The stats came as no surprise to me. Over 338,000 adult care-workers quit their jobs in 2015-16, which translates as roughly 900 people resigning a day – and of those 900, 60% left the sector altogether; the industry has a staff turnover of 27%, which is almost twice the average of other professions; an adult care-worker earns an average of £14,800 a year, whereas the average UK wage is £27,600. Adult care-work is arguably one of the hardest and most stressful professions in the country, yet is also one of the poorest-paid. It’s no wonder there are perhaps more vacancies in it than any other industry, with one in every 20 care-worker posts unfilled.
The main focus of these new statistics re the media has been on elderly care, yet the care sector for what used to be called the mentally handicapped is in an arguably bigger crisis; it often seems this is the forgotten branch of the social care industry, yet its service users (the official name for residents/inmates of such homes) are in need of care virtually all their lives, not just when they qualify for a bus-pass. The ‘decommissioning’ of the old asylums that had such an unsavoury reputation was supposed to usher in a new, more enlightened age of care for these individuals, but some might argue the situation is worse now than back in the era so graphically portrayed in the unforgettable early 80s drama starring Ian McKellern, ‘Walter’.
A close friend with a CV of past care-work recently returned to full-time work after a child-rearing decade away from the job market; she decided it made sense to use her experience in the mental health care sector and applied for one of the plentiful positions available in it. She figured she’d maybe stick it out for a year or so; she lasted three weeks before realising she couldn’t take anymore. And, believe me, she is not someone who walks away from anything at the drop of a hat. If the system could leave her so dispirited and dejected that she was only able to last three weeks in it, the system could do the same to anybody with a heart.
She quickly realised her past experience in the sector, which she imagined would stand her in good stead when it came to the more difficult aspects of the job, was little use in the box-ticking culture that had colonised the industry since she was last part of it. Unlike virtually every other profession, the pay had actually dropped during her extended stint out of the loop, though she was prepared to overlook this as long as she could apply her know-how. Some hope. Firstly, she had to wait over two months to actually start the job after getting it in order for the Met to clear her CRB/DBS check, an unnecessary delay that hardly boded well. Who in need of work would contemplate taking a job in an industry where one has to wait so long before beginning it, especially when one of the country’s most untrustworthy institutions has the final say?
Anyway, once there she discovered the rigid rules and regulations regarding the inmates completely overrode common sense and precluded any notion of kindness and decency shown towards them. Cups of tea, breakfast and dinner (which sounded particularly disgusting) all had to be served at a strict set time, even if being denied a cuppa a mere ten minutes before the officially designated hour for one could inspire a distressed outburst from an inmate; these outbursts could involve self-harm or harm to others, leaving several members of staff to physically restrain them when a kind cuppa would have prevented any disruption altogether. Responding to the service users should they require help at an ‘inconvenient moment’ was discouraged; any member of staff bending this rule would be severely admonished as a consequence.
There were virtually no organised activities to occupy the service users; sticking the telly on whilst they vegetated in their chairs was deemed sufficient stimulation. Whilst some of the inmates were allowed to go shopping some days a week with a staff member, the budget for this excursion would often amount to a measly £1. What the hell can anyone purchase with a quid in 2017? My friend accompanied an inmate on one such outing and added a mere 50p to the budget in order that he could buy a newspaper; she was reprimanded for this gesture. On another occasion, the same service user was given a generous rise in spending money of an entire pound, but the pens he spent his £2 were ones he couldn’t immediately use upon his return; when asking for paper, he was told he should have bought some whilst shopping. The poor guy doesn’t ask for much and the mean bastards wouldn’t even comply with such a modest request as that. And that’s ‘care’ for you.
The members of staff were 95% immigrant workers with a poor grasp of English and a quite mercenary attitude to the profession, working ridiculously long hours for a few months before buggering off back home. How can a high standard of care be achieved when the sector only attracts here today/gone tomorrow employees, whose disinterest in (and thinly-veiled contempt for) inmates merely exacerbates those unfortunate individuals’ insecurities? Their ineptitude was also remarkable. One service user hadn’t been able to have a simple shower for several weeks and had to endure an undignified body wash because the shower unit apparently wasn’t working; my friend looked at it, flicked a switch and the shower was magically in operation again. Underlining the foreign employees’ absence of practical abilities didn’t exactly make her popular with that clique, which also included the manager of the home.
My friend left work every day depressed and browbeaten by what she was seeing, with her anger at being incapable of changing such a heartless system staying in her exhausted head for the rest of the day. It’s to her credit she hung on as long as she did because she felt warm towards many of the inmates and experienced immense guilt at the thought of leaving them; once gone, she was even prepared to visit a couple and take them out shopping on a weekly basis. But this would never be allowed. She walked out after three weeks, but admitted she could just as easily have walked out after three days.
The Government claims it will be investing £2bn in social care, though throwing money at it won’t alter a culture that is so engrained in homes such as the one my friend worked at that a genuinely radical approach is the only way forward. If money is to be spent wisely, it needs to be used to give the system the comprehensive overhaul it so desperately requires; but, of course, it won’t be. There’ll be no ‘Tsar’ for care-work.
© The Editor