Avoiding sticky situations with your domestic helper

Sticky Situation 001A edited re-sized

An article called “Happy Helper, Happy home” was published in a local magazine, “Simply Her”, likely in their July/Aug 2014 issue. I was very excited when I read it since I had been pondering for several months prior about a somewhat similar article (click here for my post in Dec 2013 “Settling Your Domestic helper” which covers several aspects of avoiding these sticky situations in a different way). The writer specified 12 common sticky situations in this relationship after consulting with 3 employment agencies. Since she had identified those hitches so well, I am now using several of her descriptions. However, I have adapted their suggested advice with little bits and pieces from my own, relatives and friend’s experiences.

This human resource topic, being an active matter is very difficult to write and talk about in a post which is static. However, they are common problems. Employers, helpers and maid agencies face them. Responsible agencies ( both in the helpers’ and the employers’ home countries) try to avoid hitches by giving many hours of pep talk and counselling before the helpers arrive at their employer’s homes. Meeting of minds between employers’ expectations and maid’s cultural ideas, skill level and expectations is a mammoth task but not insurmountable.

The underlying rule of thumb – it is unlikely that you will face all 12 hitches at the outset. You may experience one or two of the hitches in course of the helper’s work with you. Identify them and address them early.

A good relationship of mutual respect takes time, patience and effort from both parties to grow. It is unusual for this relationship to grow to the extent that your helper replaces her loyalty to her family and her countrymen with you and your family. If, over time both of you can reach a position of trust, honesty and mutual respect you will enjoy a good and effective relationship.

My current helper is from the Chin tribe in Myanmar. There are many of them working as domestic helpers in Singapore. When she first came almost 6 years ago, even though she had worked for 3 years in Singapore prior to joining us, both she and I worked hard together for her to learn her skills. She was armed with an English-Myanmese dictionary and between us, her dictionary and my drawing skills, we achieved much in the first 3 months. She was motivated by my willingness to teach and patient explanation whilst she motivated me with her cheerfulness, desire to learn and hard-working attitude. Yes, we have been enjoying her acquired housekeeping skills, baking and cooking skills of several different types of cuisines.

Hitch #1.

Difficulty in settling into a household and inability to get along with some family members.

At the time of selection of a helper at your agency, it is important that they confirm that the helper understands the nature of her work and its long hours. There are many young helpers who come for reasons other than to work hard to earn a better living to support their family’s growing financial needs and to save for their own needs too. In many cases, they were not properly prepared by their home agencies so those few hours of training after they arrive in Singapore is insufficient especially when they are brand new.

Personally, I have had such an experience with a helper who came rather unsuited to be a domestic helper and who was also not suitable for childcare. I had to counsel her fortnightly about her work attitude and that went on for 8 months. By chance, one day I found out she left my home to wonder along Orchard Rd the minute my husband and I left for work. My son who was her charge had left for kindergarten. Several other serious breaches were then discovered and she was replaced.

That being said, even for those who are prepared to work hard and learn, no one really relishes change and moving away from their home and country. Leaving their loved ones does make them all out of sorts. Even those who have worked abroad before will need some adjustment at the beginning.

Even if they are not novices in your country, they are assimilating to new people (you and yours) and a different household with different rules and styles of doing things. Many novices experience some degree of language problems (Yes, even those who had been taught English in school as our accents and our word usage are different). It helps a great deal if she has a clean room, bed and enough to eat and rest – meet her physiological needs. Meet her emotional needs through chatting with her about her family, home and country. Assure her.

Family members have their role to play in helping her settle into the home. In the case of a squabble, listen to both sides. If it is the family member who is the difficult one, you have to take charge to dissipate problems. Emphasize harmony, compromise and co-operation.

It usually takes at least one to three months for newbies to adjust to this hitch. I try to resolve such hitches on my own before resorting to the maid agency as I am best to access the situation. As a last resort, the maid agency can help by giving advice and counselling.

Hitch #2

Doesn’t work effectively (Spends too much time on chores).

To get her co-operation and for her to change, you have to make time to go through her day and her work schedule to effectively understand her methods and scheduling. In busy Singapore, we are used to a much more hectic life. Both ourselves and our family squeeze alot of activities into a day. Give her tips and help her to organize her work. Be generous with encouraging words and praise when you see that she is trying hard. If it is her first time here, her learning curve is huge.

I recall that one of my earlier helpers didn’t even know how to iron. It was her first time away from home. She was timid and so terribly homesick that she cried daily. It was bit by bit training. Fortunately for both of us, she was the second helper in my household so the other helper also contributed with patient advice whilst I was at work. She worked with me for 8 months and decided she wanted to return home to get married. My first helper said she told her that she was glad to have worked with me as she learnt enough to be confident that she could efficiently run her own home after getting married! Sigh! Such things do happen despite all the pre-arrival counselling the helper was given.

Hitch #3

Helper does housework and childcare/eldercare and does not prioritise her childcare/eldercare duties. She takes out her frustration on the children or the elderly.

