Acknowledging and investing in the knowledge and skills of the care home workforce
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many of the challenges facing care homes. The recruitment and retention of staff has always been difficult, and the real and perceived risks of working in care homes as a result of the pandemic may increase issues around staffing going forward. Despite no formally recognised route into the sector, or acknowledgement of the role of a care assistant in terms of a vocation, many enter this workforce because they are driven by compassion and a genuine desire to help others, rather than prioritising salary levels.
Care home staff look after many of society’s most vulnerable people, providing support to families who either cannot afford to be full-time carers to elderly relatives or that the needs of these older people are such that they require round the clock care. Care homes also support the NHS by keeping people out of hospital. Unfortunately, there is a general perception of the care home sector as a ‘Cinderella’ service, offering low paid, unskilled jobs, as opposed to an environment which offers careers and progression, which are not only personally rewarding, but also professionally and financially viable. Health and social care is an important sector for the UK economy, employing over 4 million people, with care assistants being one of the largest groups.
Challenging times such as the current COVID-19 pandemic are indeed difficult, but may present opportunities for innovation and positive change. This may be a time to reflect on how staff can be supported through creation of clear career development pathways that will retain existing staff, and encourage more people to join the sector.
As a multidisciplinary group of academics, owners, healthcare professionals and educators involved with care homes through management, research and provision of education, we feel innovation needs to be explored in the context of raising aspirations and supporting staff to develop both individually and professionally.
There is often ambiguity in the titles, roles and routes for progression within the care home sector. It is important that staff are encouraged to progress and develop, with clear pathways for development based on their individual needs and aspirations. These may range from training courses to build knowledge and skills in specialist areas e.g. care of the resident with dementia, to part time degrees, facilitating progression to senior carer, and developing staff to become care home managers.
Staff should be encouraged to view their roles as a career, and not just a job. There needs to be a sense of belonging to an organisation in which people work, with the skills and traits an individual brings to the role acknowledged and situated within the wider teams in which they work. Care assistants often perform complex roles within their positions, ranging from intimate and personal care to the psychological support of patients via compassion, often with an instinctual sense of what a vulnerable resident’s needs are, based on the personal relationship they have worked hard to build with these individuals.
Innovations towards developing staff should be tailored to the individual and have positive benefits for the person, the residents, care homes and the wider care system. Whatever route staff members wish to take, this should be acknowledged, supported, take into account the demands of the role, and the flexibility needed to maintain a healthy work/life balance whilst working within a demanding environment.
As the ageing population of the UK continues to increase, along with ongoing negotiation of the complexities of COVD-19environment, so will the demands on care staff, thus the need to ensure a safe, supportive environment which will value and invest in its workforce to ensure sustainability and growth needs to be prioritised.
Authors and affiliations:
Yitka Graham, Head of the Helen McArdle Nursing and Care Research Institute, University of Sunderland, Mark McArdle, Managing Director, HMC Group, Newcastle upon Tyne, Jeanette Scott, Executive Director of Nursing, Quality and Safety, South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group, Angela Richardson, Director, Academy for Care and Education, Sedgefield, Co Durham, Marie Barrigan, Director, Academy for Care and Education, Sedgefield, Co Durham, Catherine Hayes, Professor of Health Professions Pedagogy, University of Sunderland