Baker Morgan Williams shares his experience of mental health care at work.
I’ve been a professional baker for the last five years. In all the bakeries I’ve worked, a consistent theme has been the toll that some aspects of baking and running bakeries can take on a person’s health, both mental and physical. In my research, I’ve chatted with bakers to get an idea of how other people are affected by baking and to find ways in which they look after themselves.
Despite dividing the topic of bakers’ health into two sections while helping to revise and update Knead to Know*, I would like to avoid completely disconnecting the mind from the body, as many issues that affect one are tied to the other. Anybody who has suffered from a dodgy back will attest to how chronic pain affects your mental health, equally, poor mental health can often manifest itself in very real physical symptoms.
Many people find baking at home to be relaxing and will use the process of making a loaf of bread as a sort of mindfulness practice/meditation. When the scale of production is ramped up and the stakes are much higher, however, baking can become a source of stress. The day in, day out physicality of lifting hundreds of kilograms of flour, water and dough in a hot bakery, and having to scale and shape that dough in a small window in the production schedule before it over-proves all contribute to the pressure. A mistake or misjudgment that results in the loss of fifty or more loaves is enough to spoil anybody's day.
For someone new to running a business, the combination of increasing production from being an amateur baker to the levels necessary for a financially-sustainable microbakery can be stressful. Moving up a level, combining this (and more) stress, with the physical exertion that comes with being on your feet for most of your waking day, perhaps on top of managing a workforce, can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
I am neither a morning lark or a night owl - more of a dozy pigeon. For me, and many of the bakers I talked to, one of the biggest influences on mental health is sleep: how much (or little), when and the quality of it. Working the 10pm-8am shift during my first baking job was the hardest thing I’ve done yet. Combined with other stresses in the bakery, the impact it had over time on my mental health was considerable.
There is also evidence that chronic sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on your physical health, such as increasing your chance of heart disease, becoming obese and developing diabetes.
There are ways to reduce the effect of night shifts. Having regular shift patterns and getting into a regular sleep routine can help. Invest in some good blackout curtains (or an eye mask) and earplugs, and avoid caffeine in the six to eight hours or so before you want to go to sleep. Make sure you eat properly during your shift and drink plenty of water. Try to get as much sleep as you can, when you can - any less than seven hours is going to have a detrimental effect on your health.
I am now well practiced in the post-bake afternoon power nap. An hour and a half is, I’m told, the optimum, because that is how long it takes to complete one sleep cycle. Otherwise you should apparently keep it to 20 minutes or you will wake up during deeper sleep and feel worse than you did before!
If you are a bakery owner, putting bakers on a later shift before an early shift should be avoided, and in the UK there are laws regulating night working, ie any work between 11pm and 6am.
I spoke to a few bakers to get their thoughts on what is needed to make baking a sustainable career choice. Despite them agreeing that baking is not all fun and games, there seemed to be a consensus that the work is extremely satisfying. Carmen Facio, a baker at E5 Bakehouse, told me: “People who really hate their nine to five office jobs stay with them because the hours are easy and the conditions and pay are good. In baking it's the opposite: You stay because you love the work.” Rosie Wilkes said: “You get to build up skills and see them realised in the production of something tangible on a daily basis. What could be more rewarding?!”
The popularity of Real Bread means that, whilst it tempting to bake more things and in larger amounts, or to take on a mass of wholesale customers, this might not be the best thing for you personally.
In 2019, Adam Pagor took the leap from running a home-based microbakery to open the Grain and Hearth bakery and café in Whitstable. He said: “My main advice is to start small and build. Remember that you're not running a big bakery with loads of staff and equipment and not to enter any wholesale relationships under that guise.” Adam’s tips include:
Many of the bakers I talked to cited the attitude of their employer as one of the most important things in keeping them happy in their jobs. If and when your bakery grows, your role as owner inevitably becomes more managerial. Please remember that being involved with the day to day work in the bakery, from facing the challenges of changing weather to helping to pull dough out of the mixer, can have an uplifting effect on your team.
An owner who is hands-on and involved in the baking can work towards cultivating a positive, supportive, collaborative environment. Being rarely or never on the floor really limits your ability to have a positive effect on the culture in your bakery. Instructions you give from your office to a team of people who are working hard all night and day to bake for you can feel less reasonable.
If, on the other hand, you are there in the bakehouse at least some of the time, we are less likely to see you as an absent dictator and more as a peer and mentor. When it all goes wrong, we’re more likely to pull out all the stops if we feel it’s our team in our bakery standing shoulder to shoulder, rather than drones in your bakery, even more so if you are physically there helping us to dig ourselves out.
The importance of having a team of people who get along with each other was a recurring theme. Many of us find it vital to enjoying our jobs. As Carmen Facio put it: “You spend more time with your team mates than you do with your family, so if you don’t get on or there is friction and tension it can really affect your happiness.” Even when your mind is tired from a 3am start and your back is aching from lifting dough boxes, having a co-worker you have a good relationship with turn up at 7am can really lift your spirits.
Baking is a great job, it is satisfying and highly rewarding to work with your hands and see the fruits of your labour pulled out of the oven every morning. Combine the inherent joys of baking with working in a friendly, supportive environment, where you get on with your co-workers and are respected and treated fairly and you are on to a sure winner.
This article was written before the COVID-19 crisis.
*The FREE (doughnations welcome) PDF of the original Knead to Know handbook is still available to download. To be first to hear publication details of the new edition we're working on, please sign up for our free enewsletter and follow us on social media.
Organisations offering advice, legal guidance and other information about mental wellbeing at work include:
Share your experience
If you run, or work in, a Real Bread bakery of any size and have advice you’d like to share, please email us.
Please also drop us a line if you know of a reliable source of advice about mental wellbeing written specifically for bakers.
You can also post on social media using the #RealBread hashtag and, if you’re a Campaign supporter, in The Real Baker-e forum.