Housekeeping services a boon for Japan's busy moms

Many working women doubtless share the same predicament - under so much pressure from their jobs and raising their children, they have no time to clean the house.

It's always such a mess they can't even have friends over.

For women who find themselves at the limit of what they can do on their own, leaving the cleaning to a housework support service is one way to handle things.

Return to a sparkling home

"I felt backed into a corner, totally exhausted - I couldn't even laugh or smile with my daughter."

The worst days of last year were from April to June for licensed social insurance consultant Maiko Miyashita, 35, who has an office in Tokyo.

That is her busy season, a time when she is besieged with requests from companies to handle all kinds of labour matters.

On top of that, her 2-year-old daughter had started going to a nursery school and was coming home with cold after cold and even fevers.

Sometimes she caught her daughter's cold and had to work with a reeling head.

With her daughter allergic to dust and pollen, doctors had instructed her to be especially diligent about housecleaning, but she doesn't have time. Her husband, 39, cooks but is terrible at cleaning.

"I felt like I couldn't take it any more, what with work deadlines coming one after another and the pressure to keep the house clean," Miyashita said.

Eventually she turned to a housework support service. Her home became so clean it was hardly recognizable, she said, after hiring CaSy Co. to do her housecleaning two to four times a month.

CaSy operates in Tokyo and its neighbouring areas, and in Osaka.

"Now I don't fight with my husband about housework anymore, and I have less stress at home. It's given me the chance to take on new clients, and I'm getting more work," Miyashita said.

According to CaSy, its core users range in age from their late 20s to 40s, and most either live alone or are in a two-income household.

A 33-year-old woman with a 2-year-old child who works in sales in Tokyo took her husband's overseas assignment as her opportunity to start using a similar service once a week.

Leaving a house key with the service, she has them clean on a weekday while she is at work.

"The house is sparkling when I get home. I can spend plenty of time with my child and be ready to deal with work the next day," she said happily.

'Fear and discomfort'

When Recruit Works Institute asked working mothers and fathers in July about stress at home and work, "daily cleaning and organising" was the most popular answer among mothers, chosen by 75 per cent of the respondents.

This was more than double the number of fathers, 36 per cent, who chose the same answer.

The message has clearly gotten out, as many new housekeeping services have sprung up recently.

Many can be hired by the hour to do work other than cleaning, such as regular tasks like cooking or laundry.

Typical charges are ¥3,000 (S$35) to ¥4,000 an hour, but services in the ¥1,000 to ¥2,000 range have been appearing recently.

However, not many women currently want to entrust their housework to an outsider.

In a Nomura Research Institute study done last year among women aged 25-44, only 3 per cent had used a housekeeping service.

Top reasons for not using one were "feel uncomfortable letting them into my house" (47 per cent) and "too expensive" (45 per cent).

Kana Takeda, a consultant of the institute, said, "Fear and discomfort with entrusting other people with one's housework are probably more important reasons than price for the dearth of housekeeper users."

Thoughtful application of housekeeping services will reduce housework, and the time saved can be used for work or better communication with the family.

In Takeda's assessment, "Housekeeping services are one option to help family life coexist with work."

However, she also said: "It's not enough in terms of reducing the burden on working women. It's more important to first address the work-life balance and promote participation by men in housework."

Turn over disliked tasks

What can a housework support service be asked to do? We asked Executive Director Yuki Takahashi of industry powerhouse Bears Co. how to get started.

Housework support service means we do the everyday cooking and cleaning instead of family members. At Bears we call this "substitute homemaking."

We're often confused with "deep cleaning" services that may use special tools to clean air-conditioner units or oven hoods.

In homemaking, we use the cleaning implements and cleansers already at the households we visit.

For first-time users, it can be helpful to first ask for things you're not good at or dislike, such as cleaning bathrooms and sinks.

Using a service for about two hours once a week will gradually eliminate the need for you to do any of that yourself.