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Turning Frazzled Essential Workers into Empowered Employees

by | Feb 3, 2021

Recently, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells took a bold stance with this headline: “From Toxic Chefs to Covid, Restaurant Workers Deserve Better.” In the article, he discusses high-profile toxic workplaces and the intense demands of the work in the Covid era. Wells was right. Restaurant workers do deserve better. And restaurant workers are not alone. According to research compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), many industries find themselves stretching essential workers to their detriment.

The Toll on Essential Workers

In surveys conducted in June 2020, roughly one third of adults in the U.S. report being essential workers. While all workers report an increase in depression and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal thoughts. These mental health challenges create a myriad of ripple effects.

“Poor mental health among workers can have serious implications for both worker well-being and economic outcomes,” wrote Rabah Kamal, Nirmita Panchal, and Rachel Garfield for KFF. “Both the human and fiscal impact of the pandemic’s toll on worker mental health will be important for employers and legislators to consider in determining the needs of the workforce through the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.”

At Kaivac, our focus is cleaning and the workers who perform cleaning tasks, whether those workers are dedicated to cleaning, like school janitors and contract cleaners, or do cleaning tasks along with other responsibilities, like restaurant servers and bartenders. The work of professional cleaners is frequently under-respected and under-supported. Many people still believe that, when it comes to cleaning, anyone can do it and with run-of-the-mill tools. We respectfully disagree. 

Investing in and Empowering Employees

We have seen the benefits of investing in cleaning workers with effective systems, ongoing education, and workplace safety. Improving the lives of cleaning workers is the right thing to do, but it also makes good economic sense. Empowered employees also benefit their organizations with improved outcomes and greater productivity and loyalty. Mike Perazzo, Kaivac VP of Business Development, has seen this empowerment firsthand in his work with customers.

“At its worst, cleaning work can chip away at people,” said Perazzo. “When workers are being asked to provide top quality cleaning without receiving the support they need, they can quickly lose passion for what they’re doing. Employee empowerment starts with a renewed commitment to do the right thing. When we start by thinking about the worker and what the ask is, and then we support them, train them, and advise them, the sky is the limit. What I have watched an empowered worker accomplish is nothing short of amazing.”

For workplaces that already struggled to empower employees, the pandemic only exacerbated those problems. Since the pandemic, an empowered worker needs more to thrive. They need to feel physically safe from exposure to Covid and other contaminants. They need loyalty from their employers to make it through stressful situations, like dealing with irascible customers. Without these workplace protections, talent may flee, even leaving entire industries with talent shortages.

The Breaking Point

Returning to restaurants, where this tension seems to have reached its most palpable breaking point, pandemic-related closures have forced some introspection. In Nation’s Restaurant News, Bret Thorn reflected about the lessons of the year and spoke with Adam Rosenblum, the chef of Causwells in San Francisco, about the future of their industry.

“[Adam] said the pandemic has allowed him and other chefs to assess their lives and those of their staff, and realize that the long hours and generally low pay and few benefits isn’t how people are supposed to live.”

We respectfully agree. 

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