Cleaning staff in healthcare, hospitality and other parts of the sector are facing burnout because of increased workloads owing to the Covid-19 and severe staff shortages, warn industry leaders.
The extra procedures and protocols put in place during the pandemic to protect people’s health along with the current severe staff depletion in the sector – compounded by staff absences because of winter illnesses and the disease itself and increasing numbers of personnel leaving the industry – have created "a dangerous cocktail which has raised concerns for the health of staff", according to the British Cleaning Council (BCC).
The crisis in the cleaning and hygiene industry is so severe and widespread that the industry body warned recently that the health of members of the public could be put at risk because of difficulties maintaining the measures needed to keep the UK’s buildings hygienically clean and reduce the risk of the Covid-19 virus spreading.
The BCC says the recruitment crisis "could not have come at a worse time" with Covid-19 infection rates rising and a new variant spreading during the depths of winter and is calling for "urgent government help".
Delia Cannings is deputy chair of the BCC, which represents the entire cleaning and hygiene sector, as well as national lead for education and training at the Association of Healthcare Cleaning Professionals (AHCP) and chair of the UK Housekeepers Association (UKHA).
She said: “We are starting to see the cracks in the healthcare sector, with shortcuts, slip-ups and accidents increasing. What can we do if we can’t get the staff? We are not miracle workers; we simply cannot keep this pace up. The health and wellbeing of our workforce is at stake here.
“Fractures are appearing from all sides. Very few staff are available, the labour market is almost dried up. Agency staff, where available, are not adequately trained.
“Staff absences are increasing every day due to colleagues becoming ill, self-isolating or simply fatigue. Staff are taking on extra duties and managers are rolling up their sleeves to help with the practical cleaning aspects yet are still unable to fill the gaps as well as manage and audit the cleaning service effectively.
“Many long-standing cleaning operatives with years of experience are choosing to leave the profession, citing their roles as undervalued and the risk factors as too high.
“My healthcare cleaning colleagues are proud of their work and do their best to fill the gaps. Therefore longer shifts and overtime have become commonplace in an effort to support colleagues who are already exhausted and on their knees.
“This is not sustainable and will impact on people’s physical and mental health. We are seeing cases of staff turning to alcohol and substance abuse, and anxiety, depression and domestic abuse are all rising. I fear we will see colleagues burning out in the longer term.
“The hospitality sector is suffering and under pressure as well. Cleaning requirements increased during the pandemic, but now there are very few staff available. Agencies have ramped up costs but the few staff being supplied are not trained. Sadly, a little exploitation is kicking in with opportunists taking full advantage of an already dire situation.”
BCC chairman Jim Melvin said: “Throughout the sector, our people have been undervalued by a government which says they are low-skilled and won’t recognise them as key workers.
“Cleaning and hygiene personnel are skilled in their own right and are proud to play a vital role as a first line of defence against coronavirus by keeping buildings hygienically clean. But it is becoming more difficult to maintain the standards required because of severe staff shortages.
“We desperately need the government to help, otherwise the public’s health will be put at risk and more and more of our staff will pay the price by burning out.“
Cleaning and hygiene is one of the biggest industries in the UK and personnel ensure that workplaces, supermarkets, hospitals and healthcare facilities, leisure centres, transport hubs and many more buildings remain germ-free and safe to use.
Anecdotal evidence of sector businesses reporting significant recruitment issues has been reinforced by a recent BCC survey of cleaning and hygiene industry firms representing more than 30,000 employees that recorded nearly 2,000 vacancies. The BCC is continuing to survey sector firms and will release updated figures on final confirmation.
But the trends to date include one firm saying the number of vacancies had increased by 252 per cent in the past six months, and another by 267per cent.
The majority of companies taking part in the BCC survey reported that staff leaving included foreign nationals going home or employees moving to other roles which have received government assistance, such as HGV driving or in hospitality.
The immigration system introduced in the wake of Brexit classified cleaning and hygiene operatives as low-skilled, making it far more difficult for overseas staff to find work in the sector.
The cleaning and hygiene industry has always depended on employees of all nationalities, but UK nationals have been traditionally hard to attract to the industry.
The BCC is urgently calling on the government to work with the industry to find an immediate solution to staffing issues and, in the longer term, help to ensure that there is a clear skills pathway to guarantee that the industry becomes an attractive career choice.