Expert Q&A: How to improve aged care job perceptions

The workforce within the Australian aged care industry is currently experiencing unprecedented pressure.

As the Australian Government’s Future of Australia’s Aged Care Sector Workforce Report details, shifts in policy approaches within the industry, the increasingly complex needs of individuals, and a reputation for long, irregular hours, hard work and low pay, mean employers within the sector are struggling to attract, and retain, talented workers.

In a Q&A session with Michael Maher, CEO of the Aged Care Development Network, we discussed how an outsider’s perspective on the sector differs from an insider’s, and what can be done to improve its image.

CVCheck: What are the factors affecting the aged care industry’s current ability to attract talented employees?

Michael Maher: Low pay, manual work (hauling people in and out of the shower), abuse (caring for dementia sufferers who lash out; abuse from family members) and the terrible portrayal of the industry in the media.

CVCheck: What are the specific employment needs within the industry?

Michael Maher: The industry is a mix of hotel and hospital. It’s a fine line and everyone does it slightly differently. There is a medical need, but it is not a hospital. It is the residents’ home. Unfortunately, the sector struggles to recruit registered nurses (RN) as many of them see aged care as the place nurses go before retirement, which is not true – it’s a specialty, like midwifery.

CVCheck: What are some of the benefits of working in aged care?

Michael Maher: It is a growing industry with lots of work, you can build a flexible roster around your lifestyle, and there is the satisfaction that comes from improving someone else’s life when you look after them.

For nurses, there are faster promotion streams than are available in the acute sector, and you can pick up work anywhere. I have met travellers who are carers – they travel a bit, then find a job for a few months.

Unfortunately, these benefits aren’t recognised by many potential employees. On top of struggling to attract RNs, aged care struggles to attract enough carers, let alone quality carers. With the rise of customers in aged care, we need to recruit approximately a 1:1 ratio of carers, yet due to low pay, manual work and stigma of the role, for many people it is not the first choice for a job. The sector ends up with many carers who, at best, considered it a second or third option for employment. At worst, they were forced into the centre by Centrelink and they have zero empathy for being a carer.

CVCheck: How do you believe the aged care industry is perceived by the community at large, and why?

Michael Maher: It’s perceived as a necessary evil – no one wants to have to move into residential care. People think, “They won’t look after my Mum/Dad the way I would”; “The government pays, but the home wants more money off me”.

I believe that these perceptions come from a mix of sources. The media sensationalises every little mistake in aged care, even though approximately 300,000 people use it every day without those problems.

The reality is that the government only pays for ‘Bronze’ coverage, which is not an official term but one we hear in the industry. If you want ‘Silver’ or ‘Gold’ coverage/service for your family member, you need to pay for it. Unfortunately, this isn’t communicated well to the community at large – everyone can have paid support, but the reality is, the paid support is basic level only.

So the industry’s workers, who are not salespeople, are trying to make the families of their clients understand that they can only do so much – beyond that there will be an additional charge. This just reinforces the perception of “untrustworthy providers getting rich on our tax money while providing a bad service”.

CVCheck: How do you think this differs from the perspective of someone who works within the aged care industry?

Michael Maher: Though there are some bad apples, like in any industry, the majority of people work in the sector because they enjoy providing care and looking after people.

Also, providers within the sector often don’t realise the financial gains that the community at large may think they do. Yes, there are some that have made a lot of money in aged care, but they are very rare. The majority of providers barely break even and many are operating in the red. If they were not subsidised by their backer (churches or community groups, for example), they would be going bankrupt.

CVCheck: Beyond employment, what other challenges is the aged care industry facing?

Michael Maher: There are financial issues – as described earlier re: ‘Bronze-level’ service – and the fact that regulators regularly changes the goalposts on the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI), the means by which an aged care provider is paid.

For example, let’s say this week 30 per cent of my residents are in the complex-care level – suffering from dementia, etc. – which means they take three times as long to shower, dress and feed, and we require more staff in that area. Then, next week, the government reclassifies ‘complex care’ to what is really ‘ultra-complex care’ and now only 10 per cent of my residents meet those definitions.

So we are no longer paid by the government to provide three times the attention that we need to give, yet the actual person still requires it. Something has to give.

CVCheck: In an ideal world, what would be your solution to these issues?

Michael Maher: The peak bodies, government and a number of providers and commercial suppliers (including ACDN and CVCheck) are launching the Foundation for Workforce Innovation in early 2018 (a foundation being developed to facilitate the sharing of information, and to support workers across the industry).

The aim is to provide better support for workers in a variety of areas, thus increasing both quality and quantity of staff in the industry.

CVCheck: How can HR or hiring managers improve morale within the aged care industry and better engage its people?

Michael Maher:

  • Recognise people when they do the slightest thing. Look for ways to say congratulations.
  • Use education sessions as team-building opportunities, not just the imparting of new skills.
  • Look for the natural leaders and give them little projects to work on. Talk to them as leaders, even if they are the same rank as the rest of the carers.
  • Get involved with the Foundation for Workforce Innovation

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