Recruiting and retaining aged care staff has been a challenge for the sector for years. Now the pandemic has magnified the issue, with nurses taking their considerable skills elsewhere in the healthcare sector, where the pay is better, there is a different cohort of patients, better ratios, and the media scrutiny is less intense.
“Health professionals and carers have been under great pressure during the pandemic,” Leading Age Services Australia CEO, Sean Rooney, told HelloCare.
The situation has been most intense in Melbourne, where there have been more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases in aged care homes, and more than 700 residents have died.
The pressure of caring for frail and vulnerable people has been magnified by COVID-19 and the sector has also received harsh media attention for more than two years due, firstly, to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and, more recently, to the pandemic.
This mounting pressure is causing nurses to leave the sector in worrying numbers. LASA is aware that nurses are taking annual leave to “try out” other areas of nursing.
When nurses leave, aged care homes face not only the cost and difficulty of finding a replacement, but there is also the loss of the valuable knowledge they take with them.
LASA is supporting members who are concerned about the pressure aged care workers are under, Mr Rooney said.
It is “imperative” that both aged care organisations and Australian communities support residential aged care, he said.
“People need to understand that the sector is focused on care and compassion, always, and highlight its importance to communities and the nation,” Mr Rooney said.
“By improving Australia’s understanding of this, we will be better placed to hold decision makers to account to deliver the aged care system that meets our elders’ needs.”
It is “critically important” we have strong numbers of health professionals to provide the quality clinical care that older people need and deserve, Mr Rooney said.
“We also have to ensure there are links with the entire health system because we know the importance of the interface between aged care, primary care, acute care, social services and mental health.”
So, what can be done to encourage nurses to stay in aged care?
Opportunities for aged care nurses, such as the opportunity to advance to managerial roles, must be highlighted, said counsels assisting in their final recommendations to the royal commission. This was also one of the recommendations of the Aged Care Workforce Taskforce.
Better pay is also a key factor. The counsels assisting said pay must increase to “better reflect their value and contribution to delivering care outcomes”.
Ensuring that enough nurses are on site could also alleviate some of the pressure on this vital workforce. Aged care academic Professor Kathy Eagar, of the University of Wollongong, says the “mix” of staff, including how many nurses are on site, is one of the key drivers of aged care quality. The royal commission is also recommending the introduction of a requirement that at least one nurse be on site at all times in aged care homes. At yesterday’s Victorian budget, the Treasurer said $40 million would be spent on training more nurses and personal care workers to help private aged care providers introduce minimum staff‐to‐resident ratios.
“There is a great deal we can do as organisations to nurture the recruitment and retention of good talent in aged care,” says Benetas’ CEO, Sandra Hills.
“The people in our sector are incredibly passionate and driven by their deep commitment to those who they care for”. They are the “backbone” of their organisation, she said.
Benetas has developed a ‘People Plan’ to help it take “tangible steps” towards becoming a “great place to work”. It kicked off with a ‘listening tour’ this year to help the organisation find out what really matters to its employees.
“To all those working in our sector, I say thank you, what you do matters, every conversation, small gesture and ongoing familiar interaction you provide, matters. It matters to our residents, to our clients, to their families and it matters to our community. Never have we seen that more true than this year,” Ms Hills said.
Mr Rooney said LASA is working with the sector to try to restore confidence and provide support.
Change is on the wind in aged care. The royal commission’s final report, due in February, has the potential to be “transformative”. Let’s hope their proposals address the issue of nurses leaving the sector, but also that sensible reforms follow.
Share your story. Are you considering leaving the aged care sector? What changes would you like to see that might encourage you to stay?