread of wages for restaurant employees
Restaurant employee pay statistics
Percentage of wages by restaurant role
Restaurant employee pay vs role

How Engagement Activities Impact Workplace Happiness

So how happy are restaurant employees to begin with? We surveyed 1,900 employees from server to dishwasher, pizzeria to full-service, to get an understanding of workplace satisfaction.

A quick note on satisfaction and motivation

Herzberg’s theory of motivation (if you don’t know Herzberg or his theory, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered) lists two types of factors contributing to satisfaction:

  1. Hygiene factors, which are essential for motivation but do not lead to long-term satisfaction. Hygiene factors prevent dissatisfaction, but do not lead to direct satisfaction in themselves. (Pay, tips/bonuses, company policies, etc.)
  2. Motivational factors, which are achieved in addition to hygiene factors and yield long-term satisfaction. (Recognition, achievement, growth, responsibility, and the meaningfulness of the work)

With this in mind, let’s dive into how the hygiene and motivation factors come into play with restaurant employees.

The State of Restaurant Employee Happiness in 2019

How happy are restaurant employees overall in 2019? Despite the high restaurant turnover rate, most employees report being very happy at work across the board—an eight out of ten on the overall happiness scale. Impressively, over 30% of restaurant employees reported a 9 or 10.

Note: this section is a summary of current happiness. Future happiness and churn reduction is covered in sections below.

“Overall, restaurant employees rate their workplace happiness as an 8/10.”

Check out our interactive map to see how your state/province ranks in workplace happiness, wage, and age of restaurant staff  👇 🗺

So what factors contribute to this workplace happiness? How can your employees reach an 8/10?

Across all job types, employees report that engagement factors such as positive recognition, training, workplace technology, communication, management, and coworkers are the most impactful for their workplace satisfaction.

“I believe that if the managers put as much time as they do in the workplace, engaging with their employees, the restaurant would be so much better and would receive more customers.”
—Anonymous respondent

On a scale of very unhappy (1) to very happy (5), restaurant employees rate the following factors on how they impact their current workplace happiness:

1. Their role and tasks

Overall, employees rate their job role and work tasks as a 4 / 5. Fewer than 5% of employees are unhappy with their role—which likely means that many employees feel that their job title and daily tasks are a great fit for them.

This could also mean that, generally speaking, employees are only applying and working for jobs they want—rather than just what they can get.

2. Their team

On average, restaurant employees rate their managers and coworkers each a 4 / 5 on the happiness scale. Over 40% of employees report that their managers and employees make them very happy at work.

3. Communication

Restaurant staff are decently satisfied with the amount of communication with their coworkers. On average, they rank it as a 4 / 5, with 38% ranking communication at a solid 5. Fewer than 8% report being unhappy with communication at their restaurant.

When asked how employees would like to communicate with their managers, over 60% reported preferring text and 7shifts chat (when not in-person). Only 36% of respondents chose phone call as one of their preferred methods of communication, with email falling at 21%, and social media messaging coming in last at 10%.

Interestingly, Canadian 🇨🇦 restaurant staff prefer communication through email and social media chat more than Americans, selecting email communication at 35% over the Americans’ 18%, and nearly 20% for social media over the Americans’ 8%. On the other hand, American 🇺🇸 staff prefer texting (70% versus Canada’s 59%), and are slightly more receptive to phone calls with managers, reporting 36% over 32% for Canadians.

4. Training

Restaurant employees rank training at a 4 / 5 on average, with 30% ranking it at a solid 5. When it comes to who and what type of training is needed, we discuss that more in the “future happiness” section below.

5. Positive recognition

While, on average, employees are generally pleased with the level of kudos they receive from management, over 35% of employees feel that it’s not adequate. There’s definitely room for restaurants to improve, and we’ll discuss what types of recognition employees want in the “future happiness” section below.

Factors that affect current restaurant employee happiness
Factors that affect restaurant employee happiness

What Restaurant Employees Want to Increase Workplace Happiness

Overall, employees are pretty happy at a solid 8/10. But is an 8/10 enough? Keeping employees happy is one thing, but it’s the continuous drive to stimulate and engage your employees that keeps them from turning over (quitting). Plus, it’s common knowledge that the happier an employee is, the less likely they are to quit. So what would it take for restaurant employees to rate their happiness a 10/10?  

