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Waiting Tables Made Me a Better PT

by Brian Connell, PT, DPT

When someone tells you that they're a waiter, your first thought probably isn’t “Wow, they must be an awesome physical therapist,” but you may be surprised by how similar the two professions can be. Although the food service industry and the healthcare industry are clearly distinct fields, both require considerable time management skills, the ability to put on a happy face in stressful situations, proper management of interprofessional relationships, and considerable determination and grit.

I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for 8 years, through my undergraduate career and into my time as a DPT student, and I spent 5 of those years as a waiter. Navigating the challenges of being a healthcare professional, student, and server can feel like a crossing a warzone, but the skills I've gained as a server in the restaurant industry have benefited my burgeoning PT career in ways that the classroom can’t match. Here are some things that I learned to do as a server that made me a better PT.

Manage time under stress

Time management is a skill that is required as a physical therapist and one that is generally developed during on the job training. All practicing PTs, PTAs, and students know the feeling of being in a crowded clinic that’s filled with patients in need of attention. You stop and think: “Who’s ready for manual? Who’s on heat? Who is ready to come off of it? Who needs supervision during their therex? When am I going to write up that last evaluation?” Although effective time management is stressed in our DPT curriculum, it can be difficult to prioritize when everything in your clinic feels like a priority.

Whether you’re working in acute care, outpatient, or even in a school setting, it can sometimes feel as if you’re navigating a battlefield, but it’s in these moments that time management is key. It’s also where the ability to prioritize your goals and complete them in a timely fashion can dramatically calm a tense situation.

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Time management is equally important and vital as a waiter. When you’re in the middle of a busy dinner rush, four tables just sat in your section, and a dinner party of eight is on the way you may feel like you’re about to drown, get fired, or be driven out of the restaurant by hungry patrons holding cutlery. It’s in this moment you are officially in the weeds and busy beyond comprehension.

It’s also just so happens that in these moments your ability to prioritize and complete tasks quickly and thoroughly are the keys to getting the job done and done well. There were many times in my career as a waiter where I didn’t prioritize properly which led to angry customers, managers, and kitchen staff. However, as I grew more experienced, my time management skills improved, these disasters grew less frequent, and my managers threatened to fire me less and less.

“So far, no patients have tried to chase me out of the clinic holding torches or slingshots made out of therabands...”

These near calamities early in my career journey helped to hone my time management skills and allowed me to feel comfortable even when I was struggling the most. Working in a busy outpatient clinic as an aide before and during PT school I felt like I was drowning quite often. However, falling back on what I learned in the restaurant industry allowed me to get through these rough patches, regain a semblance of control, and got me through to the end of another shift. So far no patients have tried to chase me out of the clinic holding torches or slingshots made out of therabands, so I think I’m alright.

Put on a happy face

As with any customer service role, service with a smile is imperative while waiting tables. This is not just limited to looking happy while taking orders (regardless of how complicated, extra, and special they may be), it also includes the ability to maintain one’s composure regardless of what is happening around them. In my time as a waiter, there were many times where I was verbally abused at a table for an endless list of reasons (that I usually had no control over).

Regardless of the situation, being a good server meant sitting through it, smiling, and saying I understood the problem (even if no one could ever understand it), then doing my best to remedy the situation in a timely manner. This is a skill that I didn’t realize would be so important in my physical therapy career.

Sometimes regardless of how hard you work with a patient and educate them, they will just not be happy. I’ve sat with several patients, trying to explain the importance of performing a certain exercise correctly, only to have them ignore it completely, or worse yet, refuse to do it outright. These are the times where we have to put on a happy face and either modify the exercise or find another activity that achieves the same goal.

This skill also extends beyond just difficult patients, it applies to care in general. As with any profession, sometimes a PT just doesn’t feel 100%, whether they feel under the weather or have something going on in their personal lives. Unlike other professions, however, PTs can’t afford to go about their day with minimal effort, as it’s their patients who pay the price. A regular day at work for you can be a trying day for your patient, and a kind word or an extra bit of motivation can make or break their treatment experience.

