It has been said that during times of crisis it can bring out the best and worst in us and we have seen a great deal of that in real time with COVID-19. We have witnessed the support for NHS and social care workers on Thursday evenings, the realisation of the commitment these individuals give to their work often to their own personal detriment. We have also seen the judging of others and the way our society seems to place people on a scale of worth, this has been particularly highlighted in the comparison between NHS health staff and social care workers. Not by the staff themselves, I hasten to add, but by the general public, at times the media and by companies including supermarkets who initially deemed social care staff as a lower priority (apart from Sainsburys where I will be shopping from now on). There has also been at times the feeling that social care is not as deserving of the same level of support and compassionate treatment their health counterparts have received. This historical lack of value and respect has a profound impact on the social care sector and workforce and can be evidenced in the high level of staff absence that has been generally seen within the sector and which has been rising over the last 5 years. But is it any wonder that staff who give so much of themselves to care for others experience high levels of burn out and sickness when they are low paid, lack decent work structure and security of work and are treated as an afterthought by most other professionals including those who commission their services and work.
The thing about the social care workforce is that despite this lack of respect, in times of crisis we see them again and again get their heads down and get on with things. You just have to look at Twitter and other social media sites to see the amazing work that is being carried out by care workers within care homes and in communities across the country. This is not new, COVID-19 may be something that thankfully we have never experienced before, however there have been other occasions notably during extreme adverse weather that we have seen these workers, at a time when others are staying safe at home, getting out and battling the elements to provide much needed care to those who are vulnerable. When it is over it is back to business for the “just a care worker”, gone are the thank you’ s across social media, gone is the focus on the work they do and gone is the brief increase in value and respect.
During COVID-19 we have seen care home staff move in with their residents to ensure that they can limit the possible contact with the infection as much as possible to protect those they care for, this is obviously at a huge personal sacrifice. Care workers, managers and care home owners have been and are currently away from their own families and homes for weeks while they have prioritised their work and residents. Surely these are the same levels of commitment and values that we see within the NHS and for which we give praise to the doctors and nurses who are working within hospitals. The same call to provide care, compassion, and assistance to those in our society who most need it. I would never try to take away from the amazing work saving lives that doctors and nurses and other practitioners across NHS do daily, it can also be seen time and time again. Doctors and nurses sleeping on floors, exhausted but willing to get up and start all over again. I am asking why this is reserved only for these individuals and why care and support workers and care home nurses are deemed not to be as worthy or deserving the same level of respect? I am also asking that the work of social care be recognised as lifesaving as without the highly skilled level of care they provide, individuals would be unable to stay safely at home and within their communities. Staff who prevent hospital admissions due to their knowledge and understanding of those they care for and their individual health needs, this is also lifesaving work!
Social care providers and the workforce give true person-centred care and that is more than just knowing someone’s likes and dislikes. It is about understanding that person, knowing about how their health conditions including pain can impact their lives and the challenges that many people face and overcome every day. We hear about it and see it in the stories that appear particularly right now when families have been unable to be with their loved ones, about the care workers and nurses who sit with people and hold their hands to the very end. Staff who provide the type of care that often is intuitive, is highly skilled and can be honed through years of experience. Palliative and end of life care that is given freely but comes at cost to the worker although it is an aspect of their role they find rewarding. Giving piece of mind and comfort when it is most needed in the last days of a person’s life, how can this work be misinterpreted or not be recognised as being highly skilled and something that certainly most people find extremely challenging to do?
If there is any doubt about the lens that social care and it’s workforce is viewed through it can be clearly evidenced in the recent approach to supplying vital personal protective equipment and the initial lack of staff testing out with the acute sector. We know, despite the denials, that companies providing PPE were instructed to supply to the NHS as a priority to the point that many of our care providers were unable to source their normal day to day requirement of gloves and aprons. We have spoken with many of our Scottish Care members who were struggling to obtain necessary PPE to keep those using services safe and to keep vitally important staff delivering care safe. We also know from these individuals who were experiencing real panic and distress that the majority of their concern was for their service users and residents understanding how vulnerable they are in this current situation. This in itself has been traumatic; managers and owners have done everything within their power to source the needed equipment from paying much higher costs to travelling great distances to obtain PPE when needed. Bearing in mind of course these are the “greedy private providers that do not care about anything but making money” and yes that was sarcasm.
Can you imagine working for an organisation you trust and respect, knowing they invest a great deal in their staff and services. Working with and for people who are committed to long hours managing service delivery and ensuring peoples safety. Doing a job that you love because of the reward of helping others and then being told you are greedy and only doing this for a profit. This is while being the lowest paid section of the care sector, the most ignored and the last to receive financial assistance or support in times of need or crisis. Independent and third sector providers and their workforce are the best of us, they do this extremely hard and challenging work with little support or financial assistance while in a climate of being told they expect too much and are not deserving of the same respect and value others receive.
During COVID-19 social care providers and their networks are constantly being told we are in this together whilst receiving little assistance. Guidance has been issued around support that providers may require due to the current changing nature of care, increasing workload pressures in some areas and decreasing pressures in others as some services have been cancelled due to family being available or because they are shielding. Increased costs surround PPE are a huge factor as prices have soared and there is a large amount of additional PPE that is now required to effectively protect services users and staff from the virus. To date this support is still to be seen by care providers some of whom are actually being expected to use forms of electronic call monitoring to deliver their services and in order to receive payment.
PPE is paramount in social care because when providing support such as assistance with personal care, going to the toilet and assisting people to eat, social distancing is just not possible. Moving and assisting equipment may be in place where people are hoisted out of bed or may receive the vast majority of care in their bed. Keeping 2 meters away from each other and the resident is not going to work in these situations so PPE must be available to keep them safe. Lack of testing for staff has resulted in time off being taken when COVID-19 is suspected but not known for sure. It also results in staff having to be placed in vulnerable situations themselves, caring for others while not knowing if they are carrying the virus or are effectively protecting their services users due to lack of necessary equipment such as face masks. For care at home travelling to services has been an additional issue and care staff have been fined for doing so even though they literally had no other choice due to lack of transport in some areas. All of this contributes to care staff feeling undervalued and underappreciated and that is before they have been turned away from shops and told they are not real key workers.
Once this initial crisis has passed there must be real authentic conversations taking place to ensure that our social care workers are no longer treated as second class citizens. Our lives have changed dramatically and when things will go back to the way they were remains to be seen. We do know that social care will continue to be a huge part of peoples’ lives, caring for others with disabilities, in ill health and in older age must continue to be a priority as must the workforce that provide this care. Giving social care workers and nurses the respect they deserve and the recognition of the work they do will ensure we have a workforce who can remain healthy, both physically and mentally and are rewarded for the work they do with decent pay and terms and conditions. Surely this is the very least that we can do to thank them and show how much they are valued and appreciated for all that they do. If not who were you really applauding on a Thursday evening at 8pm?
Workforce Policy & Practice Lead