We asked employees to rank the following factors on a scale of 1-5 for how much it would affect their workplace happiness.

Here are the results, from most important to least important.

1. A pay increase

Piggy bank illustration

Employees want a pay raise to make them happier at work. 24% rated a pay increase at a 4/5, and 62% of employees ranked this a solid 5, reporting that this would greatly impact their workplace happiness.

Who wants an increase?

No matter the type of restaurant, age, wage, or job role of the employee, they all reported that a pay increase would affect their future happiness at work.

Pay is definitely important for employees to feel recognized and appreciated. Your staff needs to feel as though they can support themselves with their role (“hygiene”), and the engagement benefits come as an added bonus to keep them happy and performing well (“motivation”).

Herzberg’s Two-Factor theory implies that restaurant managers must ensure that the hygiene factors are properly met (like adequate wage) to avoid dissatisfaction, and ensure the work is rewarding enough to encourage employees to perform. If you have a consistent employee turnover problem at your restaurant, you have to consider, is the pay enough to keep their eyes from wandering? Can employees support themselves on what they make? What else am I offering above and beyond that?

2. Promotion

Illustration of two people shaking hands, with one wearing an apron

Let’s face it. Besides a pay raise, most employees want a promotion—formal recognition of their hard work with a better job title or more seniority. Over 60% of workers feel that a promotion would markedly increase their workplace happiness.

Who wants a promotion?

Every position from BOH to FOH wants a job promotion—from cooks to servers. Interestingly, employees at bakeries are the most likely to want a promotion—rating it a 5 on the scale of how greatly it would impact their workplace happiness.

3. More recognition from management

Illustration of woman waving

Being praised and recognized for their accomplishments and hard work by management is vital in keeping employees happy and engaged. Every type of employee—regardless of age, role, or pay—indicated that more recognition from management would impact their workplace satisfaction.

What kind of recognition?

There are many types of recognition and rewards managers can give employees, from verbal to monetary.

  • 67% of restaurant employees would like to receive paid bonuses as recognition from management
  • 38% would like public kudos
  • 32% would like promotions
  • Nearly 30% would like to receive seniority benefits like time-off priority or better benefits
  • 21% want to have an ‘employee of the month’ reward

Some employees indicated that they would love to have staff parties and celebrations to recognize when the team has performed well, and many are happy with a simple “good job” from their manager.

Interestingly, Canadian  restaurant staff would prefer private or low-key kudos, whereas American  employees would prefer public recognition like ‘employee of the month.’ Canadians were slightly less interested in receiving paid bonuses (62% versus the average 67%), likely due to the differences in the minimum wage.

  • 45% of Canadians would like to receive recognition through kudos from management, and only 11% of Canadians want an ‘employee of the month’ 🇨🇦
  • Only 36% of Americans want management kudos, while 22% want an ‘employee of the month’ 🇺🇸

4. More team building

Illustration of 4 restaurant employees celebrating

Teamwork is essential in the fast-paced restaurant environment, which is why it comes as no surprise that nearly 60% of restaurant staff think more team building events and activities are essential to improve their workplace happiness.

Fewer than 10% of employees feel that more team building would not impact their workplace happiness at all.

Who wants team building?

There was no variation when it came to the importance of team building activities—every role type, wage category, and age of restaurant employee rank team building activities an average of 4 / 5 in how much it would affect their happiness. This comes as no surprise, considering that over 50% of restaurant employees report not having any team building activities at their restaurant.

5. More training

Illustration of 2 people wearing backpacks and walking

The average restaurant employee wants more job training, with 50% rating more training as a 4 or 5 on the impact scale. However, not every employee feels they need more training, with 20% indicating that more training would not impact their workplace happiness. Dishwashers, hosts, and servers felt fairly neutral about more training.

Who wants more training?

More training is never a bad thing, but cooks requested more training than other roles. Additionally, employees from cafes, bars and breweries, fast food, and pizzerias indicated that more training would be more impactful for their workplace happiness.

