As more and more Australians live longer, aged care is now a true growth industry. Employing a diverse workforce and providing essential services to a complex client group, aged care providers are increasingly on the hunt for innovative ways to build sustainable, high-quality services.
In a pioneering research initiative—the Quality Jobs Quality Care Project—UniSA partnered with RMIT University, Flinders University, three leading aged care providers and an employee union, in a project designed to address these challenges. A set of innovative workplace interventions were designed, then trialled in residential and community aged care to achieve the win-win outcome of improving the quality of jobs and the quality of care.
Here we share some insights from this project which reflect the key finding: the quality of care services for the elderly very much depends on the quality of the working conditions under which employees provide those services.
INVESTING IN CARE IS INVESTING IN CLIENTS
Providing care requires direct person-to-person interaction. The foundation of high-quality care is the relationship between the care worker and client or resident. Hence, the benefits of healthy, satisfying and safe jobs for care workers will flow on to create care relationships and services that are healthy, satisfying and safe—in other words, high-quality.
For example, providing high-quality care requires skills and confidence. While formal training provides a strong foundation and is highly valued by employees, care workers also benefit through mentoring from experienced colleagues. Real-time access to an experienced ‘buddy’ or mentor means that targeted advice and guidance is available for new, challenging or complex care situations.
Furthermore, like many service workers, care workers are low paid (as regulated by industry awards). Adding insult to injury are common problems with inadequate and/or irregular hours, not being paid for travel between clients for work activities (such as community care) and expectations to attend work training and meetings on unpaid personal time. Financial strain is common for these workers, leading to high levels of stress and dissatisfaction.
When organisations invest in workers, as our partners did, and improve working conditions (for example, by increasing regular hours or by providing paid training opportunities), they reap significant benefits—a committed, stable and engaged workforce willing and able to create high-quality care relationships and services.
(ENOUGH) TIME IS THE ESSENCE OF QUALITY CARE AND SAFE SERVICE
Providing care is personal, often intimate, and deeply social. In the midst of a heavy workload of tasks to be performed under strict time constraints, the individual needs of the person receiving care, are often lost or overlooked. Time pressures can also result in the health and safety of both the client and the care worker being put at risk.
In any sphere of life, rushing and relationships do not go well together, fast is difficult to make safe; and quality and quick are usually incompatible.
Investing in time to care, by setting realistic expectations, workloads and schedules, is another example of a win-win; clients receive personal and responsive service and employees get a work environment that supports their safety, wellbeing and capacity to care.
When organisations invest in workers, they create a committed, stable and engaged workforce.
AS THE FAMOUS SONG TELLS US, RESPECT IS WHAT IS NEEDED
Like other personal service workers, many care workers do not feel valued and appreciated by their organisation or the general community. We’ve emphasised the importance of the social (relationship) for clients receiving care; the same applies to workers themselves. Workers who feel valued, appreciated and respected are likely to reciprocate with commitment, engagement and enthusiasm for their work and their employer—all essential attributes for a high-quality care worker.
The Quality Jobs Quality Care project is focused on bridging the gap between evidence and practice to create innovative workplace solutions for improving job quality and care quality. In December 2016, we will launch an evidence-based toolkit for improving job quality in aged care, which contains many useful resources for practitioners in other industries.
By 2054, older Australians (aged 65 years+) will comprise 21.5% of our total population.
(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013)
Over 240,000 people are employed as direct aged care workers.
(National Aged Care Workforce Census and Survey, 2012)
94% of the aged care workforce is female.
(Department of Health and Ageing, 2013)
The Quality Jobs Quality Care project is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the Aged Care Service Improvement and Healthy Ageing Grants Fund. The project is led by Chief Investigators Professor Sara Charlesworth (RMIT University) and Associate Professor Deb King (Flinders University), with researchers from the UniSA School of Management (Ms Jacquie Smith, Dr Sue Jarrad and Dr Natalie Skinner). The project partners are HammondCare, Brightwater, Helping Hand and United Voice.