‘The Bear’ and workplace trauma: What have we learnt?

What The Bear teaches us about workplace trauma

When you step into the world of ‘The Bear,’ you’re not just witnessing life working at a restaurant. Instead, you find yourself in the midst of a gripping tale of trauma, healing, endurance, and the pursuit of passion.

Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto (played by Jeremy Allen White) is an award-winning chef who returns to his hometown in Chicago to take over his now-deceased brother’s restaurant. Still bogged down by the weight of matters at this point unknown to the viewer, Carmy tries his best to turn the sandwich joint around. What ensues is chaos. 

After watching (binge-watching) the second season in 2023, it became abundantly clear to me that it had more than just a story to tell — it had a few lessons to teach. I found myself wondering why so many people found the show relatable — particularly when speaking about pressures at the workplace — be it arguments with colleagues, time management issues, lack of motivation, etc.

They didn’t all work at restaurants, making the underlying link workplace trauma — a complicated shadow that persists over the job sector. 

What is workplace trauma? 

While the term “workplace trauma” is often associated with physical injuries, the reality extends far beyond the tangible. Emotional workplace trauma can be just as devastating, yet it often goes undetected. Our perception of trauma is evolving, recognising that traumatic experiences need not be solely physical or (directly/immediately) life-threatening.

The modern workplace, unfortunately, can be filled with potentially traumatic situations that are not always acknowledged as such. 

In a piece on emotional workplace trauma, Wanderlust Careers CEO Dr. Katherine Kirkinis states that it can originate from “a variety of sources including but not limited to non-life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, workplace relationships/breakups, bullying, intimidation, the experience of being fired, etc.”

Additionally, gender-based and race-based discrimination are both alarmingly common, leading to emotional injuries that reverberate through the workplace, affecting not only individuals but also everyone around them.

At a point, we see Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) get horribly berated by the NYC Head Chef (played by Joel McHale) he worked under. The scene was deeply uncomfortable to witness but it was a textbook example of abusive behaviour in the workplace. While Carmy has a mostly grounded presence in the show (and puts up with a bit), eventually, he, too, loses his temper and contributes to the same vicious cycle that hurt him.

Which brings us to the next point.

Symbolism in The Bear

‘The Bear’, both the name and the animal, holds much symbolic significance for the Berzatto family — phonetic similarities being a big reason why, but it does evolve into more. For starters, we find out in season one that Carmy’s late brother, Michael (Jon Bernthal), had nicknamed him ‘Bear’.

Additionally, certain themes emerge throughout the show. Rebirth and transformation are evident in Carmy and his team’s journey in revitalising The Beef, seen as a metaphor for personal growth and resilience. The restaurant’s journey parallels the characters’ navigation of their challenges, healing from past traumas, and emerging as stronger individuals.

High-end restaurants tend to get very stressful — for a reason. They’re competing for some of the most discerning customers. We see what this stress — coupled with a toxic work environment — did to Carmy.

The struggles faced by the characters in The Beef symbolise the collective trauma experienced by individuals within an industry or community. The show sheds light on the long-lasting effects of workplace trauma and the healing process required to overcome it. It invites reflection on the broader issues of workplace culture, resilience, and collective healing.

Another point to consider is balancing passion and responsibility — a goal that presents several challenges. Many people face obstacles when finding a balance between their dreams and the realities of their circumstances. For our main character, who attempts to bring everything he’d learnt thus far to a very, very different workplace, it’s just another tall mountain to climb. 

He finds himself in a relatively small sandwich shop — which could be viewed as a staple for the average person — as opposed to the lavish, strict and sprawling kitchens he’d trained and excelled in. His passion, snipped and stitched back together by his experience in the high-end kitchen, would then clash harshly with the obligations of running his brother’s sandwich shop. 

Embracing collaboration and unity is central to ‘The Bear.’ The ensemble nature of the show highlights the importance of teamwork, shared vision, and mutual support in overcoming obstacles. 

The characters, with their diverse backgrounds and personalities, must learn to work together to achieve their goals. This metaphor speaks to the power of collaboration and unity in overcoming challenges in any endeavour.

What part does workplace trauma play?

While the culinary focus is a key appeal, the show delves into harsher realities of workplace trauma, reflecting the wounds inflicted by abusive behaviour, relentless pressure, and toxic work environments. The show’s authentic portrayal of the messiness and chaos in a high-pressure restaurant setting allows viewers to empathise with the characters’ struggles and fosters a sense of relatability and understanding.

In the seventh episode of season two, Richie, Carmy’s ‘cousin’ (no relation), has to stage at a restaurant in the world to train him to become a more professional front-of-house for the restaurant they’re building. (Keep in mind that staging is unpaid labour.)

