Help wanted

All HR challenges in the social services pale into insignificance in the face of ongoing recruitment problems.

Recruitment and retention in social care is in crisis, creating a huge challenge for HR departments. Issues of training, management, staff development, competency and qualifications are all set within a context of high vacancy rates upon which national campaigns have, so far, made little appreciable impact.

According to the Social Services Workforce Group 2003, there was an average vacancy rate of 8.4 per cent in 2002, with regional and occupational variations. However, London faces vacancy rates twice as high as the national figure. The biggest gaps were found in occupational therapy, up from 13.6 per cent to 20 per cent, and children’s social workers, up from 11.3 per cent to 12.6 per cent, between 2001 and 2002.

But recruitment and retention is a problem in all aspects of care, including the elderly, children and families, and people with mental health problems, or learning or physical disabilities.

Morag MacSween, associate director of the Audit Commission, analysed the findings of the commission’s 2002 report on the public sector. Her report – Recruitment and Retention: a Public Service Workforce for the 21st Century – found there was no single reason for people leaving the profession; more a balance of several factors.

MacSween explains: “Many of the issues remain ‘background annoyance’ if people are content with other aspects of their working lives, particularly if they continue to find their work personally rewarding. However, when several factors combine any one of them can become the ‘psychological last straw’.”

Pay then often becomes significant, especially when staff see less experienced agency staff earning more money.

Better pay was the most cited way to persuade people to stay, but many social care staff feel job satisfaction is their main motivation. However, pay remains a contributing factor in the way people feel they, and their work, are appreciated by their employers and society.

Lance Richards, recruitment manager for Brighton and Hove City Council, says: “Social workers are valued very highly by their local authorities, but it’s a matter of helping them feel valued in the context of negative public opinion, a heavy workload and increasingly demanding work.

“Child protection work in particular is becoming increasingly complex, and there is always the fear of something going horribly wrong,” he adds.

“We try to provide support through workplace supervision to address individual needs and practice issues and offer a high level of training, induction and staff support to keep our good workers and encourage new people into the profession.”

According to MacSween’s report, demographic trends mean fewer young people are entering the profession. In Brighton and Hove, for example, 40 per cent of the social care workforce is over 50.

“People often underestimate social care as a career,” says Richards.

“Young people in particular tend to shy away from the personal care aspects, but this is a very small element of the work. Part of my task is to get across to potential recruits that the role is actually one of rehabilitation, support and empowerment, and the work requires a high level of skill and sensitivity.”

One important area is rehabilitation back in the home following a period in hospital. Delayed discharge from hospital is a problem that affects 5,000 older people at any one time, and it falls to social care staff to provide this service at their homes so that hospital beds can be freed for other patients – with clear implications for waiting lists.

Intermediate care facilitates people’s recovery, helping them develop the skills they need to manage in their own homes following a period of hospitalisation, and it is also applied to people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

A multi-disciplinary approach has proved most successful in terms of benefits to the clients, bringing together nursing staff, occupational therapists, social workers and so on, but it brings its own particular difficulties for the workforce. Staff from different backgrounds have different employers, terms and conditions, which can cause friction and resentment between colleagues. But this can be overcome by skilled management, and needs to be addressed sensitively with staff.

“Staff have a lot of good will,” Richards explains. “If they understand the issues, they can see the advantage for the clients. And there are clear benefits to multi-disciplinary working. People are able to see the wider picture and realise this is the way forward in offering a better service.”

In a field where job satisfaction is rated so highly by the workforce, benefiting the client is crucial in keeping staff on board.

The crisis in the recruitment and retention of social care staff is at the heart of the HR manager’s work at present and informs all other aspects. Low morale means people are leaving faster than they can be replaced, and while measures are in place to address this problem, there is still a long way to go.

However, what is encouraging is that it is the level of job satisfaction and commitment to the client group which keeps people in their posts. Ensuring they feel valued is a complex task amid so many external issues, but it is fundamental in encouraging staff to stay.

Why people leave social care work

  • Bureaucracy and paperwork

  • Lack of resources

  • Workload/hours

  • Not being valued by government, managers and the public

  • Pay

  • Career progression

  • Line manager

  • Autonomy

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