A crisis reveals who we really need.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis posted a photo on Facebook of five grinning janitors standing on the capitol building’s steps. The caption read, “These are the heroes keeping the Colorado State Capitol and other state buildings clean and helping stop the spread of COVID-19.”
He’s right. They’re heroes.
Think of the people leaving buildings to avoid getting coronavirus. These workers – mothers, fathers, friends, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters – are going in.
A bright spot in this dark time is that we’re finally praising the people who do the work that makes society possible.
In Williston, Vermont, a community banded together to create a fundraiser for custodians who disinfected its schools. Kroger is offering “appreciation bonuses” for grocery store workers. Starbucks is giving free coffee to anyone who identifies as a frontline responder.
State laws now label truck drivers, food service workers, distribution center packers, plumbers, and cleaners as “essential.”
Our frontline workers were always essential. They’ve always been society’s heroes.
The problem is we haven’t treated them that way.
Since the 1940s, the National Opinion Research Center has surveyed the public to assess the perceived worthiness of occupations. The jobs consistently rated lowest are cleaners, packers, and food service workers, the very jobs we all rely on.
Researchers call these occupations stigmatized occupations, jobs disrespected by society-at-large because of their undesirable nature, the low skill level required, or low pay.
I’ve seen the effect of stigma up close. I spent the last two years studying how a group of janitors experienced meaningfulness or meaninglessness in their work.
Studies, including mine, find degrading acts and words from the public and leaders contribute to feelings of hopelessness, a loss of dignity, and despair for an already at-risk workforce.
Stigma shows up in small acts, like building users not making eye contact with a janitor or a customer not returning a “thank you” to a food service worker.
It also shows up in leadership decisions, like in San Francisco, when cleaning workers were reportedly uninformed of a coronavirus case in an office building they cleaned. Meanwhile, the nation’s knowledge workers receive extensive guidelines and resources to ensure they don’t get sick.
A janitor in my study described the impact of feeling degraded, saying, “It makes me feel like my job is worthless.”
Beyond moments of praise, what our frontline workers really need is everyday dignity.
Dignity is feeling worthy of respect. When people feel respected, they develop a sense of pride in themselves. Pride contributes to meaningfulness.
Studies find that experiencing meaningfulness in work – perceiving a job as positive, purposeful, and significant – is associated with increased work engagement, higher overall satisfaction, and well-being outside of work.
For the general public, giving dignity means acknowledging, recognizing, and thanking the people who deliver our Amazon packages, clean our public toilets, and dispose of our trash.
It means educating our kids that these are essential and worthy professions.
For leaders and organizations, giving dignity means consistently showing people on the frontline that they matter and how they matter. It means treating frontline workers like they’re more than “here for a paycheck” or a turnover liability. It means paying people a living wage and designing policy, culture, and communication plans with frontline workers in mind.
As I write this in social isolation, my 2-year-old and 5-year old just finished sitting on our front-step, staring in awe at the trash collectors and their truck.
That’s how we all should be, well beyond this pandemic.
Zach Mercurio is an author and adjunct professor of organizational learning, performance, and change at Colorado State University.
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