Who cares wins

Kate Field, Global Head – Health, Safety and Well-being of BSI argues that we must protect the well-being of adult social care workers

Overworked, underpaid and looking after the most vulnerable in society through a pandemic – it’s been a challenging time for workers in adult social care. Since COVID-19 emerged, media attention has largely focused on the extreme demands faced by NHS staff, but adult social care employees have also faced huge challenges and their own well-being has often been overlooked. Why is that, and what can we do to create a culture of care for the carers?

The challenges to well-being in the social care workforce include low pay, high turnover, job insecurity, insufficient training, and contracts that are often part-time, zero hours, or casual. Add the physical and emotional strain of dealing with an ageing, vulnerable population, and you have a recipe for mental health issues, fatigue and burnout.

COVID-19 is having a massive added impact on our adult social care workers. The usual levels of occupational stress in adult social care workers has been compounded during the pandemic by fear of infection, financial insecurity, overwork, and the trauma of witnessing the suffering and death of those they care for. Outbreaks in residential care homes for the elderly leads to high transmission rates, sickness, many deaths, while infection control means many residents may not be allowed to see family or friends, leading to isolation and frustration. Inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor access to testing kits causes further worries.

What can be done? According to the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD), “effective well-being programmes… need to be embedded in the culture of the organization and supported by senior management, rather than seen as ‘add-on’ benefits.” So, it’s not simply a case of encouraging your staff to eat well and take exercise, you need to provide resources that are useful and lasting.

Start with an occupational stress risk assessment, whether it’s a questionnaire, focus group or simply conversations with your staff. After all, they know what’s bugging them. Then you can identify situations where there’s an evident build-up of stress or potential burn-out.

High up the list is likely to be increased workloads, so employers need to rethink their priorities in times of crisis like COVID-19. Establish what is absolutely essential, and what deadlines can be moved. Adopt good workforce planning, making sure your staff are suited to and trained for the jobs they do. Ensure too that your line managers can build and nurture relationships. Do they check in with staff regularly and offer ways to support them? Can they identify the signs of burnout?

The aim must be to create a culture of well-being. The CIPD recommends organizations should develop a holistic framework, with tools to assess the physical and psychological risks to workers’ health, to target action in the right places. Ensure first that basic needs are met. Do staff have adequate food or PPE, are they free to take regular breaks, will they have income if they can’t work? You might want to consider introducing safe spaces for employees struggling with their emotions, well-being support phone lines, or group meetings where they can express their views.

There are many good employers out there, but tight margins often make it difficult to offer better pay and working conditions. In the absence of a big increase in funding, the sector needs to look to what can be done to improve well-being through good communication, proactive risk assessment and well- trained management.

Make the most of the various resources out there. The international standard ISO 45003 allows organizations to implement global good practice on managing psychological health and safety, while BSI’s Prioritizing People Model© sets out a complete, best practice framework on workplace well-being, creating the right conditions for individual fulfilment and organizational resilience.

What’s next? The COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on an already overstretched and marginalized workforce. If the adult social care sector is to survive and meet the challenge of increased demand from an ageing population, it needs to take care of its staff.

The perennial problems of low pay, under-staffing and a negative image are likely to remain but those working in this sector deserve the respect and support. It’s only by caring for our carers that we will be able to rely on them to continue to care for the most vulnerable in our society.