Mental health - taking care of your workforce

22nd of May 2018
Mental health - taking care of your workforce

Mental health problems affect one in four of us at one or other time in our lives. And according to the World Health Organisation these issues are responsible for almost 20 per cent of illnesses in the WHO European Region. So are cleaning industry operatives particularly susceptible to mental health problems? And if they are, what are employers doing to support their staff, asks Ann Laffeaty?

Mental health problems affect one in four of us at one or other time in our lives. And according to the World Health Organisation these issues are responsible for almost 20 per cent of illnesses in the WHO European Region.

In Western countries between 30 and 40 per cent of all cases of chronic sick leave result from mental health disorders with an estimated cost to the economy of around three per cent of GDP.
So the problem is widespread: it is causing untold misery – and it is having a devastating effect on the economy.

It is logical to assume that any industry that relies heavily on manpower – such as cleaning, for instance  – will be more closely affected by mental health issues than other sectors. But due to privacy concerns most companies are understandably unwilling to discuss the extent of the problem.

However, many agree the particular challenges related to cleaning make it a vulnerable sector in which to work. And mental health problems are at least as prevalent in the cleaning industry as in other sectors – or at least that is the view of The Clean Space founder and ceo Charlie Mowat.

“Actually, the problems in the cleaning industry are more likely to be worse than in other sectors,” he said. “The isolation of the job, the unsociable hours and the fact that many workers earn less than the minimum wage all tend to be linked to mental health issues.”

Measures for employers

The UK Government recently commissioned a report into mental health - the Stevenson Farmer Thriving at Work Report – which recommends a series of measures for employers, says Mowat.

“The report suggests that companies should offer good working conditions and develop an awareness of mental health issues while also training up managers in this area; encouraging open conversations and instigating a mental health plan,” he said. “But it is a hard nut to crack in the cleaning industry where people often work remotely and don’t have daily contact with a manager.”

The issue of mental health is particularly close to Mowat’s heart and he speaks openly about his own problems. “My father suffered from bipolar disorder which meant I grew up in a very up-and-down environment  - and there is some evidence to suggest that these types of disorders can be genetic,” he said.

“I was 25 when I started my own business and I grew it successfully over a period of 15 years. But it can be lonely at the top as well as being pretty intensive, and as a result I began to struggle. But after a few years in therapy I came out the other side much happier. I still have cyclical problems but I am generally much better at looking after myself.”

Speak out

Mowat encourages his own 600-strong team to be similarly open about their own mental health issues. “However, so far not one staff member has come forward,” he said. “If employees of a company such as mine are unwilling to speak out, how difficult must it be for operatives across the rest of the industry to talk about their problems?”

Managing director of Facilicom Cleaning Services Jan-Hein Hemke agrees with Mowat that the cleaning industry may have more employees suffering from mental health issues than other sectors.
“It is widely accepted that debt can cause mental health problems and cleaners work in a lower-paid industry,” he said. “The stress of not knowing how you are going to survive another day could be a major trigger for mental health problems.”

But mental health is traditionally a taboo subject, he adds. “As a result we have no figures on the number of people within our business who are affected,” he said. “We support our staff on an ongoing basis but this is usually handled at line-management level rather than reported on centrally.”

Access to counsellors

Facilicom’s Employee Assistance Programme provides its staff with confidential, 24/7 access to qualified counsellors. “Our team members can seek support on any issues including financial, legal, family and medical advice,” he said. “However since the service is confidential we have no idea how many of the calls are mental health-related. But the service is well used which means our colleagues are getting help when they need it.”

Facilicom is now looking to introduce First Aid for Mental Health training internally. “This will help people to identify and respond to mental health issues,” said Hemke.

He has no knowledge as to whether or not the problem is escalating. However, he claims the fact that taboos are breaking down is a highly positive sign. “An increased recognition of the seriousness of the issue within the industry enables us to offer more help and to look at the root causes of the problem, such as low pay,” he said.

Facilicom supports the UK’s Living Wage scheme and provides its staff members with Hostmanship training. “This helps to improve communications skills and embed a supportive culture,” said Hemke. “Through this training we are able to ensure good working conditions and an optimal work-life balance.”

