What Is Behind the Care Work Crisis - and What Can We Do About It?
The care sector is facing one of the worst staffing crises in its history. With 60,000 workers facing the sack for refusing Covid jabs on top of 120,000 pre-existing vacancies, many are warning of a “tsunami of unmet need” rippling across essential services this winter.
These concerns are not new, of course: the caring professions have always struggled to find workers willing to undertake such emotionally challenging and relatively poorly paid work. But with wages increasing in other sectors under the pressure of the ‘great resignation’, these perennial staffing problems appear to have reached fever pitch.
How bad is the problem?
As with any staffing problems, the initial difficulty finding candidates has wide reaching consequences. In recent surveys, 8 out of 10 care workers said staffing levels were negatively impacting care, and more than two thirds of care homes have had to stop or limit services.
In many cases, backroom staff are reportedly having to fill in as frontline carers. But this puts incredible pressure on the entire workforce, and more than two-thirds of care home staff say they may quit altogether because of the strains these shortages have put on them.
Some care homes which are registered with the CQC as providers of nursing care have even had to hand back these registrations because their “attempts at recruitment have failed” and they no longer have the nursing staff to keep this status.
Areas with high vacancy rates and low population densities are of particular concern. The South West, for example, has been particularly hard hit, and experts suggest recovering from the staffing crisis will be extremely challenging for care homes there.
Ultimately, the lack of places in residential care homes also contributes to widespread healthcare shortages, as many elderly people who end up in hospital are unable to free up beds once they are better. So the cumulative effects on those in need are potentially gruesome, with a seriously challenging winter ahead.
Three reasons recruitment has become so hard
During the pandemic, care work became more intense and dangerous. The level of staff sickness nearly doubled in 2020-21, and widespread vacancies put extra pressure on individual workers to do more.
This has led to a huge number of workers feeling exhausted, burnt out - and uninterested in continuing to work in the sector.
Care work has never been paid particularly well. But there haven’t historically been many opportunities for care workers to move to other entry level positions where they will be paid more.
During the pandemic, industries such as hospitality and retail have faced their own staffing crises - and been forced to raise their wages. This has meant many care workers - burned out and feeling underappreciated - have seized the opportunity to earn more elsewhere.
While poor pay and excessive expectations have caused harm, the single biggest takeaway from the pandemic has been a sense that care work is undervalued. From zero hours contracts to poor working conditions, many feel that their work is simply not appreciated.
This has been exacerbated by the Government's perceived lack of urgency in tackling these issues. While they have pledged to provide at least £500m to support the care workforce as part of the £5.4bn to reform social care, many feel this is simply not enough to avoid the immediate problems the sector faces.
Three things we can do to avert the crisis
Improve public perceptions
We must not overlook the role social prestige plays in individuals’ career choices. Many avoid care work not because they aren’t suited for it or don’t want to help those in need - but because it is perceived poorly.
By championing care workers and imbuing their work with more social status, we may attract a new generation to this meaningful, rewarding work. Part of this may be about how care work is presented in media, job adverts and the like. But it's also about how workers are treated on the job.
Conditions must be improved, and this may be as simple as offering better and more robust support and benefits. If care workers feel undervalued, it is the responsibility of organisations - and the government - to ensure that they know how important their work truly is.
The data clearly shows that care workers are routinely leaving the sector because they need more money and can get it elsewhere. To tackle this, organisations must find ways to offer workers more money. But because resources are already stretched extremely thin, they must be strategic about how they go about this.
Some have urged the government to offer retention bonuses, while others have argued that the only meaningful fix will come from wage increases. The decision should be made on a case-by-case basis: some organisations will gain more by prioritising retention, while others simply need to bring new workers in and will have to either increase wages, offer signing-on bonuses or offer other material benefits.
Make flexibility positive
Zero hours contracts have been misused in the care sector, and many workers feel their jobs are extremely precarious. But flexibility can also be a huge positive for workers, and in many instances could be used to attract workers who might otherwise be unwilling to take on care work.
If flexibility is used in the favour of workers, to give them more control and freedom over their workload, then it will be a benefit to recruitment. This may then lead to care homes employing more staff working far fewer hours. And while this may not be ideal, it’s certainly preferable to the current vacancy rate.
Conclusion: turning crisis into opportunity
While the coming months will be particularly tough for the care sector, it’s important that we don’t settle for short-term solutions. The pandemic has produced unprecedented challenges, but it also presents a chance to make fundamental changes.
Rather than simply focusing on the present challenges, organisations should look to the wider causes of these difficulties and begin reimagining how they approach staffing. Because if they are able to seize the opportunity now, they will be far better equipped when the next crisis hits.
If you're looking to avoid a staffing crisis, why not get in touch?