Louise O’Neil was appointed in June to head the body overseeing the delivery of the Aged Care Workforce Strategy, A Matter of Care.

Louise O’Neill

The strategy, authored by by Professor John Pollaers, was released in September 2018 and contained 14 measures for workforce reform.

The Aged Care Workforce Industry Council was established in May 2019 to oversee, co-ordinate and sequence its implementation.

As inaugural CEO of the ACWIC Ms O’Neill says the single biggest challenge for home care will be providing suffienct workers who are properly trained to meet the complex needs of older people in their homes.

She speaks to CCR about where the strategy is at today and what she sees as future challenges.

CCR: It’s been over a year since the council was established. Where are you up to today?

LO: The council has moved on most of the strategic actions in the Matter of Care strategy.

It’s worth noting that the role of the council is about collaborating with all of the stakeholders to implement the recommendations, the  council isn’t implementing them singlehandedly.

A mass amount of collaboration is going on between the council and government and provider organisations, consumers and workforce organisations.

CCR: Have providers come on board?

I’ve been around aged care on and off for some years, mostly on the other side in government but also as a respite nurse myself in the past. I’ve never seen so much collaboration before. People are completely committed to doing this, and that’s from small providers to large organisations and the peak bodies.

CCR: One of recommendations was a voluntary industry code of practice. Where is that up to?

We have seen quite a bit of action on the voluntary industry code of practice. LASA is leading on this and it’s really close to being realised, with many providers lined up already to be signatory to it.

We would hope to have that out by late September. There’s that tension about wanting it to be perfect, but at the end of the day it’s going to be a living code and things will progress over time.

Providers really see a need to deliver a standard and they want this to be meaningful.  They have been consulting with consumer groups and they are developing it even further than what was in the Matter of Care strategy.

A voluntary code isn’t going to solve all the problems but it sets a benchmark for providers, a self-standard on the industry, which is really important. Aged care has not had that in the past.

CCR: What other specific actions has the council been addressing?

The other thing that we’re really driving hard is working with the

Department of Health on getting an Aged Care Centre for Growth and Translational Research established, and they’re working to get a partner to help establish that now.

In the next 12 months we’ll also be pushing forward with the workforce study which will give us a lot of information to support attraction and retention strategies, and also to support the work that we’ll do around a social change campaign and that will make the sector one were people will want to come and work in, addressing those ageism issues and making it a sector that people will be proud to be a part of.

We’re also working on a digital learning pilot that will help to build the learning process for workers.

CCR: What sort of timeframe are you looking at to implement workplace reform?

A Matter of Care talks about three years but I see this as a very long term process of incremental implementation. You’re not going to illicit this sort of change overnight. Like all of the big social reforms, you need dedication and commitment from successive governments to actually make things happen.

CCR: Has COVID-19 had an impact on workplaces issues or priorities for change?

In a perverse way COVID-19 has put aged care in peoples’ minds. From our perspective it’s reinforced the need to future-proof the workforce, and A Matter of Care will do that.

The Royal Commission and COVID have certainly amplified the need for reforms to happen and while it’s a terrible thing that we have to have a Royal Commission, or that we’ve had COVID,  if one good thing comes of it it’s that we actually pay attention to workforce issues and deliver them appropriately, and give consumers the voice they need.

CCR: What are the biggest workforce issues facing home care in the future?

The most welcome thing from my perspective is that government is investing more in the home care sector, but that presents its own challenge because we need to provide a home care workforce that has quality training, has the safety of the consumer and the worker in mind, and is remunerated and protected in the way it should be.

Going forward the challenge for home care is the complexity of care of people living at home. Making more supports available for people in their own homes, and ensuring workers are adequately trained so people can thrive at home, will be a major challenge for the workforce to respond to.

So the challenge is in the sheer volume of workers needed and ensuring that people are trained appropriately for the complexity of needs in the community.

CCR: Is there anything that’s off the table?

Consumers don’t want to be told what they need any more, that’s off the table

The industry needs to listen and respond to their needs and many in the industry I believe are. They need to be supported by government to do that as well.

Training workers needs to be focused on that shift in the way we service a consumer, how do we actually ensure that the needs of the consumer are met? So we’ve got to deliver on a balance of supporting choice and ensuring quality and safe practices and the longer sustainability of the sector.

CCR: What are the council’s priorities going forward?

Attracting a more skilled and qualified workforce with equitable remuneration.

A registered nurse working in aged care would earn 15-20 per cent less than one working in another setting, so there’s got to be equity.

If you want to change the way that people view the aged care workforce you have to give aged care the credence it requires.

Often when people think about aged care they think of it purely as physical care. But it’s everything from cleaners, cooks to gardners to careworkers and registered nurses and allied health professionals and administrators.

The amount of positions available across residential and home care offers such a broad career fabric that people don’t really realise what is out there. And that’s part of our agenda going forward, to show people what’s available.

Read A Matter of Care: Australia’s Aged Care Workforce Strategy, here.

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