Hotel workers report high job demands; low reward, work productivity

May 23, 2018
Laura Bailey

ANN ARBOR—When Marie-Anne Sanon Rosemberg wanted to truly learn about low-wage work while researching her dissertation, she volunteered as a motel housekeeper.

Two weeks was enough—the work was back-breaking, and she admits she probably couldn’t do it forever. Unlike the employee populations she studies, Rosemberg, now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, had a choice.

Rosemberg is one of the few researchers in the country who studies housekeepers, a job traditionally held by women, many of them immigrants. Her recent study explored worker productivity among housekeepers and examined the relationship between job rewards and demands and work productivity.

She’s an immigrant herself, and spent much time around low-wage workers, which fueled her interest in studying that population.

“I did it for one week, and not only did I do it wrong, it still killed me,” Rosemberg said. “You have to fold the mattress covers a particular way, you have to put the pillowcases on a particular way. They were using a shell look for the small folded hand towels. And then there was all the vacuuming and scrubbing. I was terrible at it. The poor woman I worked with had to redo everything. I was tired. I realized I don’t know if I could do this job for a long time.”

Rosemberg and colleague Yang Li found that housekeepers experienced low reward in relation to the demands of their jobs (known as an effort-reward imbalance), but the results on productivity were mixed. They were unable to establish a cause-effect relationship between productivity and reward imbalance.

Housekeepers reported high absenteeism and low individual productivity. But the study found that those who reported high effort but low reward were more likely to report high work performance and work productivity. This puzzling result could be due to the small sample size, or the self-reported nature of the questionnaire, Rosemberg said. Either way, she said the study indicates that further research with a larger sample size is needed.

On average, the 23 housekeepers in the study missed 18 hours of work a month for a 40-hour work-week.

“We didn’t expect them to miss so much,” Rosemberg said.

The study didn’t tease out individual reasons for the absences; for instance, sick days or vacation days.

The findings have implications for the health of the worker and of the hospitality industry, Rosemberg said. Hotel workers are the largest worker group in the hospitality industry and are largely responsible for guest satisfaction and loyalty.

“This is important because all of it relates back to the health of the worker,” Rosemberg said. “If a person isn’t producing, there is something happening. They are at work but they may be stressed or distracted, and for the employers, work productivity directly relates to the bottom line.”

About 13 percent of the women in the study were white, 39 percent were born in Mexico or Africa, and 9 percent had some college or an associate’s degree. About 12 percent of the workers earned more than $14 an hour, and 13 percent of the women rated their health as fair or poor. Eighty-seven percent had at least one chronic disease despite an average age of 42.

While the study looks only at housekeepers, low-wage workers in other occupations share many of these characteristics. Rosemberg and U-M colleague Edward Zellers, professor of environmental health sciences and chemistry, are developing an online chemical safety training for manicurists. Researchers will pilot the program with nail salon partners this summer.

The study, “Effort-Reward Imbalance and Work Productivity Among Hotel Housekeeping Employees,” was published ahead of print in Workplace Health & Safety.

Study abstract
Marie-Anne Sanon Rosemberg