How cleanliness can make worklife better


Organising your desk, decluttering your physical workspace, and managing your digital workspace can deliver powerful psychological impacts associated with control and orderliness. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Stress overwhelms and assails many professionals at work. Tight deadlines, lofty expectations, and relentless emails piling up can snowball into stressful days, weeks, and months. Yet, a surprisingly effective and simple stress reduction strategy lies hidden in plain sight: cleaning.

Researchers Kobe Millet, Spike Lee, Amir Grinstein, Koen Pauwels, Phillip Johnston, Alexandra Volkov, and Arianne Van Der Wal discovered recently that actual and simulated cleaning can diminish the effects of life’s endless stream of stressors.

Surprisingly, such an effect persists even when the stressors bear no connection to dirt, germs, or disease. The act of cleaning extends beyond personal grooming or hand washing, casting a broader impact on our professional lives.

Involving over 3,000 participants from the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada, their research highlights a fascinating link between cleaning and stress reduction. The study revealed that even visual simulations of cleaning behaviour could decrease residual anxiety from stressful events.

Further, actual cleaning actions amplified adaptive cardiovascular reactions to high-stress situations involving social performance or evaluation, giving physiological proof of cleaning's stress-reducing effects.

Now, taking such interesting research with a foundation in our human evolutionary past whereby cleaning our areas in chaotic and wild surroundings in the ancient bush would come with real physical benefits from less disease during a time of rampant infections and the area visually free from debris making it easier to identify to and react quickly to incoming vermin like snakes, rodents, spiders, and scorpions, our brains should naturally react positively and reduce worry and stress from cleaning behaviours and the results of cleaning.

Even though modern society does not carry the same risks as our ancient selves, our brains have not caught up with the times and we therefore can benefit from these ancient hangovers if we know them and utilise them properly.

Psychologist Arash Emamzadeh extends the above research and hypothesises about ways to implement the findings in one’s daily grooming life. When one translates these implications to a professional setting, potential benefits start emerging. From an individual professional perspective in the office or industrial plant, maintaining a tidy workspace can also cause a significant drop in stress levels.

Organising your desk, decluttering your physical workspace, and managing your digital workspace can deliver powerful psychological impacts associated with control and orderliness. When an overwhelming feeling might creep in and you feel too exacerbated to continue or start a task, take a moment to clean your physical and digital workspaces. The results might astonish you.

Shifting to the departmental level, resolving pending issues and putting your department's house in order can exert a similar effect. In many workplaces, unresolved issues accumulate, provoking collective stress and tension. Examples can include clearing backlogs, streamlining processes, and revising outdated policies to boost the department's adaptive response to stress.

By addressing some of these issues head-on and 'cleaning up' the department, leaders can ease these stressors, fostering a more productive and less anxious environment.

From the perspective of a company, the act of cleaning can envelop organisational policies and practices. A thorough review of procedures, making necessary changes, and discarding outdated or unnecessary regulations may resemble a form of 'cleaning.' It fosters efficiency, clarity, and ease of operations, thereby lessening stress and frustration among employees.

Company owners might consider conducting routine 'cleanups' of their company's mission and objectives, aligning them with current market demands, and discarding outdated or unnecessary practices.

Fascinatingly, if you do not have time to actually clean, the research suggests that even only the visual simulation of cleaning can mitigate stress. Such a concept can stretch further in a professional setting. As an example, a clear, organised visual representation of a project's status or a well-structured progress report can convey orderliness and control to employees, reducing stress and enhancing productivity.

Have a management or leadership issue, question or challenge? Reach out to Dr Scott through @ScottProfessor on Twitter or on email at [email protected]