Staffing issues in care existed long before the Omicron variant existed
Care workers remaining in the industry are exhausted and feel under-appreciated
It is impossible to solve staffing issues without solving the issues making people leave in the first place
It is difficult to think of a sector that has been hit by the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant over the past two months than care. High rates of staff absences due to isolation rules mean since December, over half of U.K. care homes have closed their doors to any new residents, while two-thirds of care providers are no longer accepting home care applications.
With demand for care homes only going to increase in the years ahead, it is imperative that the long-standing staff shortages that have plagued the care sector for a long time are addressed while they are at the forefront of the news.
The Reasons for the Shortages: Short Term
Omicron-related isolation is the biggest short-term cause of shortages – being the main reason for a 14% rise in staff absences throughout December. While a relaxation in the isolation rules in order to combat this was welcomed by some in the industry, this policy only works if necessary tests are available and handled effectively. The findings of a National Care Forum (NCF) survey showing that 32% of staff did not have access to Lateral Flow Tests when they needed them, and that 81% faced delays in receiving the result of a PCR Test suggest that this is not always the case.
The Reasons for the Shortages: Long Term
As significant an impact Omicron has made, it is also important to not lose sight of why staffing was in such a perilous position in the first place, with shortages in some care providers as high as 20% before the Omicron variant was discovered.
The reason for this is two-fold: difficulty in keeping staff already in the sector and difficulty recruiting new care workers. Having an average staff turnover of 39% (with areas of the South of England experiencing turnover of as high as 44%) would be difficult to handle in any sector, although not having people coming through training and entering the system makes it worse, with vacant positions being advertised rising from 6.1% of total roles in May 2021 to 9.4% in December.
Although the problem, as well as the solution to it, is two-fold, the reason for both is the same. Staff that remain in the sector were stretched before the pandemic, with the added complications and stresses that lockdown brought leading to longer shifts and overall working hours, with the negative impact on mental and physical wellbeing they bring. This is coupled with the sense that the government have had enough time (including almost two years since the beginning of the first lockdown) to start producing substantial answers. This sense of neglect was recently vocalised by Vic Rayner, head of the NCF:
“It is unacceptable that yet again, nearly 2 years on from the start of the pandemic, we continue to see enormous pressures in the care and support sector, this time compounded by the impact of Omicron.
Staff shortages are excessively high, and everything must be done to support providers to operate safe and quality services, so that people have access to the care and support they need, when they need it.”
The severity of the situation is best illustrated with real-life examples. In many areas, agency staff are being used regularly and many care homes are going about their day-to-day activities with fewer staff than was originally planned. The situation has recently deteriorated to such an extent in Derbyshire that the County Council has asked for volunteers from its workforce in other sectors and departments to help with catering and laundry.
The Solutions Being Offered
For its part, the government have put in over £420 million for a recruitment fund and have extended the relaxation of immigration rules to care workers. While this is a start, there are many hurdles still to overcome.
One of these hurdles is making care a desirable career path. A large-scale recruitment campaign entitled ‘Made with Care’ was launched in November, which included advertisements on television and radio emphasising the difference care workers make and the self-fulfilment working in care can give you. The campaign is not supposed to finish for another couple of months, although the retraction of many of the advertisements suggests it has not been as successful as the government had hoped.
There is also the unwelcome news that thousands of care workers may be forced to leave the industry if a vaccine mandate is put into force. It is currently uncertain whether the date of this mandate coming into place will be delayed, but this will only be prolonging the inevitable further reduction in staff numbers.
Where The Solution Lies
It is difficult to try and recruit for an industry that people are leaving at an unprecedented rate. People are aware that large retailers are recruiting people from the care sector with the prospect of higher wages. As rewarding as substantial parts of the job may be, it is difficult to see how many people can remain happy and dedicated to their work when they earn below the real living wage (as over 75% of care staff do), with unpaid work beyond contracted hours and travel time between clients not paid for or reimbursed. Financial security is made more difficult for home care workers by the use of zero-hours contracts. While these contracts work for some, it brings large amounts of uncertainty if it is someone’s main or only source of income.
If the U.K. is going to recruit the extra estimated 627,000 care workers it will require by 2030 to accommodate an ageing population successfully, this must change. People will only join an industry, particularly in the modern job market where mental wellbeing plays an important role for many in deciding their next or new career path, if they feel they will be happy to work in it. At the moment, the figures and news headlines will tell you that this is not the case.
Many care workers love what they do, and many who leave the industry do so with a heavy heart. Those who join the industry know it will be intensive, and sometimes extremely difficult, work. Many will be prepared to stay, and the likelihood of people joining will increase, only when the workers feel their efforts are being appreciated – whether this be through wage increases, mental health benefits, or another route. While accepting there is no bottomless pit of money from which to fund this, the pandemic has shown that care is one of the most essential sectors we have. If investment does not go into the most essential sectors, where lives are on the line, it is difficult to see a more worthy recipient of it.
In short, care workers across the industry have been given increasing amounts of work to do over the past five years, receiving nothing in return. People are aware of this and will simply not join an industry that does this when there are better-paid and more accommodating industries out there. Before trying to bring people in, you must first ensure those who are currently there are happy.
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Cover photo courtesy of vectorjuice