The challenges and opportunities that have arisen from Covid and beyond
Ask anyone to list the top three sectors they feel have been hardest hit by Covid-19 and most, if not all, will include care homes in that list. It is a sector that not only had to manage a harrowing number of fatalities, but also had to contend with negative press coverage and a workforce taken to the brink of what they could withstand, both physically and mentally.
In this piece, we’d like to turn our attention to the people staffing the UK’s care homes. What they’ve had to endure, the tensions that have arisen, and how the care home sector can emerge from this crisis ready to embrace a brighter future.
The reality of care work
One of most hurtful attacks on the care home sector during the early days of the pandemic was the description of its workers as “low-skilled”. The reality is that care work demands the individual be proficient in an array of disciplines and requires a special mix of altruism, emotional intelligence, manual deftness, resilience, and commitment. Fortunately, as the days and months passed, there was a visible shift in attitudes and social care began to acquire renewed respect and admiration.
A more persistent belief is that care work offers no career prospects. This is simply not true. Though many carers remain in frontline roles, this is usually of their own choosing. Others use their frontline experience to build portfolios for senior positions. Across the sector there are CEOs and Directors of organisations whose careers began in entry level roles.
Moreover, since the pandemic hit, we have seen an uplift in applications from outside the care sector. Though this is partly explained by a suddenly available workforce from the likes of retail and hospitality, there have been many who had been seriously considering social care as a career option.
The full-time v agency staff quandary
Volatile and shifting workforce requirements in care homes, coupled with high staff attrition and the spread of coronavirus, precipitated a spike in the need for care agency services to mitigate employee shortages. Despite the need for this extra support, a restrained but visible disapproval for agency workers and the care homes that use them did, in some quarters, surface.
As the national focus shifted to care homes around April, a prevalent insinuation was that agency staff working between services were unknowingly spreading the virus. Accordingly, the disapproval of agency workers worsened, despite the collective dedication to facing this most gruelling of challenges.
There was also a feeling amongst some that temporary carers lacked the competence of their full-time peers and were using the renewed demand on them only to log hours. As such, the ‘Us and Them’ culture between full-time and agency workers became more apparent.
At Search, we took the step of unmasking this culture and introduced measures to improve relations having realised these divisions had taken root following a lack of understanding from both sides. The pandemic also added a new relevance to the mantra ‘we’re all in this together’ and that shared sense of camaraderie helped further improve relationships.
Building towards a more positive future
Despite the challenges facing today’s care home sector, hope remains. As a vocational career, care work will always attract outstanding people, the task ahead for us all is to reframe the dialogue surrounding it. News items and documentaries which report isolated incidents of abuse and negligence are neither helpful to nor representative of a sector that is extraordinarily professional and profoundly appreciated by its patients and their loved ones.
Then, of course, there’s the ‘Us and Them’ culture between full-time and temporary workers that is still so widespread within care homes. These divisions can make for hostile environments from which no-one benefits, not least the residents who don’t want or deserve to be exposed to such tensions, however low-level they may be.
Together, care homes and all who work within and alongside them can develop better relationships that benefit everyone. Working lives can be made easier, more productive, and more pleasant. It’ll just take everyone to show a bit more willing.