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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Passionate but exhausted support workers are at breaking point – it’s time for Govt and families to step up

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No matter the promises made in the midst of the election season debate, tangible reforms in the aged care sector are languishing.

Aged care support workers are at breaking point, with calls for more mental health investment to prevent mass resignations across the country.

Stuart Miller, CEO of My Home Care Group, Australia’s largest in-home care provider, tells Aged Care News that ongoing workforce shortages are continuing to deplete the energy of his passionate yet exhausted team.

“No one else is looking out for our clients, many of them live on their own with limited support from their families,” he says.

In order to prevent a mass resignation across the country we must act now to protect our workforces and ensure they are supported through these high-stress periods.

My Home Care Group CEO, Stuart Miller

“When we’ve got none of the resources, when we cannot recruit enough people to keep up with the demand, that means we always have to look to triage.”

In practice, this has meant that workers cannot fill all of their appointments; when this happens, acute care needs — such as medication dispensing and feeding — will be prioritised over services such as cleaning or social assistance.

“It’s a really hard conversation to have,” Miller says.

“For those people who are not getting their house cleaned that week, that might be the only person they see this week.

“They were so looking forward to it, the human contact and someone else to talk to … so I understand that loss.”

Stuart Miller, CEO of My Home Care Group, says that a strong bipartisan commitment is need to reforms in aged care this election cycle, with the ongoing crisis severely affecting aged care workers mental health.

In response to these ongoing challenges, Miller is calling for bipartisan commitment, in the lead-up to the federal election, for more mental health support for aged care support workers. 

“Rightfully the focus has been on our frontline healthcare workers  — particularly nurses — over the course of the pandemic, but unfortunately our critical aged care staff have not received the same treatment.  

“In order to prevent a mass resignation across the country we must act now to protect our workforces and ensure they are supported through these high-stress periods.”

Worker speaks out about the avalanche of stresses

Megan Mainwaring has eight years’ experience in the aged care industry.

Now working as a case manager for My Home Care Group, she tells Aged Care News that in 2022, the situation is the most dire it has been in her time in the sector, with a combination of lack of staff and resources, as well as abuse from frustrated consumers and their families pushing workers to breaking point.

“We are just trying to do our best for everybody and the constant abuse just makes you say ‘why do I do this?’, ‘why do I put in my hard earned time if this is how I’m treated?’.

“Sometimes you just want to crawl into a hole. You think, I don’t want to do this anymore.”

We are just trying to do our best for everybody and the constant abuse just makes you say ‘why do I do this?’, ‘why do I put in my hard earned time if this is how I’m treated?’

Case manager, Megan Mainwaring

First and foremost, a lack of staff has made it impossible for Mainwaring to fulfill all of her client’s needs.

“It’s tough, because you want to try and do the best you can for your clients and support them, but then when you don’t have enough workers, or the workers, are tired from just being overworked…

“I’ve had a client ring me today saying, ‘Megan, I can’t stand this anymore. What’s happening?’.

Megan Mainwaring, an aged care worker/manager of eight years, says the government must pay workers adequately and develop better mental health support services, or else more workers will leave the industry.

In another recent case, Mainwaring says she copped abuse when she had to substitute workers for a palliative patient.

“He’s staying at home, because he doesn’t want to go into care … and you have to respect his choice.

“One of the girls that normally goes on a Saturday rang and let me know that she’d had a family emergency.

Mainwaring found a last minute replacement, but the alternative worker could only attend the client two hours later than usual.

“The client was up in arms and yelling at me on the phone,” Mainwaring recalls.

Aged care work is not the sort of job where you can simply clock off and forget the day’s proceedings.

Mainwaring says her clients are constantly on her mind, and pondering about their wellbeing often keeps her up at night.

I was thinking about one of my clients last night, lying in bed…  she’s had a fall and she’s in hospital.

“I’m just wondering when she’s coming home and when we’re going to put services [in place].

“She’s going to want more services … and that poor lady doesn’t have any family to support her.”

Just because you have an aged care package, doesn’t mean that you can just leave your parents and let them fend for themselves.

Megan Mainwaring

Mainwaring notes that it is increasingly common for families to keep a hands-off approach to their older family members’ care.

