How can the Social Care sector learn from the last 12 months as we move into a post-COVID-19 world?
The Coronavirus pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for the Social Care sector. As the pandemic swept through care homes across the UK, the sector was altered in ways that no one could have imagined. The pandemic shone a light on the Social Care sector, its staff, its procedures, its policies, and all the people who access the services. But as the sector slowly emerges from a period of turmoil, we look to the future, and ask ourselves how can the sector learn from the last 12 months and adapt operations in a post-COVID-19 world?
Recruitment and retention:
Before COVID-19, the workforce crisis was the largest issue facing the Social Care sector, with more than 120,000 empty vacancies reported . The demand for skilled professionals was heightened further by the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In a bid to boost recruitment, in April 2020, the Government introduced the ‘Care for others. Make a difference’ campaign, which sought to inspire the public to consider a career in Social Care. The campaign wanted to attract the right people, with the right attributes and values into the sector. Although the national effort made some improvements and helped reduce live vacancy numbers, the sector still faced staff shortages due to illnesses and changing priorities in roles. To continue driving down the number of vacancies available in the sector, a conscious effort needs to be made from a national and local level. Continued Government led campaigns and local incentives should be used as a tool to help combat the recruitment issues facing the Social Care sector.
But recruitment is not the only staffing issue facing the sector. The staff turnover rate remains high and a key area for improvement. Staff retention issues can be addressed through improving the current work packages available to professionals in the industry. Additional training and career opportunities, alongside enhanced employee benefits, will create incentives for people to remain in the industry. Staff retention is a significant priority for the Government if the sector is to emerge from the pandemic effectively. There is a clear need for a long-term and consistent People Plan for the industry. This initiative would boost the resilience of the sector whilst helping to protect the well-being of the workforce. Appropriate learning and development opportunities should be agreed and standardised where applicable, to enable progression into more senior roles and allow for more advanced skills to be developed.
If the past year has taught us anything, it is that our Social Care workers are dedicated and passionate individuals who rose to the challenge in the face of adversity. Current professionals in the industry faced issues around lack of training for new regulations, skills shortages, and staffing issues due to illness, not to mention they felt greatly undervalued compared to their counterparts in the NHS. Ongoing changes in the workplace led to poor health and wellbeing outcomes for many staff in the industry, and feelings of lack of acknowledgment and recognition were expressed. In a survey conducted by Community Care (2021), care professionals scored an average wellbeing score of 20.95, three points below the previous wellbeing score recorded in 2011 . Social Care is not as well understood as the NHS, therefore, the steps that were taken previously by the Government to improve understanding and recognition must continue to support the development of the sector, and ensure it is confident and resilient.
As we move into summer and COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, we must ensure current workers feel valued in their roles. Creating an environment where care workers feel more valued will boost productivity and efficiency in the workplace. Workers should be given access to training that goes beyond the minimum requirements. They should be encouraged to develop their skills, competencies, and leadership abilities with a view of furthering their careers within the sector, ultimately helping to boost loyalty and retention. Skills training should be made readily available for things such as crisis management and infection control, alongside the introduction of enhanced employee benefits such as annual leave, and/ or hazard or bonus pay. Enhanced opportunities will allow workers to recover, rebuild, and prepare them for any further waves of the pandemic.
Over the past 12 months, the isolation restrictions have enabled care workers to reconnect with the soul of their work and build even stronger relationships with the individuals for who they provide care. Moving forward, regulators and organisations should work with care workers to minimise the restrictions that limit their creativity and allow the workforce to use the experience of the past year to form a more individualised care package that meets the direct needs of the care receiver. Workers should be given access to the relevant training opportunities that enable them to follow the current guidelines without compromising on the quality of care currently provided.
Quality of care:
Workforce problems have a direct impact on the care people receive, leading us onto the next lesson learned; ensuring the quality of care is not compromised. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the pressure on the Social Care sector has been mounting, with pressure for professionals to provide care that does not compromise on quality, whilst withering the storm of a national crisis. The added pressures have placed a strain on the workforce and increased the responsibilities of current professionals. The National Office for Statistics reported that one-third (33%) of carers reported giving more care during the pandemic than they had provided previously . The social isolation measures that were introduced, whilst essential, have adversely affected the well-being of care providers and receivers. There are strong indications that the pressures and experiences of the last year have led to increased stress, exhaustion, and burnout in the workforce. There has always been a clear focus on the quality of care provided within the Social Care sector, however, Coronavirus caused direct effects on the quality of care delivered as the sector’s resilience and preparedness were tested. The introduction of additional quality control measures should be considered, so that care providers can ensure standards are met during crisis periods. In a bid to prevent any form of transmission, all routine Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections were abandoned, but with no quality control measurement and assessment taking place in care homes, there was a risk that quality of care was not being met in all cases. To avoid being forced to abandon routines CQC inspections, digital inspections should be considered, where remote assessments can take place.