The ability to put away our personal baggage and give our patients 100% of our effort, to exude excitement and confidence while we help treat them, can be invaluable.

Communicate effectively with other professionals

Interoffice politics and interprofessional relationships can become strained, causing a stressful, non-functional work environment. In order to navigate this potential minefield and ensure that everyone works together to best serve their patients, you have to be able to effectively and respectfully communicate with your colleagues.

As a physical therapist, this means communicating with a plethora of other professionals including other PTs, physical therapy assistants, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, physicians, nurses, and beyond. Effective communication between health care providers can decrease duplication of services, allow for more effective time management, and overall provide better care for our patients.

Effective communication is equally important to learn if you want to survive in the restaurant industry. A successful, easily flowing night in a restaurant is dependent on constant communication and teamwork between the wait staff, bartenders, management and kitchen staff. Faulty communication between a waiter and kitchen staff can lead to steaks with incorrect temperatures, missing entrees or appetizers, an entire table without food, and numerous other disasters.

In situations like these, tensions can get quite heated (pun intended) between the waiter and chefs as the waiter can now kiss their tip goodbye, and the chef has to throw an expensive cut of meat in the garbage. On the other hand, any time spent arguing can instead be time used to solve the issue, and get the food out as soon as possible.

Are you working with a team, but not all of them are PTs? Communication across interdisciplinary teams can be tough, but we have 5 tips for working with your new team here!

Being able to work with other PTs and health care professionals in our various settings can also mean the difference between a functioning team or an angry train wreck. Whether it means taking a patient from a fellow therapist’s swamped schedule or co-treating with another healthcare professional, you have to communicate and cooperate for top quality patient care.

Maintain determination and grit

There’s no denying that becoming a physical therapist is a challenging and rigorous process. It takes a minimum of seven years of higher education for your degree alone, and during that time, you’re not only not making an income, but you’re also actually spending an exorbitant amount of money. During my first year as a DPT student, our head of faculty spoke to us about grit. Grit is the ability to perform under high-stress situations for long periods of time.

Keep in mind that becoming a PT is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s for this reason that many people drop out of this journey. This can happen during their undergraduate career, post-graduate work, or even during the DPT program itself.

The restaurant industry is a fantastic place to work, and many waiters do quite well for themselves by making service their full-time profession. With the previously mentioned flexibility, good pay, and some immediate gratification (getting paid the same night you work is nice), it can be easy to see why.

“Whenever I’m having a terrible night, either from earning far less than I feel I deserve or coming home smelling like I washed my hair with meatloaf, the idea that I’m pursuing a career based on helping those in need keeps me going back to the restaurant”

I knew I would not have a permanent career in the restaurant industry. Although I did enjoy my coworkers’ company and meeting different people from all walks of life, the late hours, dirty work, and constant chastisement from customers is sometimes enough to make me toss my apron into a deep fryer and walk out.

What the job does provide me with, besides much-needed income, is the motivation to stay the course and continue my journey through the seemingly impossible world of PT school. Whenever I’m having a terrible night, either from earning far less than I feel I deserve or coming home smelling like I washed my hair with meatloaf, the idea that I’m pursuing a career based on helping those in need keeps me going back to the restaurant. And then back to my PT lab for another 12 hour day of class and studying.

Although I might not always enjoy my work as a waiter, I can understand why some PTs choose to continue moonlighting in the industry after a busy day in the clinic. It can be a fun and fast-paced life full of interesting stories, great payouts, and invaluable lessons.

I will always appreciate the lessons I’ve learned as a server because I know that the experience has made me a better, more well-rounded therapist. So the next time you go out to eat, tip your server those few extra dollars. Maybe they’re on their way to becoming your next co-worker—and a strong one at that.


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