‘Substance abuse’ therapy used to increase aged care workers’ health and well-being

Working with an accredited exercise physiologist, frontline aged care workers received counselling and education on personal goal setting, actions and coping, as well as measures of activity intensity. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key point: 

  • Motivational interviewing is a personalised and empathetic counselling technique that empowers a person to explore and resolve ambivalence. It works by assuming that any change is better than nothing and, because it is goal-directed, it encourages people to identify, recognise and sustain positive change
  • Motivational interviewing is used as a counselling style for substance abuse that raises awareness of someone’s internal discrepancies about substance use with a focus on helping them resolve their ambivalence about their using and can promote motivation to change
  • Workers’ perceived autonomy in exercise increased by nearly 9% and their fitness improved as indicated by a small increase in their six-minute walk distance at the nine-month follow-up

It’s a therapy that’s commonly used to help overcome addiction or substance abuse, but motivational interviewing could improve the health and well-being of frontline aged care workers.

According to new research by the University of South Australia, motivational interviewing can empower disengaged aged care workers to prioritise and take control of their mental and physical health which boosts workplace well-being.

The study showed that after three months, participants reported positive changes in health behaviours such as exercising, eating better, seeking more help from health professionals for the management of health conditions, and not being so hard on themselves when they slipped up.

Workplace interventions that can improve working conditions and well-being are in high demand in Australia’s troubled aged care sector where understaffing, low pay, high staff turnover, lack of opportunities for upskilling, high physical and emotional job demands and low job control for employees continue to mar the industry.

UniSA researcher and exercise physiologist, Doctor Merilyn Lock, said motivational therapy could be an effective intervention to address systemic apathy among frontline aged care workers. She said aged care and healthcare organisations could grant staff increased access to these types of interventions by integrating them into their current employee support services.

“A cost-effective way of integrating these types of interventions could include the up-skilling of exercise physiology and physiotherapy staff and the utilisation of facilities or networks that they may already have such as using gym facilities at times that do not interrupt day-to-day customer service or having partnerships with other gyms locally.”

Dr Lock said the study had some limitations and challenges as researchers struggled to engage frontline employees in the program which began at the time of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety which saw aged care thrust into the spotlight of scrutiny. 

She said there are some things health and aged care organisations can do to support the well-being of staff which improve their engagement in general, including:

  • Attempts to foster a supportive and trusting workplace culture
  • Work to improve opportunities for professional development and career progression of their staff
  • Improve the stability of their work where possible

“Those who did engage responded very positively, however, the organisation did not see much overall impact because many who could have benefited did not engage,” Dr Lock said. 

“While the type of program that we implemented can empower these staff to take charge of their own health and well-being, we really want them to stay in the industry and feel happy and supported there without feeling the need to leave for the sake of their health.”

Looking to the future, more research is needed to address the uptake of such interventions at organisation levels.

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  1. In what I’m hearing is the acknowledgment of staffs increasing mental health distress (industry) wide I’d greatly encourage the acknowledgement of this broadly in the delivery of Mental Health First Aid. Alongside the resources via MOOC learning tools at The Wicking Centre https://mooc.utas.edu.au/


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