Opinion social care

What keeps me awake at night…

Joanne Balmer BEM, Chief Executive, Oakland Care

Joanne Balmer BEM, Chief Executive at residential care provider Oakland Care, shares her thoughts on the current state of social care and hopes for the future.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic the social care sector has a lot to be proud of. The care sector demonstrated resilience, dedication, and imagination in the face of these challenges, and from here we have collectively emerged in a better and stronger position than before.

Indeed, occupancy levels in care homes have largely recovered or risen. Meanwhile, good progress has been made with workforce recruitment and development, with an upsurge of a wide range of innovative labour models and career growth programmes which has elevated the image of working in care. As a result, we are seeing higher levels of recruitment, better retention, and consistent quality of care being delivered to residents up and down the country.

The sector has also witnessed an increasing interest in the sector driving positive environmental change. Many care providers are starting to build frameworks and action plans to reduce their carbon footprint – an area that I have been proud to share my knowledge and experience of with other providers.  Indeed, at Oakland Care, we are continuing to lead the way as a carbon neutral care group with an array of initiatives, and construction set to commence on our first net zero home.

Providers should keep the focus and deliver on their sustainability commitments. It is essential to engage the workforce through a bottom-up, not a top-down approach. I have found that many team members, residents, and relatives relish the opportunity to be involved in delivering environmental change for the future.

I would also advise providers to not be too focussed on sustainability changes that require heavy financial investment. There is a lot that can be done to improve your footprint with little cost, such as litter-picks, recycling programmes and tree planting.

SMART plans are an important part of monitoring change. Start by developing a 12-month plan with practical and achievable goals.  For example, taking a baseline assessment of your carbon footprint so you know where you are starting from and setting five focussed actions that will help reduce your footprint.

Despite these positive signs of progress there do remain challenges. The current economic climate is among the biggest, with providers tasked with managing rising costs which reduces their ability to invest funds in new innovations and technologies.

Meanwhile, those who are reliant on a high proportion of local authority funding are having to deal with late payments for residents and negligible, slow, fee rate increases by some council’s, which is putting added strain on those providers.

To help alleviate this, I would welcome a new national agreement on annual fee setting. By ensuring all local authorities communicate and implement fee rates within an agreed time period each year, providers will then have the financial certainty to plan accordingly. At present, many councils simply don’t make decisions on this until halfway through the financial year (or later) which is unsustainable for many providers.

I worry that, after the sectors recent progress, these economic challenges are impacting some providers’ abilities to offer competitive and innovative opportunities to team members. It is imperative that we continue to prioritise this through effective and pioneering strategies.

The development of internal training pathway programmes can offer an excellent route for growth. At Oakland Care, we have found success through this process with an Assistant Practitioner Development Programme which supports the development of Senior Care Assistants, a bespoke Leadership Development Programme for aspiring leaders, and numerous accredited learning courses.

Greater collaboration between the NHS and social care could also be beneficial. Integrated practical learning opportunities would be useful. For example, a district nurse coming to work in a care home for a month in exchange for a social care nurse.  If conducted as part of a development plan with specific goals for learning these work placement exchanges would benefit the NHS, social care, and the public.

We know that these are challenging times for many providers. However, I am confident we will continue to develop into a robust, sustainable social care sector fit for the future.




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