What do our societies want from social care workers? And more importantly what do these workers expect from the societies they serve?
Now that the clapping has stopped, and those who were lauded as heroes drift out of our collective consciousness, perhaps it is about we started asking. It is timely then, that the Scottish Government then, has announced a high-level review of adult social care. The committee contains experts and iconoclasts in good measure, and will I believe have something positive to say about the need for change in the way social care is funded, regulated, and resourced.
And that is to the good. However, I want to address the question of what social care workers should expect of society. I have no doubt there are more experienced voices than mine who can contribute to the debate. However, having experience of working with social care in a former life, and currently mentoring some of those who lead and manage social care, I wanted to share my perspective on what is needed. And when I refer to social care workers, I include unpaid carers. So, for me what is required can be summed up in one-word Status.
Unlike others in the caring profession for example, I would argue that social care workers lack the status afforded to others, notwithstanding the few months of the pandemic. This is best summed up the language used to describe social care workers by newspaper commentators and some politicians. I cannot have been the only person to find much of the commentary as patronising, lauding them as angels and selfless heroes, yet conveniently ignoring the very low rates of pay and terms that these same heroes have to put up with. Stereotyping care workers as saints, is unhelpful and irrelevant.
So, to achieve status the first step needs to be recognition. Social care workers are not saints, but professional people doing a difficult but rewarding job, often in an emotionally charged environment. And whilst they welcome praise from whatever corner, they could with recognition of their role and the value. Caring is not just for covid and will continue beyond the pandemic.
For the most part, many of those in social care are invisible beyond their immediate circle, mostly women, and mostly people with few career choices. Yet it is this invisible army that sustains the fabric of communities. It does many of the core tasks that allow people to live with dignity and maintain as best a quality of life that is possible. By any definition of a civilised society that is an essential job.
The stark reality is that growing elderly population combined with the continued of covid on society will require an increase in the role of social care workers. The commitment and flexibility of social care staff to support at risk groups in the community, plays a critical role in reducing the burden on acute bed in hospitals when the virus was at its height. But beyond the virus, the rising numbers of older and vulnerable in our societies require innovative ways to maintain and support in home- or home-based settings.
Not just because it is morally right to look after those who are vulnerable, but it becomes of strategic economic importance to ensure effective quality support in the community to maintain a thriving and economically active population. So there requires a shift in thinking away from the notion that social care is a drain on the national exchequer, to one that sees it as a strategic economic investment, as well as a social good. This would go some way to according the status deserved by staff, and by extension to social care
The second step needs to be reward. Expecting that to be done for just over the minimum wage in many instances, is nothing short of a scandal. A whilst many care workers are not driven by the extrinsic motivation of the hourly rate, one of the key points of establishing status would be to recognise it in the form of a significant wage increase. And that goes to the heart of the matter. Social care is funded through a cash limited budget, where health care is care driven not cash led. This has led to a reductionist approach to commissioning where price is driving the care, and staff pay rates are collateral damage. For the sector to retain and attract staff, this needs to change.
But reward needs to see beyond the hourly rate. Recognition of what staff do, and the importance of their role should be reflected in how they are treated and valued. A national personal and learning development plan for all social care workers to enable them to develop qualifications or specialist skills should set up and take the burden off individual employers. It would reward staff for staying in the sector and encourage career development.
Finally, respect is the third step to status. And both paid social care staff and unpaid carers do not get enough respect. Those who work with the cared for have a wealth of knowledge about the individual and have established trusting relationships. That is a particular skill that not everyone has and should be respected. For those who are unpaid carers, their voice and their expertise also need to be acknowledged. Again, recognising that unlike the rest of social care work, they do not get time off or holidays. A statutory right to respite days per year, with a clear sign of respect.
It was once said by Hubert Humphries, a US presidential candidate, that a civilised society is measured by the way it treats it’s elderly, and it’s disabled. Let us add social care workers to the list.