Oct 26, 2021

Challenges to workplace culture facing the aged care sector

Challenges to workplace culture facing the aged care sector

Right now providers around the country are dealing with the immediate operational issues around ensuring that older Australians are protected as we start to ease restrictions with community transmissions of Covid-19 still so high. These issues are all urgent, highly complex issues.

However, even when these issues are resolved, there is still the need to attract 130,000 additional workers by 2050 into a career where they can reasonably expect to be underpaid, under-supported and undertrained. 

As we learn to live with Covid-19, workforce is still the central strategic issue to be resolved and workplace culture has become the key competitive differentiator for every provider.

 Workplace culture and the aged care sector

The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety tabled in March this year noted that, “culture is the key determinant of an organisation’s performance and ability to meet its objectives.”

To add further to the stress on workplace culture, the speed of change has only exacerbated the impacts of any outdated, top heavy organisational structures.  

At the provider level, these impacts include higher staff turnover, increased distrust of leadership, unsustainable workloads and rostering nightmares.

It’s fair to say that a breakdown in trust on many levels has significantly impacted workplace culture and reduced the capacity of an already stretched workforce.

 The Challenges to Workplace Culture

There are at least five key interrelated challenges to workplace culture in the aged care sector.

  1. The Royal Commission. The Royal Commission report sent shockwaves through the sector and broader community, exposing low levels of care, poor working conditions and gaps in the basic structures designed to ensure quality care. Recent research indicates that 39% of Australian baby boomers believe that our aged care system is “less than satisfactory or poor “. [3] The combined impact of Covid-19 and the Commission’s report has made it even harder to find new talent, retain talent and fill shifts.
  2. The pandemic. The pandemic significantly impacted the sector with a disproportionate number of deaths among residents in aged care facilities. Risks increased for aged care workers and the government’s flawed vaccination rollout left people feeling further exposed, physically and financially.
  3. The workforce shortfall. The aged care workforce not only needs to triple by 2050 it has a major talent competitor in the NDIS. There are now more than 270,000 disability support workers and providers need to attract another 83,000 by 2024.  Workforce shortfall is the key dilemma in both sectors. But we cannot consider attraction and not consider retention rates.  Ongoing workforce shortages create a cycle of burn-out, higher staff turnover and poor client outcomes. In many organisations, staff turnover is as high as 27%. Anecdotally, this figure is often higher for new care workers.
  4. Quality. Ramping up the volume of daily documentation does not ensure quality care.  Without increased staff hours, this heavy administration burden is taking senior clinical people ‘off the floor’. It’s also increasing the amount of unpaid overtime hours by middle management and, the levels of dissatisfaction at this layer. If this trend continues we will see higher staff turnover rates in senior clinical staff and managers.

Quality service is contingent upon a frontline culture embedded in lived values. This means workers have access to qualified supervision, on the job training and skilled health professionals. Poor quality service rips the heart out of workplace culture. We cannot afford to lose senior clinical people from the front line of service delivery.

5. Working conditions. The Royal Commission’s report also noted that, “a highly skilled, well rewarded and valued aged care workforce is vital to the success of any future aged care system”.[4] Workers are entitled to respect, recognition and remuneration that values their contribution. This issue goes to the heart of a strong, resilient culture and the value we place on the care of older people.

This is not just about money. If your frontline workers feel valued and supported, it is far more likely that your residents and their families will as well.  In my experience, the phrase I hear most often from care workers and middle managers in relation to their senior leadership team is, “If they only said ‘Thank You’.

 A commitment to build a stronger culture

As we move forward into 2022, there is a distinct opportunity for every leader in this sector to pause and reflect on the lessons of the last 18 months, particularly in relation to workplace culture.

This will require leaders with outstanding interpersonal communication skills; leaders who have the humility to admit mistakes; leaders who connect daily with their frontline teams. 

Addressing the central strategic issue of workforce across the aged care sector begins with greater leadership engagement at the frontline.  For any CEO truly committed to workplace culture, there’s never been a worse time to sit behind a desk. 

 

Fran Connelley is a culture and communications specialist with over 20 years’ experience in the non-profit sector.  She runs workshop programs that help organisations build stronger, more supportive workplace cultures. Her latest book, ‘Workplace Culture & the NDIS’ is available from Amazon, Booktopia or direct from www.cultureandcommunications.com.au

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  1. In the last few years we have seen an increase in the propensity for the industry to employ as CEOs, people who were formally CFOs, or who come from a finances background. So when the two most influential people in an aged care organization have a focus on financial performance, in an industry losing money, it is not unexpected that culture is one of the first casualties.

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