What can we learn from "Waitmares"?

What can we learn from "Waitmares"?
Ana Cvetkovic

By Ana Cvetkovic

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 50-85% of adults have nightmares from time to time. What’s behind these sleep-disturbing dreams? Anxiety and stress are the usual suspects. With work being one of the biggest contributors to stress, it’s not surprising that four in five people have had work-related dreams at some point in their lives.

Restaurant servers understand work-induced dreams all too well. In fact, the phenomenon is so common in the industry that the phrase “waitmares” has been coined to describe their bad dreams.

Stress is part of any job. However, when stress so deeply affects employees that it leads to sleep-disturbing nightmares, it can take a toll on workplace satisfaction and engagement. When employee engagement and wellbeing wane, job performance, customer happiness, and the bottom line suffer.

We’re taking a deep dive into waitmares to explain why they’re bad, what the restaurant industry can learn from them, and how you can reduce your front-of-house (FOH) team’s work anxiety to boost engagement—and sweet dreams.

What is a waitmare?

“Waitmare” is a portmanteau that combines the words “waiter” and “nightmare” to describe the bad dreams that servers have about working in a restaurant.

What can happen in a waitmare? Think of a waitmare as a game of Diner Dash gone horribly wrong. You’re on shift as a server and you can’t seem to get orders right. The kitchen is backed up so your customers have to wait a long time for food and take it out on you. You drop trays as you try to deliver orders. Your customers and manager are angry at you. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong in a waitmare.

What causes waitmares?

Nightmares (both waitmares and other) are a product of anxiety and stress, according to Tore Nielsen, director of the Dreams and Nightmares Laboratory. A waiter’s job can be highly anxiety-inducing, so it makes sense that those who work in this role are susceptible to work-related nightmares.

In case you’re reading this and have never worked as a server, here’s some insight into what makes this role so taxing:

  • Demanding customers - Severs never know what kinds of questions or requests they’ll get from difficult customers.
  • Unpredictable compensation - Because tipped wages are subsidized by customers, they’re inconsistent. Paychecks for servers can vary greatly week after week. With hourly wage for servers in the US dropping as low as $2/hour, this unpredictability can cause anxiety.
  • Performance is not always related to compensation - Tips are supposed to be tied to job performance in theory. However, if servers get stuck with cheap customers, they could get a pittance of a tip even if they provided excellent service.
  • Multitasking - The role of a server involves juggling many tasks, customers, and orders at once.
  • Unpredictable schedules - The corporate world typically works from 9 to 5. The restaurant industry operates on a completely different schedule, and this often means that FOH staff don’t know until the last minute when they’ll be needed. Being on call takes such a toll on the wellbeing of employees that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle have passed fair workweek laws to shield hourly workers from the harmful effects of unpredictable scheduling.

It’s not easy being a waiter or waitress!

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Why waitmares are bad for employees and for business

There’s no question that the restaurant industry is a challenging one to work in, and that workplace anxiety can lead to waitmares. The bottom line is that waitmares are bad for servers and for business.

Waitmares can be indicators of workplace trauma. When trauma happens in the workplace, even if it’s just an everyday part of the job, it can subconsciously stay with us even when we leave work. When this trauma creeps up in our sleep in the form of a bad dream, it can affect sleep quality, and therefore lower job performance. When servers are stressed out and aren’t well rested, customer service wanes, customers become unhappy, and business decreases.

Waitmares can also lead to employee turnover, which is an expensive problem to fix. If servers are experiencing nightmares, they’ll realize that it’s because they’re anxious about work. In order to get rid of these bad dreams, they’ll likely look for other employment. Replacing staff is expensive and time intensive. In fact, between productivity loss, recruitment, selection, training, and pre-departure, replacing just one employee costs almost $6,000!

Pie chart of what employee turnover costs the restaurant industry

Waitmares are a big problem for restaurants and their staff.

What we can learn from waitmares

The restaurant industry is a tough one to be in, but it doesn’t have to lack compassion. If you suspect that your servers may be having waitmares, you can take strides to improve their wellbeing. Make efforts to gauge employee engagement to see which of your staff members are experiencing waitmares or work-related anxiety.
How can you do this? Ask for feedback after every shift. 7shifts has a simple tool that lets you do just that. Meet with employees whose satisfaction is on the decline and ask them to pinpoint what’s causing them stress.

Illustration of someone wearing an apron in front of a screenshot of employee feedback

How to reduce servers’ work anxiety

Monitoring anxiety levels is just the first step in creating a better work environment. The next step is to make institutional changes to reduce team anxiety and keep staff happy. While a normal level of stress is expected, it shouldn’t get out of hand.

The restaurant industry can learn from the corporate world to improve staff wellbeing. Research indicates that companies that invest in wellness programs reduce absenteeism drastically and get a 1.5-3 times return on investment for every dollar spent.

Here are several ways to reduce your team’s anxiety at work:

  • Give staff longer breaks. If the weather in your area permits, encourage staff to take their breaks outside. When employees disconnect from work during breaks, they can relax fully, and be more productive when they come back.
  • Offer employees wellness perks like gym memberships, gift vouchers for massages, subscriptions to meditation apps, etc. You’ll get the money you invest in these amenities back when you retain staff instead of having to replace them after they quit due to burnout.
  • Give tipped staff higher base wages so that they can worry less about compensation. When servers’ earnings aren’t at the sole discretion of cranky customers, they will feel less anxiety about how much they’ll be able to bring home.
  • Keep your shift schedules consistent. Make your team members feel more in control by keeping their shift schedules the same week over week. Predictability will reduce their anxiety.

A little bit of effort can go a long way when it comes to reducing stress levels and boosting employee engagement.

The bottom line: Waitmares indicate an employee engagement problem

Work-related stress is normal, but when it slips into your team’s dreams, it may be a sign of a bigger cultural problem. When staff are engaged at work, they perform better and are more likely to stick around for the long haul. On the contrary, when staff are terrified to come into the restaurant, your business suffers.
When you take care of your employees by keeping their wellbeing top of mind, they’ll reward you with loyalty and stellar performance. Ask for feedback regularly to monitor staff sentiment and engagement. Implement cultural shifts to fix recurring problems.

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Ana Cvetkovic
Ana Cvetkovic

Ana Cvetkovic is a freelance writer. She is also the CEO of BLOOM Digital Marketing, a creative marketing agency that helps the hospitality and tourism industries reach millennials online.