Supportive leadership that facilitates cohesive teams and high levels of trust between field and office staff appears to be the bedrock for eliminating home care worker stress, write Justine Evesson and Dr Sarah Oxenbridge.
The links between job stress, job satisfaction, and staff turnover are well established and are issues of growing concern to employers in the health and community care sectors as they struggle to recruit and retain direct care staff.
Our study is investigating psychosocial risk factors – with a focus on job stress – for workers who provide care and assistance for the aged and people with disability in their homes and in the community. The research is being conducted with the assistance of our industry partners, the Attendant Care Industry Association (ACIA) and United Voice.
The research involves in-depth interviews and discussion groups with 50 NSW in-home care workers, around 30 home care employers from across Australia, and aged and disability sector industry stakeholders.
It’s clear that workforce wellbeing is high on the agenda of home care organisations facing multiple challenges. These include providing quality services to clients in the face of new policy and funding regimes, particularly individualised funding arrangements, and recruiting and retaining workers in a context of labour shortages and an ageing workforce.
Our research with home care workers has identified several main sources of stress attached to the job. These include the emotional challenges of the work, financial insecurity (related to earnings and hours), and unsupportive and low trust work relationships.
Among the home care workers we interviewed, their orientation to the job was overwhelmingly based on a concern to maintain high standards of professionalism and quality of client care. Where the quality of care was reduced, and home care workers felt that this was due to ineffective management or organisational practices, this caused them great distress.
What works to reduce stress
While there are well-researched stress risk factors that are intrinsic to home care work – including unsupervised and unpredictable working environments, challenging behaviours, and increasing responsibilities – home care workers described how supportive management and efficient organisational practices play a crucial role in mitigating or eliminating these potential stressors.
The experience and degree of stress described by home care workers was strongly related to the workplace or team environment in which they worked. Low-stress working environments were those where workers received support from peers and local managers, had their professional insights taken seriously and were reassured that clients got the care they needed.
We have found that supportive leadership that facilitates cohesive teams, positive morale, open communication, and high trust between field and office staff appears to be the bedrock for reducing and eliminating home care worker stress.
The challenge facing organisations is how to provide this kind of support to a physically isolated and geographically dispersed workforce when the funding of overheads is increasingly difficult.
Spreading good practice
Our study is collecting data on the range of ways in which Australian and international organisations are reducing home care worker stress. In some cases, these practices include initiatives targeted specifically at reducing stress. But for the most part they are ways of organising work and managing workers that have the effect of reducing stress. They range from small everyday workplace improvements through to high degrees of self-management and worker co-operative arrangements.
Once the research has been completed we are hoping to produce a short, user-friendly guide for home care organisations on practical things they can do that prevent and reduce job stress with our industry partners.
We hope the project outputs will offer policymakers and practitioners strategies to improve working conditions for home care workers, with the ultimate aim of reducing stress-related workers’ compensation claims, absenteeism, burnout and labour turnover.
Justine Evesson and Dr Sarah Oxenbridge are researchers with Employment Research Australia, an independent research consultancy.
This research has been funded under the Better Regulation Division Applied Research Program. The research conclusions are those of the authors and any views expressed are not necessarily those of the Better Regulation Division of the NSW Department of Finance and Services.
Share your story
Justine Evesson and Dr Sarah Oxenbridge are currently conducting research interviews with managers from aged and disability sector organisations employing home care workers from across Australia.
To share good practice approaches across the sector, the researchers would like to speak to organisations with experience using the following strategies:
- developing innovative ways of building high trust relationships with remote workforces
- using technology to support, communicate with, and roster home care field staff
- peer support and peer mentoring structures
- rostering systems that meet the needs of both clients and staff
- building cohesive and/or self-managing teams of home care workers
This article currently appears in the May edition of Community Care Review magazine.
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