Food service leadership and mental health

Andrea Kostopolus
About the author : Andrea Kostopolus,

Project Management Director, Sodexo USA

Published on : 9/22/21
  • I have dealt with social anxiety and depression my entire life. I just didn’t always know it.

    I began my career in food service at the age of 14. My family comes from military and hospitality backgrounds; food service and hospitality are what I grew up knowing. I waitressed as a local restaurant through high school and the early years of college before getting married and starting a family. After my kids were born, I carried on waitressing for a time before entering my first contract food service management position.

    I joined my first full-time management role 4 months after giving birth to my son, whilst struggling with post-natal depression. Although my employer was satisfied with my performance, I became extremely uncomfortable at work. No one knew it, but I cried the entire drive to and from work every day. I felt like a stranger in my own body and I was convinced that the client and residents all secretly hated me. Eventually, I left that role and went back to waitressing part-time on the weekends. I struggled mentally for several more years before I finally felt I landed somewhere safe, where I didn’t have to cover or hide my day-to-day experience.

    Overcoming the mental illness stigmaAndrea

    I joined Sodexo 12 years ago as an executive dining room manager and, when I applied, I certainly did not self-identify as a person with a mental illness. I don't even know if I would have really seen that as an option. I felt that there was a stigma around talking about mental health in a professional context. 

    I'm in a leadership position now and have been for about four years. I’ve really wrestled with myself over the years on whether or not to have conversations about mental health, both with the people I lead and with my own managers.

    Talking about mental health as a leader

    However, a couple of years ago, I started to work with SOAR, Sodexo’s Employee Business Resource Group. SOAR supports the mission of hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities. When I joined SOAR, I wasn’t even thinking of my own disability, I was focused on my son. My son Nathaniel was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at a very young age and I have always been concerned about what that meant for his future. It had a huge emotional impact on me to see a company like Sodexo taking a strong commitment to supporting, training, employing and including individuals like my son. It was only later that I came to understand what it meant for me too.

    I found it really hard to take the first steps to talking openly about my own mental health. I needed my team to continue to trust me and see me as a strong person and I needed my leadership to trust that I could still do my job effectively.

    Some people were surprised when I talked about my social anxiety and depression because of my ability to present. Presenting is a regular part of my current role as director of project management within the culinary team. It’s been part of my job for a long time, so I have lived with a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. 

    Bringing my whole self to work

    Since talking more openly about my own mental health, I feel tremendously supported and have a great sense of belonging. My imposter syndrome has taken a step back. My manager was so understanding and supportive. Some colleagues I’ve told have even shared their own stories in return.

    I hope that modelling talking openly and explaining things like mental fatigue in front of my leaders and other colleagues has helped to start conversations and help others see things differently, as well as inspiring others to speak up. 

    With previous roles, I always had a feeling after a period of time that I needed to move on. I don’t have that feeling anymore. I feel I can bring my whole self to work; being authentic at work is a huge relief. I think everybody deserves that. I will never stop being grateful for the amazing support and insightful leadership I have experienced at Sodexo.

    Find out more about a career with Sodexo!

    This article was created by Andrea Kostopolus, Project Management Director, Sodexo USA.

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