Everyone in the adult social care sector knows that we desperately need solutions to the workforce crisis. A lot of the discussions to date have been focused on minimum wage increases, international recruitment, qualifications and zero hours contracts. Something that’s equally as important but harder to quantify is creating a sense of belonging. It’s a feature on Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs – just above food and safety – and it’s been linked to improved wellbeing in the workplace, better performance and a 75% decrease in sick days. So how can we foster a sense of belonging in the UK social care workforce?
One of the main reasons that the sector struggles to retain workers is because care workers often feel replaceable. They hear about government schemes to fill the gaps in the workforce with volunteers, see job adverts where new recruits are offered the same as care workers with decades of experience, and can’t help but feel that their choice of career is undervalued by our society.
Care workers can often become isolated within a fragmented system of funding and provision, despite the fact that they make up a workforce larger than the NHS, construction, transport, or food and drink service industries. A care worker may feel positively about their individual employer but this is not linked to a wider sense of belonging and identity, like that of a nurse or doctor. A nurse will likely be registered and signed up as a member of the RCN with benefits ranging from legal representation to opportunities for professional development and access to online learning resources. This means that regardless of the hospital trust where they are currently based, they know they are valued and recognised as a skilled professional first and foremost.
Providers themselves are so focused on delivering quality of care against a backdrop of chronic underfunding that they can hardly be blamed for looking at these issues internally. But the pandemic highlighted how this fragmentation and ‘each to our own’ attitude does not benefit the sector. The public were able to unite behind and support the NHS because it’s one organization full of people who are considered to be professionals. The care sector is more likely to have its whole reputation tarnished by bad practice of single organisations, such as the shocking and unforgettable revelations at Winterbourne View in 2012 which still remain in the public consciousness to this day.
There needs to be a unifying organisation for care workers – a place where they can ask for help, talk about their achievements and be recognised for the work they do. A national body for care workers would foster a sense of belonging and create a place to go and raise concerns, both about safety of people they support and their own safety. This is important both for care workers who experience abuse at work, and care workers who witness abuse against people who draw on care and support.
It would need to be independent, recognised by the government, and embraced by social care stakeholders. It’s in the sector’s interest to unite the workforce and fight for better perceptions, and it’s important that the workforce has a platform that’s independent of managers and owners because their circumstances and issues are so different. It needs to speak up on behalf of care workers, supporting them in feeling professional pride and sharing best practice. This would also have the benefit of creating a sense of ownership of their own profession, and ownership of quality of care.
In thinking about solutions to recruitment and retention we need to be more creative. Keeping the experienced care workers in the jobs they love has to be the first priority, and this is best achieved through formally valuing the work they’re already doing, standing up for their interests and giving them the support they need to deliver excellent care to the people they support.