Many families in Singapore rely on domestic helpers, known as maids. With both parents working full-time, these maids do household chores, cook, and sometimes take care of children or elderly family members. And with someone from a different culture living 24/7 in your home, there will surely be tensions, so how do you solve the common maid problems that will crop up from time to time?
We asked the experts:
Make this rule clear from the beginning: She can use the phone if there’s an emergency, and during her break times or days off, but not while working. Explain what can happen if she tries to cook and talk on the phone at the same time, for instance – she could injure herself.
Once you’ve set the rule, be consistent in making sure that she’s following it. And when she’s on the phone during her break, don’t disturb her or badger her to finish the call.
Some maids have difficulty settling into a household and can’t get along with some family members.
Your helper may be having trouble assimilating into a new culture. So make sure her basic needs are met – that she has a clean and comfortable room, and enough food, since she may not be used to the kind of food your family eats.
She may also be missing her loved ones back home, so if you sense that she feels unsettled, have a chat with her – assure her that you care about her and that she’s part of the family. Remind her that her sacrifices are worth it, and let her speak to her immediate family regularly so she feels connected to them.
Getting along with everyone at home may be trickier. With different personalities and expectations, it’s not unusual for tensions to arise. Get your helper’s perspective on the situation, then suggest ways to deal with it, either by getting her to adjust her attitude or to understand what others in the family are like.
Next, have a talk with the family member who’s not getting along with your helper. Emphasise the importance of harmony and compromise since you’re all living under the same roof.
This could be due to differing expectations: Your maid may think she’s doing her best, but you think otherwise because you can do it faster or your last helper was more productive.
You shouldn’t compare your current helper to your previous one – it will only breed resentment and cause her to feel inadequate. Instead, go through her daily routine with her and find out how she does her chores. Tell her how she can do things more efficiently.
Never give her more than she can do. Start with a few simple tasks and build them up when you’re confident that she can manage. Don’t forget to praise her when she’s done something well. This will increase her confidence, and in turn, enhance her work performance.
She may take her frustration out on the kids or your folks, or not make them a priority. If she has been slack in taking care of the kids or helping your parents at home, understand that her behaviour is likely due to the frustration she feels about her daily routine – she might be overwhelmed and stressed. Talk to her and see where you can make things more manageable for her.
If she takes it out on your family verbally or physically, bring in the agency to help resolve the issue. Abuse of any kind should not be tolerated. If the problem can’t be resolved and she returns to her old ways, consider getting a new helper.
Be clear with your instructions and make sure she understands what you expect of her. For instance, telling her to “clean the room” is very vague. How do you want her to clean the room? Which parts do you want cleaned?
You may also want to break down her chores into smaller and more manageable tasks, and ask her to write down your instructions so she doesn’t forget them. When she’s finished, give her positive as well as constructive feedback so she does a better job next time.
For example, she has poor personal hygiene, swears under her breath or has bad table manners.
If any of your family members behave in similar ways, tell them you will not tolerate their bad habits. Hopefully, your helper will understand that she also needs to improve.
If you wish to be more direct, speak to her one-to-one. Tell her what you’ve observed – that she chews with her mouth open or has poor personal hygiene – and politely request some changes. For example, say “I would like you to make sure that you shower at least once a day, and immediately after doing outdoor work”. Be mindful of your tone and avoid accusatory statements like “You’re so smelly” or “You’re so rude”.
It’s up to you to set the boundaries. If your maid feels like she’s part of the family, she’ll take an interest in what goes on in the house. So sit her down and make it clear that she must respect the family’s personal issues.
But before speaking to her, check that you haven’t been involving her in your personal problems – that is, sharing private information with her or asking for her help with these matters. If you have, you may be partly responsible for her behaviour.
Calmly explain to her the concept and importance of boundaries. Bring in examples, such as: “I was happy to see you taking good care of our visitors today. But next time, after serving them drinks, leave them in the living room so that I can talk to them” or “Thanks for asking about that argument I had with my mum. It’s just a normal squabble. You can help by telling me right away when my mum calls the house”.
How do you befriend her while maintaining those professional boundaries?
It takes time to form a sincere and trusting friendship. Start by asking questions about her life, family and home country. You may wish to share some of your stories too. Involve her in outings with the family where she doesn’t have to work (like a walk in the park), celebrate her birthday, occasionally buy gifts for her kids to show you care, and communicate with her even if it has nothing to do with her chores.
Once she sees that you value her as a person, she’ll be more likely to open up and have greater respect for you.
If you’re afraid to befriend her for fear of losing your authority, just remember that if there is respect, no authority is needed – because there’ll be an unspoken understanding between you.
Perhaps there’s been a natural disaster in her hometown, or a death in the family. She may have marital or financial difficulties, too.
Put yourself in her shoes. Understand that she needs to heal or grieve, and give her the time and space to do so. She may be feeling helpless, hopeless, guilty, panicked, lost, stressed or confused. These emotions can take up a lot of physical and mental energy.
Offer a listening ear. Show her that you are genuinely concerned about what she’s going through, and see how you can help – financially or otherwise. If she’s still affected months later, try signing her up for a professional counselling session.
Let your helper know that she can go to you even if she’s made a mistake – like accidentally breaking something in the house, or if your child or elderly parent fell and hurt themselves while she was looking after them.
Reassure her that you will not send her back or complain to her agency, and explain why it’s important to keep you informed.
When she does open up to you about a problem, notice how you react. Do you fly off the handle or hurl accusations? Do you make her feel bad that she’s coming to you with a problem? If that is how you act, then it’s only natural that she wouldn’t want to speak up. Focus instead on how she can avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
She always waits for your instructions, even for the simplest tasks. Your maid may not feel empowered because her agency told her to do only as she’s told, or her previous employer didn’t like it when she took the initiative.
If you’d like her to be more proactive, tell her, instead of getting angry at all the maid problems. You can ask for her opinion on how to do certain things. For example, say: “I would like you to reorganise the store room today. Can you think of the best way to get everything neat and tidy?”
Make her feel that she is capable of performing those tasks. When she does them, praise her efforts.
What’s her reason for overworking? Is she trying to show you that she’s capable? Is having more money important to her? Is her job all that she has to pass her time with? Find out her motives and share your concerns. Tell her that if she carries on at that pace, she may fall ill.
If she says that she wants to take the day off but has too much to do, go through her schedule with her and cut down on her chores or teach her how to manage her time better. Introduce her to activities she can do outside the home on her days off.
These tips were shared by the following experts:
- Edmund Pooh, managing director of Universal Employment Agency
- Daniel Koh, psychologist from Insights Mind Centre
- Ho Shee Wai, psychologist and director of The Counselling Place
Text: Sasha Gonzalez, HerWorld