Technical skills, equipment, and technology are an essential part of a modern-day social care system, but the effectiveness of social care is determined largely by the people who work in it. Currently, 1.5million people are working in social care, providing care and support in, or from, 38,000 settings . Skills for Care recently identified that training in social care remains a top priority to ensure there is a skilled and competent workforce in place, should the UK be hit with a further wave in Winter 2021. Whether it is refresher training for existing staff or fast-track induction training for new workers, there has been a need for training to continue during the pandemic.
During the height of the pandemic, face-to-face training was abandoned in a bid to prevent transmissions. Digital technologies played a vital role in enabling training to continue during the pandemic, and presented the opportunity for flexible, accessible, and cost-effective training solutions for individuals and employers. Supported by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), Skills for Care introduced three fully funded packages of learning delivered by endorsed providers. These courses aimed to support individuals with their training. The new digital methods of learning paved the way for a world of accessible opportunities that allowed for a greater degree of flexibility for the employee, fitting in better around their shift patterns, and/ or work/ life balance. Digital training is also substantially more cost-effective to a business compared to traditional training methods. The benefits of E-Learning stretch far beyond the flexibility and costs, they also have a massive impact on retention rates, increasing them between 25 – 65% .
Over the past year, most industries have become reliant on digital technologies to remain operational, and as the digital era is set to continue as the UK adjusts to a new normal, the Social Care sector should follow suit. Looking ahead, the task for national bodies and training providers is to take the lessons learned from the past twelve months and make lasting adjustments to create an environment that is more supportive of digital innovations, ultimately improving training and development opportunities in the sector. With the help of the Government, through funding and endorsement, digital training/ learning will lead the way in providing the sector and individuals with effective training solutions that support industry demands.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the past twelve months, but how the sector reacts to those lessons and makes the necessary adjustments moving forward will have a direct impact on the sectors ability to perform and remain resilient when a further wave of the pandemic arrives.
Although care providers are on the front-line, there is a joint responsibility between the Government, Commissioners, Regulators, Local Authorities, and other external bodies to ensure the workforce are supported and developed. Through collaborative efforts nationally and locally, the sector can drive forward in its capabilities and deliver a skilled and robust workforce into care environments. Funding will play a key role in the success of the sector, and the Government should make investment into the sector a key priority going forward. It is no secret that the sector has been greatly under-funded in the past, but now is the time to act and give the sector the funding it so desperately needs to thrive. Without significant capital investment from the Government to address issues such as recruitment and retention, there is a risk that the number of unfilled vacancies will peak once again during the winter months. Further funding should be focused on supporting the professional development of current workers, enabling the workforce to acquire specialist skills, and progress to senior managerial positions.
In preparation for a further wave, the training of care workers should remain a top priority to ensure regulations and standards are continuously met. Individuals and employers should consider utilising digital training, not only will this provide cost-effective and flexible training solutions, but it will go a long way in boosting productivity, efficiency, and retention in the workplace.
The resilience and success of the sector during a further wave relies on three key components; addressing staff shortages through increasing recruitment and retention, ensuring the quality-of-care standards are met, and increasing the training and development opportunities available to the workforce.
At Grey Matter Learning, we are committed to supporting the Social Care workforce to access the relevant industry training through e-learning and face-to-face delivery. This training is developed in direct response to the needs of the industry. As we brace ourselves for the Winter, and a possible spike in Coronavirus cases, we have readied our operations to support the Social Care workforce.
- Social Care Sector COVID-19 Support Taskforce: final report, advice and recommendations – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- HSC workforce study REPORT 2 (filesusr.com)
- Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey (BICS) results – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
- The size and structure of the adult social care sector and workforce in England (skillsforcare.org.uk)
- 27 Astonishing E-learning Statistics For 2021 – TechJury