It is good to bear in mind that many helpers come from countries where they do not cook and look after children and do a whole lot of household chores as well. One is hired as a cook whilst someone else does the child-minding.  Most maid agencies are very mindful of this and ensure that their potential helpers are fully aware of their job responsibilities with employers in Singapore.

You, as the employer has to make sure that her duties are balanced and she is not over-taxed. Is her work load realistic? Talk with her and your family members to see how it can be more manageable. Perhaps it is a simple matter of praise and acknowledgement from you and the family members. How is appreciation of her work and loyalty expressed to her? Many elderly members tend to extract a much large ounce of patience from their caregivers. Perhaps an adjustment of salary or longer hours of rest on her days off? Think of other ways to lighten her duties.

Emphasize that you will not tolerate any verbal or physical abuse. Your maid agency has to step in to moderate and counsel. Did the helper tell the agency at the outset that she is not keen to take care of babies/children/elderly?

Hitch #4

She doesn’t follow instructions, her work is slip short or she doesn’t complete her work.

Assuming that her work load is normal, perhaps your instructions were not spelt out in details. Break down her chores into manageable tasks and list them out. It is best if you ask your helper to write out her own list. If she is not confident, encourage her to do a sketch if there are language problems. During the first few months of her employment, you will have to check her work regularly and patiently correct  and praise her effort.

This is a more common problem when the helper has language problems and is a novice in Singapore. It is also likely she comes from a village where life is simple and her pace of life there are so much slower than cosmopolitan Singapore.

Hitch #5

Her habits bother you and your family (e.g. poor hygiene, bad table manners, swears etc)

Identify her bad habits and teach her how she can improve and change. Ask the agency for advice how to deal with such problems and follow their advice. The agency should also step in to counsel her and encourage her to listen to your advice. This should be done one-on-one.

Always be polite and respectful. Solutions should be simple and easy to comply with. My friend has a great advice – don’t use double negatives in your speech and instructions. Most do not understand a dry sense of humour.

If it is a hygiene problem, provide her the cleaning items. If you want her co-operation, she should not feel that you are talking down to her or in any way demeaning her.

Hitch #6

She is too chummy with you and your visitors. She is nosy about what goes on in the household.

It is difficult to draw the line if your helper is capable and has gained your respect in your household and your children have a close relationship with her. She is living in your home and is accessible for many hours in a day. Sometimes, your emotions are over-wrought and you needed a listening ear. However, you have to set the boundaries. It is best if she is not involved in your personal problems. What confidential information have you told her?

You have to politely have a one-on-one talk with her and explain that all information is totally P&C so she should keep your confidence. This is how she shows you her loyalty. You have to set and manage the boundaries.

Hitch # 7

She doesn’t reveal much about herself. How to befriend but yet maintain professional boundaries?

Show your helper that you value her as a person. This runs along the same vein as making and developing a friendship – talk about her life, her family, her surroundings, their food and ways of celebration. Who are her friends in Singapore? Celebrate her birthday and use festive holidays to give her presents.

Are you afraid that by being chummy you will loose your authority over her? It is a fine line. Mutual respect is the key. Explain to her your need for privacy and where the lines are drawn.

Hitch #8

She doesn’t speak up as she is fearful of being scolded.

It is important that you express to her (the day when she starts work with you) your willingness to be told the truth and promise that you will listen patiently if she makes a mistake. React accordingly and as promised. Focus on understanding how she made the mistake and the solution to prevent it from being made again.

Novices are very fearful of being sent to the agency as they will be given a dressing down.

TIP: do not ask them to dust and polish anything you value that is breakable until you are certain that their standard of care is acceptable to you.

Hitch #9

She shows not initiative even for the simple tasks. She only waits for your instructions.

Examine what instructions or advice did she receive from her agency. Many novices do not have the self confidence to decide on many such matters. Did her previous employer encourage her initiative? You will be surprised how vastly different households are run, even your good friends’. If you have spent time with her to build up her trust in her work, you are likely to enjoy a higher level of communication. Have you given her your feedback when she showed her initiative? Perhaps that went un-noticed?

Hitch #10

She can’t focus on her work since she has received bad news from home ( natural disasters, death in the family, marital or financial difficulties).

She needs time to grieve and heal. Have you accessed her objectively as an emotional person?  This is where you can step in to be a listening ear and ask relevant questions. Show patience and kindness. It is likely that she will want to return home for the funeral. What type of help are you able to give? Will you be willing to give her some financial help (a gift or a loan)  if you are able to establish certainty of her facts?

Hitch#11

Helper refuses to take day off.

There could be several reasons for her desire to stay home. Perhaps she has no friends to go out with? Could it be a financial reason? How about her work load, does she need better time management? Only a casual chat with her will reveal the reason. What solutions are you prepared to help her with?

Hitch #12

She is always on the phone even while performing her household chores and looking after kids.

You will have to enforce your  house rules. We all find it hard to do our chores well unless our full concentration is there. Lack of concentration leads to mistakes which can be costly and dangerous. Is your house rule (no mobile phone calls unless it is an emergency or it is during her break times or off days?). You have to enforce your house rules with consistency.

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