What kind of training?

When asked what type of training employees would like to receive, nearly 70% want hands-on training from managers, 40% want to shadow senior employees, and 22% would like external course training. 9% of employees would like to consume training videos or reading material. In restaurants that serve alcohol, many employees indicated that they would like to learn more about the selection of beer, wine, and other drinks they offer to better serve staff and make good requests.

6. Better workplace technology

Illustration of someone looking at their phone

65% of restaurant employees are already very satisfied with the tech they use on the job. With that, employees only rated better workplace technology” as a 3 / 5 on how much it would impact their workplace happiness. Employees that work in the fast food industry feel that better workplace tech would be more impactful in their happiness, rating it a 4 / 5. Overall, only 44% of restaurant employees feel that better workplace technology would markedly improve their happiness.

However, ensuring that your employees are equipped with equipment that doesn’t hinder, but rather improves their work processes is essential in not only staff satisfaction, but also efficiency and service.

As a team member, our equipment plays a huge role in employee happiness. When the business runs smoothly it makes it easier for us to better serve customers, the quality is also better!

7. More schedule flexibility

Illustration of someone working on their laptop

55% of restaurant employees didn’t feel that a more flexible schedule would greatly impact their happiness, but the 45% of the workforce that does want more scheduling flexibility is nothing to shrug off. In particular, it’s fast food and juice bar staff who do value that flexibility more than others.

Some of the appeal of restaurant work, especially for students and part-time employees, is the flexibility of the schedule. Being able to take time off when needed, and having the ability to collaborate with management to build a schedule that works around your availability and other responsibilities is key.

Scheduling the appropriate amounts of people is more important to workplace happiness than most of the things I've seen here. Gross under-scheduling leads to overwhelming stress that no pay raise can fix.
Check out 7shifts' robust restaurant scheduling tool →

8. More meetings with management

Illustration of 2 people looking at phones, with one wearing an apron

Roughly 44% of restaurant staff feel that more face-time with management 1-on-1 or in groups would improve their workplace happiness. While over half of employees don’t think it would greatly impact their happiness, this kind of interaction can be beneficial to workplace productivity and efficiency.

Managers could use this time to share important updates like menu changes, check in on morale, and strengthen the bond between management and staff. Most restaurant staff don’t feel that more face time with management would greatly increase their workplace happiness.

Maybe have a lineup at the beginning of each shift and talk about anything and everything to help improve our flaws as a team and to go over just at random menu facts to make it fresh in some people’s heads or to help the new ppl learn it.
The factors that affect future happiness of restaurant employees
What factors would impact future happiness

Restaurant Turnover and Employee Engagement: What Makes Them Stay

Of course, when it comes to happy versus unhappy staff, what restaurant owners and managers really want to know about all this is—what makes them stay?

Despite the 73% restaurant turnover rate dictated by Toast, when we asked 1,900+ employees about their plans for the upcoming year, 63% of employees said it was likely to very likely that they’d still be working at the same business in one year. These employees rate their workplace happiness at an 8 / 10.

*Note: Why is this such a reverse of the industry average of 73% turnover? 🤔 One fact to consider is that all employees surveyed are 7shifts clients, meaning they’re likely scheduled, communicated with, and engaged more effectively.

So what’s the difference between these two groups? What things do the “at risk” employees want, more than their happy counterparts?

63% of restaurant employees find it likely that they’ll be working at the same establishment one year from now.

The biggest difference between engaged employees and employees who are going to quit is their current satisfaction with their managers, training, team building activities, and the amount of recognition they receive from management.

