The invisible heroes

18th of November 2013 Article by Dr Ilham Kadri
The invisible heroes

Dr Ilham Kadri, president of the Sealed Air Diversey Care business, writes her latest blog for ECJ. She talks about the issue of cleaners being an invisible workforce and asks how this can be addressed for the benefit of employees, employers and clients.

I must confess that during the 20 years I have been working in corporate offices, I have rarely spoken to the person cleaning my office, beyond the polite greetings... until I joined the hygiene and cleaning industry, just recently.

Do you see the cleaners working in your preferred retail store or in the hospital?

Do you know the scope of their work and how much effort they put into doing it well?

Do you realise that in hospital environments, cleaners are saving lives?

For every 100 hospitalised patients, seven people in developed economies and 10 in the developing world will acquire at least one healthcare associated infection (HAI) inside the hospital. The financial losses are estimated at $16 billion in Europe and the USA combined. The personal pain and loss are unquantifiable.

I have recently realised that many people take cleaning for granted, only noticing it when it's not well done. But the truth is that cleaning and hygiene in the context of a hospital, as one example, is a necessity and not a luxury. Cleaners help hospitals reduce HAIs in the same way as they help a retail store keep our meat, fish, fruit and vegetables free from foodborne pathogens.

Having said that, I do not think that cleaners view their jobs and mission that way.

In our industry, we do a poor job of making these 'invisible heroes' understand the critical nature of their role in society. They are the first line of defense against disease and infection, and a key contributor to creating a pleasant environment in virtually every public space.

Besides the lower salary levels and language difficulties that are probably the biggest reason why the cleaning industry sees such high levels of labour turnaround, we need to re-imagine the job content and build-up the prestige and the pride to be a cleaner.

In my view, there are two ways we can be socially responsible with our invisible heroes.

Firstly, I think we can motivate them by facilitating training and communication about risk management and accident prevention through learning management systems (tablets, smartphones and e-learning systems. This would help cleaners become more productive, engaged and interested in doing value added activities.

Automated e-technologies for tasks and facility management will help cleaners to better achieve and monitor tasks, flag issues to management or the landlord. And of course, using safe cleaning chemicals and personal protection equipment (solutions in closed color-coded and/or closed loop systems, ergonomic tools and intelligent machines will guarantee workers' safety and improved productivity while building up competency. This will allow cleaners to do more and feel protected, respected and rewarded.

Secondly, education may have an even bigger social responsibility component for the low entry job levels. Many illiterate people, or those who do not speak the local language, access the job market through cleaning and aspire to climb the professional ladder as a supervisor, a manager, etc.

Many of them may simply leave the industry because they feel they have a job which has no prestige or recognition. It is our responsibility to provide them with the professional development tools and the right motivation and sense of belonging.

Something as simple as providing coaching and peer-to-peer evaluation could yield great benefits for the person and for the employer. We could orchestrate company or industry recognition awards that highlight the values of our best cleaners, run employee appraisal through feedback sessions to make them feel their job matters and impacts everybody's life and job.

Our invisible heroes would be visible, and so will the results in decreasing employee churn, in increasing productivity, people safety and guest experience.


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