The show offers an inside look at the operations of a Michelin-star restaurant, highlighting the high-pressure environment where every second counts. This portrayal reflects the fast-paced and rough nature of the restaurant industry, where employees face volatile and urgent situations daily.

As viewers, we witness the toll that workplace trauma takes on the characters’ mental health and personal relationships. Carmy’s emotional struggles, Richie’s conflict with loyalty and self-discovery, and Sydney’s anxieties and insecurities in a new role resonate with those who have experienced similar hardships in their professional lives. ‘The Bear’ authentically captures the complexities of workplace trauma, making it a powerful mirror for the experiences of individuals in high-pressure work environments.

The show’s exploration of workplace trauma does not shy away from depicting the effects of toxic relationships and emotional abuse. The characters’ interactions reveal the thin boundaries between their personal and professional lives and show us how shortcomings in communication and empathy lead to hurt.

Pastries and passion

The characters’ passion for cooking and the restaurant industry is palpable throughout ‘The Bear,’ made especially evident in Marcus’s love for pastry-making. His dedication to perfecting desserts serves as an inspiration, reminding us of the importance of pursuing our passions and creating environments that foster personal growth and fulfilment

The show presents Marcus as someone who places himself in an environment that allows him to thrive and learn about what he loves. In season 2, Marcus’s passion for desserts and pastry-making is infectious. 

His eagerness to learn more about his craft, his sketches of donut designs, and his willingness to seize opportunities to improve his skills demonstrate his genuine love for what he does. Marcus’s character is a refreshing representation of someone who finds joy in the pursuit of their passion, even in a high-pressure environment like The Beef. 

It was a wonderfully light arc, serving as a reminder that passion can act as a guiding light in the darkest of times.

Time haunts The Beef

Time is a ghost over our crew’s shoulder at every turn — and representing this is the ever-ticking clock. This is why the small yet significant phrase “every second counts” holds profound meaning. As viewers, we are prompted to reflect on how we spend our time, recognising that wasted seconds accumulate and affect our productivity and overall well-being.

We see “Every second counts” written underneath the big clock on the wall of the restaurant. This constant reminder serves as a wake-up call for the characters, urging them to remain focused and efficient in their work. This notion highlights the fast-paced nature of the restaurant industry, where success hinges on the ability to deliver high-quality dishes in a timely manner.

In the restaurant industry, time management is crucial for meeting the demands of customers and maintaining the smooth operation of the establishment. ‘The Bear’ showcases the importance of efficiency and effective communication to avoid chaos and ensure that every second is utilised to its fullest potential.

Beyond the restaurant setting, the concept of time management extends to the characters’ personal lives. Carmy, Richie, and the rest of the team must juggle their professional responsibilities with their individual struggles and relationships. 

The show emphasises the significance of balancing personal and professional demands to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

In our own lives, ‘The Bear’ serves as a reminder that how we manage our time can greatly impact our overall well-being. By recognising the value of every second and making conscious efforts to prioritise tasks effectively, we can enhance our productivity, reduce stress, and find greater fulfilment in both our personal and professional endeavours.

How do you heal from workplace trauma?

‘The Bear’ provides an intimate glimpse into the wounds inflicted by workplace trauma and the journey towards healing. Through the lens of Carmy and his companions, the show explores the toll that toxic work environments take on mental health and personal relationships.

Carmy’s relentless pursuit of success and the pressure he faces to revitalise The Beef mirrors the struggles of many professionals in high-stress industries. As the show unfolds, it becomes evident that success comes at a cost, and the characters must confront their traumas to find inner peace.

The Berzatto family’s history is intertwined with workplace trauma, as we learn about Michael’s addiction to painkillers. His tragic end serves as a stark reminder of the importance of addressing mental health issues and providing support to those battling addiction. 

The parallel between Carmy’s professional journey and Michael’s personal struggle underscores the show’s overarching message: the significance of healing from both workplace trauma and personal demons.

‘The Bear’ prompts viewers to reflect on the broader implications of workplace trauma beyond individual experiences. The effects of toxic work environments ripple through personal relationships, mental health, and overall well-being. By shedding light on these ripple effects, the show emphasises the urgency of addressing workplace trauma and fostering healthier work environments.

Finding joy in what you do

It’s wonderful how the show humanised the characters, giving them depth, goals, and quirks — and not just the main ones. While Carmy is evidently the “main” character, personally, Marcus really stood out as a beacon of passion. His love for pastry-making and dedication to perfecting desserts serve as an inspiration to pursue our passions with unwavering commitment.

Amidst the chaos of the restaurant, Marcus remains focused and eager to learn, seeking opportunities to enhance his skills. His enthusiasm and joy in the pursuit of his passion offer a counterbalance to the hardships faced by the characters.

In Marcus, we see the importance of finding joy and purpose in our work, even in demanding environments. His commitment to pastry-making illustrates how passion can serve as a driving force, empowering individuals to thrive and find fulfilment in their professional lives.