Statistics about restaurant turnover

  • The biggest difference between employees likely to quit and those who will stay is the amount of training they receive. The employees who are likely to churn rated the training they receive from management a 3, whereas employees who are not going to quit rated it a 4. These “at risk” employees want to receive hands-on training from managers (67%), to shadow senior employees (40%), and to take external courses (23%).
  • Restaurant employees likely to quit are unhappy with their managers. While engaged employees rated their happiness with management at a 4 / 5, employees likely to churn rated management a 3.
  • Employees who are going to quit within the year report extreme dissatisfaction at the amount of team-building activities at work. These employees rated the amount of team building at their restaurant a 3 / 5.
  • Restaurant employees who are going to quit their job are extremely unhappy with the amount of recognition they receive from management. These “at risk” employees rated recognition from management at a 3 / 5. They want to receive recognition as paid bonuses (72%), verbal kudos (36%), and promotions (32%). Even a simple “good job” or “thank you” could go a long way to make these employees feel appreciated.
  • “At risk” employees are unhappy with their pay, reporting it makes them markedly unhappy at work. In contrast, engaged employees feel fairly neutral about their base wage.
  • “At risk” employees are affected less by their current wage, tips, and coworkers. The most problematic factors in their workplace is management, their own role, and the engagement and training they receive on the job.

When we compare the comments left by happy employees to employees who are going to quit, we can clearly see the difference.

A word cloud of what restaurant employees need to stay and what makes them quit

Employees who are going to leave feel that employee happiness requires more communication, better management, a more positive work environment, proper pay, and more respect.

On the other hand, employees who are engaged at their restaurant speak highly of the people, great managers, and the “family” environment of their restaurant team.

So what does it take to reduce restaurant turnover and keep your team happy and efficient? More training, better communication, more team building, and a clear path of recognition and progression through raises and promotions.

“While the pay is simply alright, I was willing to trade more money per hour for a more fast-paced and positive work environment. It helps that there are some per-shift perks like free drinks and food and other discounts. Flexibility is key.“

5 Takeaways to Improve Happiness, Reduce Churn, and Improve Your Restaurant Culture

1. Ensure you are actively engaging your staff

Workplace engagement activities like training, recognition, and communication greatly impact your employees’ happiness at work. Happy employees provide better service to customers, are more cooperative and collaborative, and—most importantly—are less likely to quit. Streamlined communication, approachable managers, and a community of teamwork are critical for a happy workplace.

Make sure an employee handbook is available to staff so they know what’s expected of them, and utilize tools like Shift Feedback to keep a pulse on your team’s satisfaction on the job.

Check out 7shifts' Engage dashboard →

2. Introduce more team-building activities

40% of restaurant employees report a lack of team-building events and activities, and nearly a quarter are actively unhappy with how few activities they have. Introducing after-hours events like cocktail naming parties, menu tasting parties, and even holiday celebrations are a great way to improve team bonding and keep your team engaged.

You can even create team-building activities out of training and knowledge sharing. Group training, or company events to share new menus, deals, or even corporate things like company values and mission.

Related reading: 25 Restaurant Employee Engagement Activities & Ideas

3. Build out career paths for staff

Restaurant employees leave because they’re unhappy at their workplace or don’t see a career path at your restaurant. When it comes to future happiness, employees want a pay raise or promotion in order to stay engaged. By making career paths transparent, and offering the training or resources staff need to achieve these, your team will have a better understanding of the long-term value and stability there is in staying with your restaurant.

4. Provide staff the training they need, beyond onboarding

Building out career paths is one thing, but your restaurant must also offer the ongoing training and support that staff need to be able to move up in their career. To emphasize the learning opportunities available in a restaurant career, offer not only on-boarding training but also ongoing skills training. The more experience and value an employee can get out of their job, the longer they will stay.

Using online hospitality learning platforms like Typsy, or referencing specific articles for server  or bartender training, can not only improve your employee’s performance but also help you keep them retained through their career.

5. Train your managers on recognition, communication, and employee engagement to avoid restaurant turnover

As the saying goes, employees leave managers—not businesses. By ensuring your managers have the right skills to handle not only restaurant operations but also interpersonal skills, you’re on the right track. Train your management on the right ways to communicate and engage their team, and what to do if an employee’s engagement or happiness is wavering. Your managers shouldn’t just be “managers”—they should be leaders that embody your company culture and guide your staff to productivity and success.

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Dew Smith
Dew Smith

Hey! I'm Dew, the former Brand Strategist. I cultivated 7shifts' social and content garden, and I looked for ways to grow our network of restaurateurs, local talent, and tech companies.