However, they will call up to abuse aged care case workers, without consideration for the complexities of the work, nor any intention to provide support themselves.

“Just because you have an aged care package, doesn’t mean that you can just leave your parents and let them fend for themselves,” Mainwaring says.

“I go in there and there’s medication everywhere, for example, so I’ve written a letter to the family —  because they don’t respond to my phone calls — saying you need to come and assist your dad; you need to get him to go to the GP, because he won’t listen to me.”

The combination of such a high stress job with limited remuneration makes for an industry that is deteriorating by the day, Mainwaring says.

“I suggested to my daughter to consider it, because she’s studying nursing, and she said ‘why would I bother?’

“She’s got a casual job, working in before and after school care, no training, no nothing. She’s 19, going to university and she earns more money than all my girls [at My Home Care Group] that go out there and look after people’s lives.”

“So the Federal Government, they’re saying that they’re giving us all these new [home care] packages, but maybe they should look at making the wages a bit better.

“If you made the salary attractive, we’d probably get more workers.”

New policies and initiatives needed to boost morale

Miller says that My Home Care Group is implementing a range of initiatives to keep morale high in the workforce, including after-hours, group activities with staff.

“We’ve got Zoom sessions where we’ve got a lady who’s doing songs just for the team, and the team’s given her recommendations for songs she wants to sing.”

Our company does offer an employment assistance program, but they can only do so much when families and clients have no patience despite the pressures we are under workforce-wise.

Stuart Miller

Furthermore, their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), provides work-specific counselling services.

“Yes, we’ve got our EAP, but it’s nowhere near enough,” Miller admits.

“Our company does offer an employment assistance program, but they can only do so much when families and clients have no patience despite the pressures we are under workforce-wise,” Mainwaring adds.

Miller says that during the pandemic, his company continued to provide online training, but that bringing sessions back to face-to-face format is optimal for the mental health of the aged care workforce.

“We’re now rapidly turning around to face-to-face because we found that it’s a lot more effective; it’s what our staff want and need at this time when they feel disconnected.

“So we’re doing a lot of those things, and you get a double benefit: you get a better trained workforce who feel connected to the organisation and you are providing the space for them to finally have the adult conversations they haven’t had for quite some time as well.”

Mainwaring has put forth some ideas of her own, calling on the Government to implement more extensive, on-demand support for workers on the ground.  

“You’re working on your own, so sometimes it can get quite stressful and depressing.

“We’ve got these people’s lives in our hand. Sometimes, workers come into people’s houses, and [the client] is unconscious, so they have to call an ambulance and then family; they’ve got to cope with a lot.”

Some sort of hotline that they can ring and get some sort of education [would be good]. If they’re faced with a client that’s got aggressive dementia, for example, they can ring this hotline and say ‘I don’t really know how to handle it, can you please help?’.

Megan Mainwaring

With this in mind, Mainwaring has proposed that a national hotline be implemented so that workers of all qualifications have a number to call when they are dealing with an acute crisis on the job, or when they need mental health support for themselves, after-hours.

“Some sort of hotline that they can ring and get some sort of education,” she explains.

“If they’re faced with a client that’s got aggressive dementia, for example, they can ring this hotline and say ‘I don’t really know how to handle it, can you please help?’.

“Also, for when they’re feeling down in the dumps, if they feel that a client’s upsetting them, because they’re not working with colleagues.

“Even though we, as a company, support workers on the ground the best we can … I just think the Government should be supporting more in the training for these aged care workers.

Finally, Mainwaring says that the Government should establish a mechanism, whereby prior work experience and training can be used as credit towards receiving qualifications, such as a Certificate IV in Ageing Support.

“We’ve got some girls out there that are [practically] qualified, as in they’ve done the work but haven’t got a certificate for it, even though they’ve been doing it for 10 years.”

Furthermore, greater government subsidies should allow workers to advance their qualifications and improve their capabilities — but it’s impossible for most, at present, being low-paid workers who already struggle to put food on the table.

“For them then to go and apply to do this certificate, it’s going to cost them $2500. When they are on minimum wage; they can’t afford that,” Mainwaring says.

“Give her credit for her years of good work. She’s a single mum, she otherwise couldn’t pay for that.

“We just need more support in the industry and across healthcare.”

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 and Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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