The well-being of employees is central to Kärcher’s own ethos according to corporate marketing and brand management team manager Maximilian Morlock. “Our founder Alfred Kärcher focused on a long-term, people-centric style of management and his attitude is still the bedrock of our corporate policy today,” he said.

Staff are free to discuss any health-related issues at the company’s own health centre. “The HR department works with the occupational health and safety department and the works council to adopt a holistic and long-term approach to health management,” he said. “Services include the provision of advice regarding physical or mental health issues caused by or related to work.”

Help in times of crisis

The company also offers help in times of crisis. “For example we provide extensive support to employees returning to work following a long illness-related absence,” he said. “In 2013 we appointed occupational reintegration management executives to ensure that returning employees recovered their health and were fit for work again as quickly as possible, avoiding any recurrence of the illness or lasting harm to their health. Reintegration management also includes advice and support for employees returning to work following a serious illness or accident.”

The company takes a proactive approach with the view to preventing health problems, both mental and physical.“We offer sports opportunities and activity days, for example,” said Morlock. “Every staff member is also entitled to a 10-minute personal training session once a week. And we have built a daily five-minute activity break into all our production facilities when a fitness trainer instigates loosening-up and mobilisation exercises along the production lines.

"The aim is to encourage employees to keep moving physically in different ways to relieve any muscular tension or stiffness. The fact that 70 per cent of our staff generally join in with this activity shows what a success it is.”

However, he says mental health problems within Kärcher are less of an issue than physical concerns. “Data recorded in 2017 showed that most employee days off were due to muscular and bone-related issues which included everything from back pain to fractures,” he said. “Mental health problems were much lower down the list, perhaps in fifth or sixth place.”

Like Kärcher, contract cleaning company Markas is aware of relatively few mental health problems among its own staff. “But we can understand why cleaners might suffer from work-related stress,” said assistant director general Elisa Montanari. “This could be due to the environment in which they provide their services, particularly when it is in the healthcare field. People who work in hospitals and nursing homes are often in contact with seriously ill patients who suffer from intense pain and this may be a trigger for depression in the long term.

“There are also psychosocial factors that make cleaning staff particularly vulnerable. For example they tend to come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds which means they may need to cope with language and cultural barriers.”

Markas’ staff are encouraged to consult the company’s Social Performance Team regarding any mental health issues, she says. “This team evaluates each reported situation and implements measures to guarantee employees’ well-being,” said Montanari. “Markas also has a network of qualified occupational doctors from whom employees can request a medical examination if they need one.”

Risk evaluations

She says health and well-being are becoming increasingly relevant in all industries today. “Markas constantly monitors the work-related stress of its employees by conducting risk evaluations,” she adds.

According to Montanari the company keeps a close eye on factors such as absence from work, accidents, requests for extraordinary medical examinations, workload and working hours. “These indicators allow us to evaluate if there are any organisational conditions that may determine work-related stress,” she said. “And we continually assess the risks in the environments where our operatives work in an effort to eliminate or reduce these risks.”

Social responsibility

Health monitoring procedures at Markas include preventive and periodic medical examinations with occupational doctors to evaluate the health status of employees.

“As a company with more than 9,000 employees in four different countries, Markas has always been aware of its social responsibility,” said Montanari. ”For this reason we are constantly investing
in activities and initiatives aimed at creating a pleasant, fair and motivating working environment.”

She says Markas places a great deal of importance on the active integration of multicultural employees. “The service sector is often the first point of contact for immigrants when seeking a job,” said Montanari.  “By organising language courses, social events and mentoring programmes we help to facilitate the integration of new employees not only into our company but also into local society.”

And staff respond well to this caring attitude, she says. “Between 2014 and 2016 we conducted anonymous surveys into employee satisfaction in collaboration with the Great Place to Work Institute. These revealed that 80 per cent of our employees felt Markas was an excellent place to work while offering us important insights into our strength as an employer and - more importantly – into those aspects that can still be improved.

“And in 2016 Markas received the “Employer of the Year Ruban d’Honneur” at the European Business Awards, placing us among the 10 best employers in Europe.”


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