Care to be different – HR in the social care sector

Moira Brown is the first dedicated senior HR professional at Care South, a network of residential and nursing homes. Louisa Peacock talked to her about the tough HR issues in this most people-focused of sectors.

It’s not every day an HR chief holds a staff meeting in what looks like their nan’s living room. But this is exactly how it feels as Moira Brown meets employees in the back room of Wickmeads nursing home, part of Care South,. Among the china dog ornaments, an oak dresser displaying tea cups and a fetching pair of blue and yellow harlequin curtains, the director of HR and training invites seven care workers to squeeze in and find a seat – to talk ‘all things HR’.

The meeting is time out from Brown’s busy office job to find out just how the latest staff recognition scheme is working out, or to catch up with progress on staff training and development.

“It’s really important to hear from front-line staff, what they need from HR and how I can help them make their job easier,” she explains, as we drive towards the care home in Bournemouth, Dorset.

Having just picked up an ‘excellent’ gong under the new Commission for Social Care Inspectorate rules, Brown is delighted with the dedication of all 48 staff at the home, and the quality of care they provide.

Her appointment just over two years ago was the first time the company had brought in a dedicated HR practitioner at a senior level. Her role spans all 20 residential and nursing homes operating under the Care South banner in the South West region, most of which became privately owned by the company (formerly the Dorset Trust) in 1991.

Brown also brings a wealth of experience from different careers and sectors, including a stint as a live TV studio director at Granada Television and work as an HR business partner at Barclay’s Bank.

“TV was all about managing time, motivating people under difficult circumstances and making sure presenters were happy – the skills I need now really. It sounds rather radical on paper to move from that to HR, but it was actually me wanting to use my brain in a different way,” she says.

She adds that her experience of HR in the banking environment led her to desire a job focused more on retaining staff and employee engagement, rather than continuously rolling out ‘change programmes’ that ultimately reduced headcount.

“Part of why I was brought in was to continue to build on the training and development of care workers, not least to help them see social care as a career,” she says.

And with this, Brown gets to the very heart of the issue in social care: that most workers in the industry simply do not see it as a long-term job option. Her priority was and still is, she explains, to improve recruitment and retention – he sector’s average staff turnover rate is high at 19.3%, compared to the public sector average of 13.7%. Care South’s average turnover is slightly better than the sector norm, Brown claims, but she admits there is still a lot of work to do.

The South West region has roughly 141,000 over-65s. By 2026, this figure is expected to rise to 233,000. Such demographic changes will require a significant increase in the social care workforce, projected to rise from 1.5 million to 2.5 million by 2020.

“We’ve got an ageing population, so where is that workforce going to come from? It’s not so much a skills shortage as a people shortage. Where are we going to get the social care workforce from?”

Questions remain unanswered on where the care homes will be and how domiciliary care will be delivered and funded, Brown adds.

A few of Care South’s homes employ workers past the default retirement age of 65 if they are medically suitable. But this is no long-term solution to the lack of individuals expressing interest in working in social care.

In March this year, the government is expected to open a new National Skills Academy for Social Care. It will be the first academy to target training and development support for England’s social care workforce, with a particular emphasis on smaller organisations with limited training budgets.

The academy will receive £3.5m over three years from the Learning and Skills Council and the Department of Health, with some financial input from employers.

Brown is looking forward to working with the organisation to boost the profile of the social care sector to graduates or school leavers.

“I don’t think graduates see social care as a career opportunity,” Brown admits. “I wouldn’t say no to a graduate scheme, it is something I am considering bringing in. But the question is how we would mould it so that graduates and the employer could get something out of it.”

Until that day comes, the Brown remains focused on highlighting some of the training opportunities at Care South, which in turn will help with retaining talented staff.

In 2008, she added some glitz and glamour to the organisation’s annual awards ceremony, which celebrates the qualifications staff have achieved.

“We invested a bit of money in the event, making the room look good with balloons and branding. But, beyond that, the ceremony included rewarding staff with any sort of qualification achievement (not just NVQs), including supervisory management, chef or training qualifications – because it’s about everybody in the company working to delivery quality care.”

Brown was delighted when she found out people at the event had taken pictures of the day and used it to market the ‘team culture’ of the home.

“That makes me feel proud that we’ve done something – and brought out a benefit I had not anticipated.”

Other tools Brown uses to keep staff feeling valued – and ultimately encourage them to stay at Care South – include a new staff magazine, a decent staff induction process and a staff recognition scheme, where residents can fill in ‘thank you’ cards for a member of staff who has helped them.

Another focus is tackling absence.

“Duty supervisors have got to manage absence. Throwing a ‘sickie’ is not acceptable as we’re dealing with the care of vulnerable adults,” says Brown.

When probed how HR helps managers to handle sickness absence, Brown says: “I’ve been talking with my managers day-to-day about absence triggers, and what we’d expect them to do, how they will monitor it and when they don’t have access to the computerised HR system, how they can manage it onsite.”

Unfortunately, says Brown, there is no magic wand solution. “If I could suddenly know what the tools were I could put in place tomorrow to make a difference in every one of our sites, and what works there, it would be solved.”

For now, the best tool she has is getting out to see her staff and listening to what they need.

“I need to make sure the internal culture matches the one we present to our customers [residents]. Getting out and talking honestly to staff about what their needs are helps to make this happen.”

The social care workforce: Facts

  • 70% of social care staff work in the private or voluntary sector.
  • Care is provided by 35,000 different employers
  • Most establishments employ less than 10 people
  • 1.5 million people currently work in adult social care – projected to rise to 2.5m by 2020
  • 83% of the social care workforce is female

Source: Care South

A typical day in the life of Moira Brown

09:00am Check e-mails and phone messages

10:00am Put together foundations for new staff recognition scheme: how it will work and how can residents feedback or take part in rewarding employees that have done well

11:00am Speak to the government on skills funding and Train to Gain: how can public money be used to help staff gain new qualifications? Negotiate that further Level 2 training could become available to employees who already have Level 2 training

12:00am Re-visit absence management and the occupational health referral scheme: draw up guidelines for staff to deal with sickness absence when they don’t have access to computers

1:00pm Staff visit to Wickmeads Care home – catch up with the staff, residents and much-loved resident dog Sasha.

1:30pm Staff meeting to discuss any workplace issues, how HR can help ease them and what needs to be done

3pm Back to office – another quick check of emails and a call to update managers on the new competency framework for staff

4pm Agree to managers’ requests that HR should no longer send out the offer letter to new recruits as it delays the process. Line managers can assume full responsibility

4:30pm Drop in to management development course at head office to sum up and gather feedback from managers taking part

6pm Home – prepare for a brand new day tomorrow


CV: Moira Brown

2007-present Director of HR and training, Care South

2005-2006 HR business partner, Norwich Union Healthcare

2004-2005 HR business partner, telephone distribution, Abbey

2003-2004 Recruitment consultant, BBC

1998-2002 HR business partner, Barclays Bank

1989-1992 Freelance TV director, Granada TV (on This Morning and Granada News)

1976-1989 Various TV roles at the BBC including producer, director and vision mixer

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