Professional pariahs: Tips for staff engagement in “dirty jobs”

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Keeping staff motivated and engaged can be a challenge at the best of times, but for those doing so-called “dirty jobs”, like exterminators, funeral and cemetery workers, or toilet cleaners, it’s a bigger battle.
How do you keep employees happy in their work when there’s a social stigma attached to what they do?
Professor Blake Ashforth from Arizona State University, who will conduct a special lecture at the University of Southern Australia on the subject of what society considers to be dirty jobs, told HC Online that there were a number of strategies managers used to increase employee engagement.
“One strategy is to teach employees skills to cope with the negative reactions of family, friends, or the public.  For example, when jobs involve physically distasteful tasks, like funeral or cemetery workers, or those in aged care, employees may be able to remind themselves that the work they do is important, that their work benefits people in times of need. 
“In general, focusing employees’ attention on the benefit that their work brings to society or clients can help employees to maintain a positive self-image.”
Facilitating employees in supporting each other is another key strategy, he said, since coworkers were able to provide emotional support and share coping techniques.
“Managers can provide time and space for employees to talk and decompress.  It can also be useful to minimize the time that employees spend actively engaged in dirty work. It may be possible to rotate employees across tasks so that they have an opportunity to restore a self-image after negative experiences. 
“For example, parking inspectors or bill collectors may experience negative reactions from the public as they go about their work – the employer may be able to balance that ‘front-stage’ exposure with some ‘back-stage’ recovery time.”
But it’s not just physical jobs which can be considered dirty work – almost any job can include some form of dirty tasks, according to the university’s Centre for Human Resource Management director Professor Carol Kulik.
HR staff may be viewed as “grim reapers” when they have to implement unpopular initiatives, such as downsizing or redundancy programs, she said.
“Managers in every sector should be conscious of dirty work implications, and recognise the extra emotional burden that arises from dirty work.  Managers may be able to compensate for negative reactions from others by expressing personal appreciation to employees who do dirty work.”
Professor Kulik said managers could show employees how people benefit from dirty work and avoid workplace strategies that relegate all the unwanted tasks to the same workers, which can create a sense of isolation.
“One of the most important contributions of Blake’s research is that it raises awareness of the emotional and psychological risks associated with stigmatized work,” she said.
“HR managers are often very attuned to the physical risks of jobs.  They have clear routines for identifying physical risks and responding to them.  But emotional/psychological risks also take a toll on a worker’s well-being.  We need to be more vigilant about providing support to workers so that they can more effectively manage the stress associated with dirty work.”

When it comes to motivating employees in dirty jobs, British American Tobacco has instituted HR initiatives that are widely regarded as best practice. It provides employees with things like a starting salary in the top 25% of the market, above-statutory superannuation, volunteer day leave, on-site medical and massage services, wellness initiatives and a sabbatical leave policy.  

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