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Why fixing the social care crisis starts with flexible working

Despite the staffing crisis in social care, few have asked care workers what would help – until now. Here are the insights from our recent research, and the steps that care commissioners and providers need to take.

By Emma Stewart, Co-Founder

The crisis in social care is well-known – and is something that we should all be worrying about. Demand is growing as the population ages, but care worker numbers are going in the opposite direction. Local authorities are finding it harder than ever to recruit and retain staff; job centres send candidates through without giving them any sense of what the job actually involves, with the knock-on effect that few stay the distance.

As a result, there are over 100,000 unfilled care worker vacancies in the UK right now. And while there has been much hand-wringing and many column inches on the subject, much of which has understandably been focused on pay, scant attention has been paid to working patterns or work-life balance.

Given that the existing care workforce is primarily women with their own caring responsibilities, this is a massive oversight. It’s not a huge leap to suspect that for this group, having some control over their working patterns could be a gamechanger. But there has been little attempt to ask existing care workers what THEY think could make a difference. At least, until our new action research project, Building the Social Care Workforce of the Future.

Tackling staff shortages by exploring what care workers need

Social care isn’t a new sector for us; our previous report, Caring by Design, explored whether a geographical, team-based approach to scheduling could tackle issues such as unpredictable rotas, unsociable hours and long travel times (the short answer – yes it can).  

But this time, we wanted to get in on the ground, to gain the clearest possible understanding of the challenges domiciliary care workers are facing and their views on how to overcome them. We also wanted to work with the commissioning teams to ensure that any changes we recommended could become a reality. So we teamed up with London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (LBBD) and a number of providers in their area, to do exactly that.

Over a six-month period, we shadowed a team of care workers, going with them from appointment to appointment, on buses, in cars and walking the streets, to get under the skin of how their days work (and how they made them work for them). We also spoke to managers and HR teams within social care providers, to understand the challenges they face, and the solutions they put in place to overcome them.

What we learned from our six months of research

Now clearly, the social care sector is not something that can be completely fixed from the ground up. There is absolutely a role for government to play, and we, like everyone else in this country, are hoping that policymakers will intervene to address the overarching issues that affect recruitment and retention, critically around pay.

 However, we did learn that there are a number of practical changes that don’t require major policy reforms; relatively small quick wins that could have a transformational impact. For example:

  • Being more transparent about how the rotas work up front can avoid new recruits leaving

The first few weeks in a social care role are particularly unpredictable, because the care worker doesn’t yet have a rota of regular clients. This can mean they don’t have enough guaranteed hours, or are offered work at times they can’t fulfil. Being open about this from the start, and reassuring new recruits that it will settle down, can help avoid knee-jerk resignations.

  • Being clear about what flexibility is available will make sure suitable candidates apply

While most candidates are aware of the nature of tasks in care work, they may not understand that the timing of slots may not fit around their caring responsibilities. Setting this out up front could both cut down on wasted applications and the cost of training applicants who might not stay the distance.

  • Building strong team relationships creates better understanding, trust and loyalty

When team members feel connected, they are more likely to support each other, whether that’s helping newcomers to settle into the role, sharing hints and tips or being willing to swap shifts.

Similarly, team members who feel supported by their field supervisors are more likely to accept unforeseen scheduling changes. And they’ll feel trusted enough to report back on problems that, if left unchecked, might force them to leave (such as under-estimated time slots, issues around travel time or pressure to work more hours than they can manage).

The resources we created to bring these changes about

So, having gained these insights into what needed to change, we created a suite of resources to help candidates, employees, managers and providers to put them into practice:

  • A detailed report, setting out what we did, what we learned and our recommendations for service providers and local authorities.
  • A video designed to raise awareness among service providers about how they can benefit from offering flexible working.
  • A flexible job design guide for managers, to help them create and schedule flexible arrangements that will encourage people to join and stay.
  • And a ‘best friend’s guide for people considering a career in social care, to explain what the role entails, what flexibility they can expect and how to get more input and control over their shifts.

No resources like this have previously existed within the social care sector, and they have been well-received by employees and providers alike. They’re now being rolled out across LBBD and neighbouring boroughs by providers, local authorities and wider networks, with the help of Skills for Care and Care Providers Voice.

It’s a good starting point – but more needs to be done

This research project has made it clear that exploring worker preferences, and giving them more input and control into how they work, are good places to start tackling the social care crisis. This is at the heart of everything we do at Timewise, for a simple reason; you can’t create change without understanding what could make a difference on the ground.

So we hope that care commissioners will start taking a whole systems approach to workforce planning, which includes supporting providers with job design skills, and insisting that they cover travel time and expenses (with funding to back this up). And we hope that local authorities and providers across the UK will start using these resources so that they can attract and keep people for whom social care is a viable career.

And above all, we hope that the government listens to everyone who is telling them that investment is needed in social care; not just to increase wages, but also to provide the financial support to commissioners and providers that will make the kind of changes we are suggesting a reality.

This project has been supported by Trust for London. Published February 2023.

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