The character of Marcus reminds us that pursuing our passions can fuel personal growth and contribute to a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It is a valuable lesson for professionals seeking to infuse their careers with meaning and enthusiasm.

Precious little time

As mentioned before, the giant clock’s constant ticking in ‘The Bear’ reminds us that every second holds value, not only in the fast-paced kitchen but also in our daily lives. Time management emerges as a critical skill, extending beyond the restaurant setting and into our personal and professional spheres.

The characters’ struggle to balance their responsibilities and personal challenges underscores the importance of effective time management. Juggling between work and personal life, they face the need to prioritise tasks, set boundaries, and allocate time wisely.

Embracing time management can enhance productivity, reduce stress, and enable individuals to achieve their goals. By recognising the significance of time and using it purposefully, professionals can find a healthier work-life balance, leading to increased well-being and overall satisfaction.

Building support systems

One of the most compelling aspects of ‘The Bear’ is the familial bond that emerges within The Beef. The characters, despite their flaws and personal traumas, form a tight-knit group that supports one another through the ups and downs of the culinary world.

This family-like dynamic shows the importance of nurturing support systems within the workplace. The show highlights the power of camaraderie and emotional support in navigating workplace trauma and achieving success. Building strong support systems at work creates an environment where individuals feel valued, understood, and encouraged. This sense of belonging fosters resilience, enables personal growth, and bolsters overall well-being.

‘The Bear’ reminds us of the significance of teamwork and mutual support in overcoming challenges, both in the restaurant industry and beyond. As professionals, fostering a culture of empathy and collaboration can lead to a more supportive and nurturing work environment.

Establishing boundaries, respecting people

Embroiled in the chaos, we are reminded of the importance of respecting personal and professional boundaries, valuing diversity, and promoting an inclusive work environment where each individual’s unique contributions are appreciated. The show interplays diverse personalities and backgrounds within The Beef. The characters’ interactions offer valuable insights into the importance of respecting individual boundaries and embracing diversity.

It underscores the significance of an inclusive work environment that values different perspectives and experiences. Embracing diversity fosters a culture of open-mindedness, empathy, and understanding.

Sydney does a great job of trying to communicate, but even she eventually breaks down and gives in when she is pushed too far, also yelling back at her coworkers instead of speaking politely to them. By respecting personal and professional boundaries, employers and employees create an environment where individuals feel valued for their unique contributions. This inclusive culture paves the way for better communication, collaboration, and personal growth.

‘The Bear’ encourages us to appreciate the richness of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, creating a work environment that nurtures mutual respect and open-mindedness.

The truth about work-life balance

Throughout the series, the show prompts viewers to reflect on the delicate balance between personal and professional lives. The characters’ struggles and triumphs underscore the significance of work-life balance in achieving overall well-being.

Promoting work-life balance involves acknowledging the importance of personal well-being outside of work. Employers can prioritise work-life balance by offering flexible work arrangements, promoting reasonable working hours, and encouraging employees to take breaks and vacations.

Fostering a culture that encourages employees to disconnect from work during non-working hours promotes healthier boundaries and reduces the risk of burnout. By recognising the significance of work-life balance, employers create an environment where employees can recharge and maintain their overall well-being.

Investing in personal growth

In the show, we witness the characters’ growth and transformation as they navigate workplace trauma and personal challenges. The show offers valuable insights into the significance of investing in personal growth and development.

Opportunities for mentorship and professional development empower employees to overcome workplace trauma and advance in their careers. Investing in employees’ growth not only equips them with necessary tools and knowledge but also instils confidence and empowers them to face challenges.

‘The Bear’ highlights the importance of continuous improvement and learning from mistakes. Employers can foster a culture that values learning and growth by viewing mistakes as opportunities for development rather than sources of blame. By investing in employees’ personal and professional growth, employers demonstrate their commitment to well-being and provide a pathway for career advancement.

Finding yourself in The Bear

‘The Bear’ serves as a mirror, reflecting the experiences and emotions of those who have encountered workplace trauma. It sparks conversations, encourages reflection, and ignites a renewed sense of resilience. The show reminds us that healing in the workplace is a collective responsibility, and it requires empathy, understanding, and a commitment to change — and just as important as healing in the home. The power to heal and thrive lies within each of us.

Embracing vulnerability, building strong support systems, respecting boundaries and diversity, promoting work-life balance, and investing in personal growth are the keys to creating a nurturing and resilient work environment.

Find yourself in The Bear, and look after yourself in life.

Kahless

Kahless

Kahless is a writer with a special interest in sociology. He spends much of his free time travelling, reading, writing, and stopping his cats from ripping apart everything he owns. It’s advised to bring along a strong cup of coffee (3 espresso shots minimum) when approaching him.

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