“My job gave me a stroke at 44”

Rachael Parke, whose job caused so much stress she suffered a stroke aged just 44 Picture: Chris Be

Rachael Parke, whose job caused so much stress she suffered a stroke aged just 44 Picture: Chris Betts - Credit: Archant

This Mental Health Awareness Week we spoke to Norfolk front of house restaurant manager Rachael who said working in the catering industry nearly killed her.

Long hours. The rising cost of food and staff. Difficulties in recruitment. A public willing to throw you under the bus on sites such as Tripadvisor for even the tiniest mistake. Who'd run a restaurant these days? Who'd work in food?

Alcoholism, drug use and depression are rife across the industry, with more chefs and front of house staff than ever before saying their wellbeing has been affected by their career. And yet…it's a job from which many they say they'll never waver. A passion. A calling.

Rachael Parke, manager of Number 29 in Burnham Market knows only too well what working all the hours God sends can do to your body. This is her story.

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"What I lived for nearly killed me! Here is the recipe:

1. Regularly work 70 hours a week.

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2. Consume high levels of alcohol.

3. Eat quick fix foods to get by.

4. Snack late at night.

5. Skip meals.

6. Experience intense periods of high stress in service.

7. Be dependent on social media.

8. Feel the need to stay at the top of your game.

9. Feel guilty for not being available to your children.

The method? Mix together over a long period of time.The result? A stroke.

I love my job. The people I meet, continuous learning in food and wine, mentoring, training, supporting local farmers. There is a huge satisfaction in being part of people's journeys and celebrations in dining. The laughter that fills a room is amazing.

However, the amount of stress you don't realise you are putting your mental and physical wellbeing under is not often apparent until it's too late.

I was lucky. Towards the end of last year I was beginning to 'feel' the long, continuous hours I had been working. I found myself tearful and trying to hide what I saw as my weakness of being exhausted. I was finding it hard to admit I was struggling. After all I was the strong confident one front of house. The 'performance director'.

Last month, after another busy service, a glass of wine and a leftover tarte tatin before bed, I woke up suddenly in the early hours.

I don't know what woke me but it was sudden, like an electric shock. I realised I couldn't feel anything in my left arm. I laid there thinking it's OK, I slept funny. But as I began to feel sick, the room spinning and sweating, I pulled myself out of bed. Something was telling me this was serious.

I turned on the bedroom light and said to my husband Jeremy "take me to hospital now". He questioned me but I didn't want to talk, I knew I had to control my anxiety so felt no desire to talk about what I was experiencing. I just made my way to the car and sat waiting for him. The journey felt endless to Norwich with tingling in my head, arm and lips.

"On arrival to NNUH there was six hours of waiting but after an assessment I was surprised at how quick I was being treated. Blood tests, a CT scan, heart monitor, blood pressure tests. Then a specialist mentioned that it looked like a TIA. Having no idea what he meant he then mentioned the word 'stroke'.

What? That's what old people have, I thought. My blood pressure was through the roof and looking back to how I feel now I am sure had been for a while.

I am still having tests and NNUH have been amazing. As I'm only 44 they're being very thorough to ensure they consider everything.

But paranoia set in after that. I became obsessed with tweaks and twinges, what I drank, what I ate, and saw it as a warning to take control of my personal wellbeing. Walking to work, no wine and ensuring I replaced fast fix snacks with vegetables. I didn't want to ever feel like that again. I still feel dreadfully vulnerable as there were no real signs apart from being emotional and exhausted leading to the stroke.

I was starting a new job five days afterwards and I didn't want my new employer to judge me so kept it as my secret. And even when struggling with being tired I hid it. Eventually I felt I had to share it and he was amazing. It felt like a weight had been lifted. He showed support in allowing me to manage my time, demand adequate breaks to eat and drink properly, and adjust the rotas to ensure we all have a balance to work, rest and play.

I'm now on medication to thin my blood, and my blood pressure, cholesterol and health in general are being continuously monitored by my GP.

My strength now is saying 'no'. Admitting when I need to slow down and to make time for myself.

I would never have been the one to advise on reducing alcohol, eating well and taking time for you before, it's all so cliché but now from someone who is an 'oholic' in lots of ways I have to say to others please balance your time and take care of yourself. I'm so grateful I had a warning.

Find out more about the symptoms of a stroke.

If you are a chef or front of house worker and are strugging, there's support and advice available from Hospitality Action UK.

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