The cleaning staff of any facility has played a pivotal role in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been cleaning and disinfecting every corner of buildings, public transport, roads, malls, airports and every other facility to ensure that we remain safe. This meant putting their own lives at risk. It meant long and laborious hours of cleaning something that had baffled the entire world. It meant a lot of stress and a direct impact on mental health. In this article, we are going to explore how the mental health of our cleaning staff have been impacted by the pandemic and what organizations and facility owners can do to support them.
A psychologist speaks
Ms. Tina Balachandran, Founder and Chief Consultant Psychologist, Flourishing Minds, Qatar, believes that the cleaning staff have been frontline workers and the unsung heroes during this pandemic. They have been at the forefront, quite often having no choice but to go to work. While cleaning is a common job role that exists across all industries and workplaces, it is not an easy task and can be physically draining depending on the industry and cleaning task at hand.
Globally, COVID-19 has led to an increasing demand for cleaning services in hospitals, schools, designated quarantine hotels, grocery and department stores, while in other industries like retail, hospitality, and home services there has been a cutback. So, in the high demand sectors cleaning staff are dealing with not just physical exhaustion but also the mental exhaustion of having to repeatedly clean and disinfect, while in the low demand sectors there is stress and fear due to uncertainty, job insecurity and financial concerns.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) in a policy brief in May 2020 explored the specific impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers. Cleaning staff have been facing various challenges pre-pandemic. This working group is part of a low skilled/low-income migrant population, which uniquely places them in a more vulnerable position with lack of access to resources and support.
They work long hours, deal with minimal breaks and time pressure to complete a cleaning assignment. Moreover, they are subcontracted staff and hence must adapt to the working conditions of the client and not their direct employer. They have no influence, control, or choice over their working conditions. They also deal with poor relationships with colleagues and/or managers (some report feeling bullied or discriminated against), lack recognition and opportunities for growth, and poor workplace support. Research from various agencies for safety and health at work indicates that these psychosocial factors impact worker well-being and job satisfaction, both of which can impact our mental health.
“Anecdotal reports from conversations I’ve had with cleaning staff (from the region) during this pandemic have a recurrent theme of distress and pain leading to low mood, stress, anxiety, and burnout. Their psychological distress stems from worry about contracting COVID-19 as their work might not always provide them the opportunity or liberty to maintain physical distance or have the needed personal protective equipment. Some deal with the stress of managers, customers, or other people around them not always following the guidelines related to wearing masks. Yet they are unable to voice their opinion and must carry on with their work. Being away from their family, they carry with them the additional worry about their family members being sick, grief following the loss of their loved ones, distress over not being able to visit family back home. They are constantly worried about their job. Many cleaning staff who recently moved to the region were furloughed but were unable to travel home due to travel restrictions: some who requested an employer’s no-objection to change jobs were asked to pay off their investment. So many stayed in available accommodation without sufficient access to food/resources or money to send home to treat ill family members. The pandemic and all the current stressors have exacerbated the challenges for those with pre-existing mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and trauma (diagnosed or undiagnosed),” says Tina.
Tina has observed that our frontline cleaners are unable to obtain appointments in the government system and cannot afford to pay privately for their treatment. “We all have mental health and are dealing with the shared stress and trauma of the pandemic in our way. Yet, the impact is different on different populations bringing to light the systemic issues and gaps across systems,” she continues.
How organizations can help
Organizations play a pivotal role in supporting the mental well-being of their cleaning staff.
Mental health is not just the absence of illness but rather a state of well-being in one needs to
consider physical, psychological, emotional, social, and financial aspects that contribute towards
For Sheraton Soma Bay Resort, Egypt, the health and wellbeing of the hotel staff has been a paramount priority. “Our approach includes a recommitment to associate well-being, retraining on hygiene and safety behaviors and reinforcing their role in making the hotel a safe and comfortable environment. In terms of PPE, associates will have access to masks, chemical resistant gloves, disposable aprons, shoe covers and protective clothing, says Walid Mohey El Din, Executive Assistant Manager, Sheraton Soma Bay Resort, Egypt.
Walid says that COVID-19 has not only had a significant impact on the hotel business but also on how hotels are operated. “Hotels are places that connect us to others and give us the opportunity to take care of each other. And our employees are at the forefront of that,” he says.
The steps Sheraton Soma Bay Resort is taking on cleanliness and new hospitality norms are as much about the health and safety of employees as they are about the guests. Walid believes that by taking care of employees with these new protocols – they will collectively be taking care of the guests and the global community.
“Our approach includes a recommitment to employee well-being, retraining on hygiene and safety behaviours and reinforcing their role in making the hotel a clean and comfortable environment. Our employees have access to PPE,” he concludes.
Tina further emphasizes that organizations need to focus on prevention, promotion, and management of mental health and well-being of all their cleaning staff. They need to ensure that the basic needs of cleaning staff are met – regular healthy meals, decent accommodation (with sufficient opportunity for physical distancing during these times), and acceptable minimum wages. Organizations need to come from a space where they lead with dignity and respect to all employees irrespective of their cultural background.
Leaders, managers, and supervisors must acknowledge the need to create a psychologically
healthy workplace environment that takes into consideration the person behind the uniform. Here is how they can achieve it:
- A commitment from the leadership and an attitude of collaboration bringing together
health and safety professionals along with occupational health and mental health specialists.
- Employers need to start conversations with cleaning staff to understand their current concerns and involve them in arriving at solutions to manage their workload.
- Managers need to set realistic schedules for staff, openly communicating changes and procedures during the pandemic so that staff have access to accurate and reliable information. Work scheduling needs to factor in opportunities for breaks in between work assignments, and the provision for staff to request shift changes or off days.
- It is also important to provide staff with resources and training in the area of
mental health and wellness, stress management, and other health promotion areas. These
resources should be available in their own language.
- Organizations have a duty of care to ensure access to health and well-being resources including free counseling or access to a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to allow staff an opportunity to talk about their concerns if they wish to do so. This needs to be built into their contractual and sub contractual process.
Role of organizational training
Organizational training can provide staff with resources and learning opportunities. Further, investing in training can be one step towards improving worker well-being as learning improves self-confidence and self-esteem, enhances emotional well-being, and creates opportunities for staff to relate and connect with each other creating peer-based support systems.
How can the cleaning staff deal with the constant stress of battling the pandemic?
It is important to recognize and acknowledge that these are challenging times, and everyone is
doing the best they can in the situation. In this process, Tina emphasized the need to eat healthy, get adequate sleep, and find time to exercise or move. Research strongly supports that movement – working out, meditative walk on your own or with a buddy, can help boost one’s mood, reduce stress and anxiety.
Additionally, it can be helpful to acknowledge what’s in one’s control and focus on managing one’s thoughts.
A few strategies that can be helpful:
- Acknowledge feelings: When things are overwhelming STOP, THINK – “what am I
feeling?” Put a name to the feeling as this can help you better manage the emotion. And
- Give permissions: This is a difficult period, and you don’t always have to get through this alone. Give yourself the permission to accept, understand, and let go. It is okay to ask for help if needed. Talk to a friend or family member.
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health alike. However, for those who are at the forefront, such as the cleaning staff, the stress hits a new level. It is about time organizations take appropriate steps to ensure that the mental health of their cleaning staff is not affected. It is about time that cleaners are educated and their problems are addressed by organizations. After all, healthy workers create healthier environments.