While not all aged care workers face these challenges, for many these pressures are real, and they can have a corrosive effect on the culture of the aged care workplace.
These pressures mean aged care workers are often less likely to speak up if they are not treated well or see others being mistreated. They don’t want to rock the boat or make themselves a target.
When workers can’t speak up about poor behaviour in their workplace, a culture of bullying can thrive, and many have told HelloCare that this situation exists in aged care.
HelloCare’s Aged Care Worker Support Group is like a microcosm of the aged care workplace. It’s a digital forum where people who work in aged care can offer encouragement and support to each other, and ask those who work in the field questions about their work – including workplace bullying.
Further evidence of bullying in the aged care workplace comes from a 2019 survey by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, which found that ‘bullying and harassment’ is one of biggest concerns about the sector aged care workers.
The survey identified that both hierarchical bullying and bullying from management occurs.
Culture of fear allows bullying to thrive
Sally*, a member of the Aged Care Worker Support Group, who wishes to remain anonymous, has spoken to HelloCare about the bullying she has witnessed working in aged care. She says the subtle undermining of others is typical of some of the interactions she sees at work, and she believes it has been “normalised” in the aged care workplace.
Sally said many people who work in aged care need as many hours of work as possible simply to make ends meet. Some of these workers are “desperate” and they live “in fear”, and they won’t speak out about bullying attitudes at work.
Speaking out means, “You automatically feel a fear response within yourself. It’s like, if I mention this, will I get less shifts? Will I not be put in this ward again? That’s always in the back of your mind.”
Sadly, this culture of silence allows bullying behaviours to thrive.
Gerard Hayes, NSW/ACT/QLD Secretary Health Services Union, agrees that many people who work in aged care are vulnerable and find it difficult to voice the concerns they have at work, and that can allow bullying to flourish.
The person might be on a visa and concerned about being sent back to the country they came from. Or they might be worried about having their hours of work reduced, or about losing work at one of the two or three homes they have to work for, Hayes said.
“They might see bullying or be subjected to it, and that right they have to raise concerns is filtered by concern about their ability to put food on the table,” Hayes said.
Hayes said some people who work in aged care are “drowning” in the pressures they face, and that can play out in them acting in ways they normally wouldn’t.
‘Nurses eat their young’
Working in aged care requires an emotional toughness that many don’t realise when they choose to work in the sector. Sally told HelloCare that new starters are particularly targeted in the aged care workplace.
The phrase ‘nurses eat their young’ has been around for decades, but Sally believes it’s still just as relevant in aged care today. The expression refers to the brutal way some experienced staff treat newer, less experienced co-workers.
Sally says it’s like an “initiation” when new staff begin to see if they can “hack it”. It comes down to whether or not they have the emotional strength, the physical strength and if they can tolerate the smells, according to Sally.
Good management will pull you aside and discuss issues, ensure good attitudes are modelled throughout, but Sally doesn’t see this occur very often.
Providers must support workers: Workforce Industry Council
Louise O’Neill is CEO of the Aged Care Workforce Industry Council (ACWIC), the body that has been tasked with implementing important reforms for the aged care workforce. She told HelloCare that “those who work in aged care do an incredible job, sometimes under significant pressures and difficult situations”.
“They are managing a range of demands and complicated behaviours, all within the context of increasing financial constraints and regulatory requirements.”
“However there is absolutely no excuse for bullying and disrespect in the workplace,” O’Neill said.
ACWIC’s Voluntary Industry Code of Practice aims to encourage providers to set the bar high in supporting the workforce.
“The delivery of quality care for older Australians is dependent on a strong, cohesive and highly skilled care workforce. There is no room for bullying and workplace disrespect in this environment.”
No excuse for bullying in a caring profession: LASA
Leading Aged Services Australia CEO, Sean Rooney, told HelloCare, “There is no excuse for bullying or other disrespectful behaviour in the workplace, particularly in a caring profession.
“Providers, like all employers, need to be investing in ensuring their staff are safe and supported.”
“We know that getting [the] workforce right is fundamental to getting [aged care] right. We have advocated for many years that our sector wants more staff, that are better trained and qualified, and appropriately remunerated.”
“Aged care is a sector where people can make a real difference, but we need a system that enables and supports them.”
LASA has undertaken a survey on provider workforce issues. The results will be available soon.
HR a “luxury” many providers can’t afford
Increased funding and higher staff numbers would establish a stronger foundation in aged care that could alleviate some of the pressures aged care workers feel, Hayes said.
But with the aged care sector “under the pump” and many providers “struggling” simply to keep their doors open, Hayes suspects the building of stronger human resources systems would be seen as a “luxury” and low on a provider’s list of priorities.
Hayes hopes the federal budget shows genuine efforts to reform aged care. “The planets are aligned” he said in the wake of the royal commission, and with both sides of politics agreeing reform is needed.
Rooney said LASA will also be looking to the May budget to provide “policies, programs and funding” that helps aged care workers deliver the care older Australians need and deserve.
Finding strength in being an aged care worker
Aged care workers need to be resilient, Sally said. They need to be able to think about their work in a way that means they are not “at the mercy of the situation” and can rise above it.
These days Sally prefers to take on casual work in aged care. When I ask her wouldn’t she prefer secure, permanent work with entitlements, she says casual work in aged care is “less risky” and “more safe” because it gives her the ability to choose pay and shifts, and to work in homes where the management listens to her.
“You can test and reflect,” she said.
Sally wondered about the impact on homes and families when aged care staff witness bullying cultures at work.
“After a certain amount of time in an environment like that, you end up exhibiting those behaviours,” she said.
“I’d like to see the aged care sector find a place where it’s valued,” said Sally, “so they can stand up and say, ‘I’m an aged care nurse’ and they’re strong in that power. At the moment, it’s like, ‘I’m an aged care nurse, but…”
*Name has been changed.
Have you witnessed bullying at work in aged care? Share your experiences in the comments below.
If you or anyone you know has been affected by bullying, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.or.au.