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How do you turn the tide of disengagement in the care sector?

By Ian Barrow, Senior Employee Experience Consultant at WorkBuzz  this article first appeared in issue 150 of The Carer.

The care sector is in crisis, with attracting and retaining care workers an uphill struggle. Particularly since Brexit, care homes have been battling to find and keep employees, and this been exacerbated by both the pandemic and the cost-of-living squeeze.

For those care workers currently employed, exhaustion and disengagement are common. Against such a challenging backdrop, how can care providers go about turning the tide of unhappiness, and find themselves better able to recruit and retain their people? The answer is employee listening.

We’re in a disengagement crisis

According to the Care Quality Commission, 87 per cent of care home providers and 88 per cent of homecare providers are experiencing recruitment challenges. Plus, more than a quarter of care homes reporting workforce pressures are not actively admitting any new residents. The social care workforce gap as a result of Brexit has been estimated to range from 350,000 to 1.1 million people by 2037.

We’ve also witnessed the deep impact of COVID, which has led many care workers to feel burnt out or in ‘moral distress’, leading to further job vacancies and higher levels of disengagement. With the cost-of-living crisis squeezing care workers’ salaries, this is pushing even more people out of the sector – deepening the skills shortage and creating tensions between workers and managers.

With so many challenges to unpick, how can care providers even begin to improve engagement levels?

Active listening

To create a workplace culture that attracts and retains the best care workers, leaders must find out what really matters to their people – and then ensure these elements are prioritised. This requires ‘active listening’.

This may seem simple, but all too often leaders assume they know what’s best for their people rather than taking the time to find out. And, when workers aren’t asked for feedback and input, the outcome is a workplace experience that’s been created from the ‘top down’ rather than collaboratively. Workers don’t feel their opinion counts, and will feel powerless to bring about change.

On the flipside, a care provider that regularly checks in on their people – asking them how they are and what’s important to them – will gain invaluable insights they can action to ensure their people are motivated, and that the culture is both attractive and ‘sticky’.

This ‘active listening’ approach must become the foundation of any business strategy, and not just seen as an ‘add on’ by HR. After all, no matter how much leaders want to march ahead in a particular direction, if their people are going in the opposite direction the outcome won’t be a good one.

Leaders must adopt a few different mechanisms to gather feedback – such as one-to-ones between managers and employees where discussions take place beyond the job role, for example around wellbeing, and focus groups and workshops that look at breaking the barriers that make the day-to-day job difficult. These approaches allow employees to share stories, bring their ideas to life, and feel heard in a very personal way.

However, care providers must also make use of engagement surveys for gathering detailed and quantifiable insights that can ‘check the temperature’ of employee feeling throughout the year. These ‘pulse surveys’ are short and concise, and might be sent out every couple of weeks, each month or even quarterly, to pulse check key areas from employee health and wellbeing through to satisfaction with the management team. The software used for these surveys must be mobile-optimised, of course, allowing hard-to-reach care workers to complete them on their own devices. Employees can be incentivised to complete the surveys – by giving all respondents the chance to win a shopping voucher, for example – and this helps increase response rates.

With a treasure trove of insights to hand, the information can be analysed to find out what is and isn’t working at an organisation, and to form the basis of an action plan. It could be that the onboarding process needs improvement, that workers need to feel appreciated, or that night workers feel isolated – so finding ways to improve these key elements becomes key.

When employees recognise that their feedback truly matters and is being used to drive changes to their employee experience, the outcome is increased engagement. People feel valued, increasingly empowered, and part of a caring organisation.

Ditching assumptions

Assumptions are dangerous. When leaders assume they know what’s best for their workforce, improving engagement becomes an ongoing struggle. If care providers are to nurture a working environment that’s attractive to talent, retains people for longer and encourages them to perform at their best, they must use active listening to find out what can be done to improve their everyday experience.

With so many challenges facing the care sector, there’s never been a better time to listen.

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