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Allocate APAC spoke to Neil Eastwood – international speaker on care worker recruitment and retention, Founder and CEO at Care Friends and author of ‘Saving Social Care’, plus Ross Bell – Director at Care Advantage and Care Friends ANZ, to discuss the workforce challenges faced by the aged care sector in both Australia and the UK. The discussion aims to share learnings and experiences to help providers prepare for what may be on the horizon.

Neil Eastwood Head ShotNeil Eastwood

Ross Bell Head Shot

Ross Bell

Whist each country faces their own specific challenges, there are some common themes in the aged care workforce that we are seeing in most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The UK and Australia are amongst those that are on a very similar track. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, care leaders predicted that the UK was roughly 3-4 years ahead of Australia in relation to the aged care workforce agenda. Now, 18 months on, it’s believed to have accelerated, and now Australia looks to be just 12 months behind the UK. So what’s changed and what can we learn from it?

Job seekers pool shrinks dramatically

Over the last 8 weeks, we’ve seen the job seeker’s pool diminish for the social care sector in the UK, with very few candidates responding to job advertisements. “Some providers reported seeing applicants’ numbers drop to about 10% from what they used to receive from their advertising on internet job boards.” said Neil. Ross added that Australia is seeing the same trend, “There has been a decline in the number of applications in Australia as well, with some providers seeing a 40 – 50% reduction in people applying for care roles.”

Workers threaten to quit over mandatory vaccination

In some areas of the UK, only 57% of care workers are vaccinated. The feedback is that some people will do it if it threatens their job, but that doesn’t account for everyone. “A recent survey from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation highlighted that 31% of their members working in aged care in Western Australian (WA) said they would quit the industry if having a COVID-19 vaccination became mandatory,” Ross added. 

Border closure costs loss of migrants to fill care roles

Yet the pandemic has already cost the loss of migrants, which has a huge impact on the social care workforce. In the UK, about 16% of social workers are migrants. In Australia that number increases to 37%. With the pandemic and closure of borders, immigration has paused, so providers are already losing a good pool of workforce. The UK, for instance, has lost 1.8 million EU workers during the pandemic, with 10% of them going into social care – that’s 180,000 less workers.

Neil explained the lost of migrants is not that straightforward. “Migrants are well known for their flexibility, hardworking and their willingness to work unfriendly social hours due to the fact that they might not have a family locally and therefore have less responsibilities on that front. So sometimes when you look for a local worker to fill the shifts a migrant works, you might need one and a half local workers to fill those hours.” 

Retention at risk as competitions from other sectors are back

While we’ve seen social care staff turnover improve during the pandemic, Neil explained that could be temporary. “It was largely due to people fearing job security during the financially challenging time. Some feel that they have a commitment to their service users, residents or clients who they’ve built up a relationship with; protecting their welfare. But as things ease and open up, we’re starting to see the economy bounce back. The unemployment rate is dropping significantly with competition from retail, hospitality and tourism looking to hire more staff. Everyone that has joined the care sector within the last 12 months who is new to care is likely to be attracted to a job in these sectors, as pay rates and benefits may prove to be more appealing.”

And let’s face it, working in aged care or social care is a pretty difficult job even before the pandemic – low wages, long shifts and unsocial hours are just a few things that make recruitment and retention so difficult. Hospitality on the other hand, has the flexibility to offer more wages as demand increases.

“But money is not the answer to this alone,” Neil added. “Surveys from the US revealed that 60% of home care workers said having a calling for care is their motivation behind joining the sector, 8% wanted a career as a nurse and see that as a steppingstone; 32% of the workforce simply wanted local work.”

So for the people who do not have a calling to care, will they leave when things change in the economy?

Pandemic leaves the aged care workforce in exhaustion and burnt-out

During the pandemic, we rely even more on the already strained workforce to fight on the frontline and look after the most vulnerable; they are emotionally and physically strained. The workforce is exhausted and burnt-out; many suffer from PTSD and goodwill has taken an impact. Some of the staff will look at their managers, who are often also under additional pressure at present due to higher workforce absences; visiting service users to cover calls; completing the additional COVID-19 reports and ensuring that people who are at risk, are not left vulnerable. The younger workers who are thinking about their career may be looking towards their manager, thinking ’is that a role I want?’. Providers are confronted with retention rates dropping rapidly and the job seekers pool shrinking to a level they have never seen. And all it does is add more pressure for the existing staff. When managers are being pulled to the floor to fill a shift themselves, they’re unable to provide the ongoing staff support.

“The pressure is really getting to a level we have never seen before,” Neil said. “But there are things providers can do on improving their retention to prevent voluntary staff loss, as well as increasing their pipeline to help with recruitment. We’ve seen some successful strategies here in and are happy to share them with our Australian colleagues.”   

Stay tuned to our next blog where Neil and Ross will be sharing some of the learnings and strategies that have proven to be effective in improving staff retention in aged care. Meanwhile, if you have an experience to share or a particular question you would like to ask, please send them to [email protected] .

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