Called to Work, Hospital Janitors Responded Despite COVID-19 Risks



By Scott Lewis

The COVID-19 pandemic placed enormous demands and stress on hospitals worldwide, especially when the transmission of the disease spiked, overrunning the capacity of hospital staff to provide care.

Associate Professor of Management Smriti Anand at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business is co-author of a research paper that gives insight into the contributions made during the pandemic by an often unheralded group of hospital workers and what managers can learn from this crisis.

“You Can Stay Home, but We Can’t: Invisible ‘Dirty’ Work as Calling Amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, explores the motivations behind the strong service orientation, or work calling, among frontline janitorial workers at a large hospital in India that was designated for treating COVID-19 patients. The paper has been selected by the World Health Organization for inclusion in the WHO COVID-19 Research Database.

Anand’s research colleagues, who developed the survey project in coordination with the Indian government’s COVID-19 response task force, are faculty at the Indian Institute of Management Rohtak: Professor Dheeraj P. Sharma, director of IIMR, Associate Professor Koustab Ghosh, and Visiting Assistant Professor Madhurima Mishra.

According to Anand, the custodial workers studied were not only putting their own health at risk at their jobs, they also were subject to suspicion, discrimination, and mistreatment outside of work hours by local residents who feared they were carriers of COVID-19. Still, the janitors persevered in their work.

“We found that these workers, because of the dramatic situation [caused by the pandemic], felt they were saviors,” Anand says. “And they were because how would the hospitals have run if the janitors went on a strike?”

The research team noted that although employees who feel a sense of work calling experience negative effects of their jobs, such as work-family conflict and burnout, they also maintain positive feelings about their job performance and career success. Indeed, the team observed that even when job demands are high, employees who perceive their work as a calling view those demands as positive challenges.

“This study is proof that when people find meaning in their work, they will go above and beyond,” Anand says, and hospital administrators can foster such a sense of meaning through policies and actions that show support for the workers and reduce the physical, emotional, and workload demands of the jobs.