Can a person find satisfaction in a “dirty job”?

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Scientific interpretation

As Victor Hugo wrote, “Work sometimes has bitter roots but always has sweet fruits.” This quote reminds us that some jobs aren’t exactly synonymous with pleasure, but are in fact distasteful, degrading or even dangerous. How many people aspire to be garbage collectors or septic tank maintenance technicians, given the negative stereotypes and stigmatization that characterize these professions? That said, when you look past preconceived notions and the strict nature of these jobs, is it possible to understand the motivations of those whose livelihood and chief occupation is this type of work? In other words, why do some workers report that they are satisfied with the results of work that so many others perceive as dirty work?

This was the question Deery, Kolar and Walsh (2019) asked in a study that aimed at understanding how certain characteristics of one’s work environment influence the job satisfaction of workers holding a dirty job. The authors set out to study this satisfaction by analyzing four of its mechanisms: reframing the meaning of work, autonomy, relationships among workers and the variety of tasks.

Expert

Laurie KIROUAC, researcher at the      CR-CSIS and CAPRIT. Adjunct professor at the Université de Sherbrooke’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

Editors

Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke
Marie-Élise LABRECQUE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY:

Dirty work

These are jobs or work tasks that are socially perceived as disgusting, unpleasant, degrading, and tainted by uncleanliness or stigma. The workers who perform these jobs are often stigmatized.

The stigma associated with the dirty job can take different forms:

  • Social. This is the case with workers who hold subordinate roles or who have regular contact with stigmatized people (hotel employees, building custodians, correctional agents, people who work with AIDS patients, etc.).
  • Physical. This is the case with jobs where workers are in direct contact with dirt, waste material or bodily fluids (septic tank maintenance technicians, cleaners, etc.).
  • Moral. This is the case with workers whose tasks are perceived as immoral or not conforming to social or civil norms (sex workers, erotic dancers, debt collectors, telemarketers, etc.).

Job satisfaction

The authors studied four mechanisms that workers use to make their jobs more satisfying, namely:

  1. Reframing the meaning of the work: Redefining their job and its objective in a positive light and giving it meaning in order to develop and maintain a positive social identity. For example, a butcher can find pride in their ability to endure the physical constraints of the job, just as a firefighter can see the dangers of their occupation as potentially resulting in acts of heroism.
  2. Autonomy: Being autonomous means having the latitude to make choices concerning what work methods to use, what order to perform tasks in and what criteria to prioritize in evaluating whether the work has been done properly. This autonomy can be experienced individually or as a group.
  3. Relationships among workers: Establishing strong, meaningful work relationships can help workers face the day-to-day difficulties of the job, the negative perceptions and judgments of others as well as stigma. The support these relationships provide can help workers maintain dignity at work, as well as a positive self-image.
  4. Variety of tasks: Performing a variety of tasks that require different skills can help workers focus on the pleasant and gratifying aspects of the job and downplay the aspects that are less positive and are stigmatized.

How to cite this article

Deery, S., Kolar, D., et Walsh, J. (2019). Can Dirty Work be Satisfying? A Mixed Method Study of Workers Doing Dirty Jobs. Work, Employment and Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017018817307, 1-17.

 

 

Method

Country: Royaume-Uni et États-Unis
Participants : 155 in the U.K., 78 in the U.S.
Average age: 31
Average seniority: 2.7 years
Sex of participants: all men

Participant recruitment:
The participants were all (minimum wage) workers for an organization specializing in the protection, cleaning and management of vacant properties based in the U.K. and the U.S. Drug paraphernalia, weapons, human excrement, rodent and bedbug infestations and sometimes even dead bodies could be found in the abandoned properties. Workers could also encounter squatters and intruders while performing their daily work activities and require police presence due to the potential for violence (with evicted tenants, neighbours, etc.).

Method used:
A mixed method was used.

  • First, a questionnaire was distributed to the participants in the U.K. and the U.S. Its goal was to measure job satisfaction, reframing of the meaning of work (building meaning at work), individual and group autonomy, work relationships among workers and variety of tasks.
  • Next, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 38 workers, dealing with the nature and characteristics of their job and job satisfaction, including the pleasant and stimulating aspects of the job, forms of work autonomy and relationships at work.
  • In addition, 90 hours of passive participant observation at both work sites were conducted to allow researchers to better understand the interactions among workers and the particularities of their daily work.

 

What do the results of the study reveal?

Most workers holding dirty jobs report job satisfaction, which correlates positively with the four job satisfaction mechanisms.

JOB SATISFACTION

in a socially devalued work context

Reframingthe meaning of work

The workers revealed pride in their ability to deal with the requirements of the job and with a dangerous work environment. This pride stems froma process of “job crafting,” which helps increase a worker’s access to the instrumental and emotional support of their co-workers, satisfy their psychological needs by establishing relationships with others and strengthen their sense ofcompetence

Autonomy

Autonomy was associated with greater satisfaction in the context of dirty work. However, satisfaction does not stem so much from individual autonomy, but rather from autonomy at the work-group level.In teams, the workers felt that they were their own bossand the distribution of tasks occurred naturally among them, increasing their general satisfaction.

 

Work relationships among employees

Because of the trust and support work relationships involve, they bring satisfaction and a sense of security to the work. The members of the team play an important role in each person’s ability to manage situations dealing with potential harassment or physical harm. These relationships extended beyond the work environment, with workers reporting friendships with co-workers in their personal life.

Variety of tasks

Performing a variety of tasks is associated with greater satisfaction, due to the different challenges of each work site.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT FOR ORGANIZATIONS?

This study is surprising in that it is interested in job satisfaction in work environments that are socially devalued and stigmatized. By analyzing the different mechanisms that workers can use to make their work more satisfying, the study broadens our understanding about the way these workers find satisfaction in holding a job with unusual and, in some respects, “extreme”characteristics.

The study shows the importance of situational factors and the work environment in job satisfaction. It encourages us to keep in mind that workers do not passively exist in their environment, but rather they actively seek to exercise some form of control over their work activity and its purpose in order to make the production context positive and the performance of the job gratifying.

 

Comments from our expert

By building on the lessons of the results presented, we can identify certain concrete actions that employers in all sectors can take.

Occupations that are socially devalued are often the ones that have the most trouble recruiting workers and that experience considerable staff turnover, even more so during labour shortages. This article shows that workers holding these occupations, despite the possibility of being subjected to stigmatization, can experience job satisfaction. However, this satisfaction depends on employers recognizing and valuing group work autonomy, good relationships among workers and variety of tasks for every worker.

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Kirouac, L., Fouquet, E., Labrecque, M.-E. (2019). Can a person find satisfaction in a “dirty job”?. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Deery, S., Kolar, D., et Walsh, J. (2019). Can Dirty Work be Satisfying? A Mixed Method Study of Workers Doing Dirty Jobs. Work, Employment and Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017018817307, 1-17.

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