The cost of living crisis and the care workforce

With the cost of living rising to the highest levels that we have seen in 30 years, care staff are at the hard edge of this crisis. In the wake of COVID-19 burnout, our sector is losing even more valuable talent.

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Keir Lynch

Written by Keir Lynch, CEO of ECL

The current cost-of-living crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. Already struggling from staff shortages in the wake of COVID-19, the industry is still trying to recruit to pre-pandemic levels. But sadly, many care workers are looking to move to other sectors to increase their income. I feel so disappointed when I hear this because, in my view, salaries should be reflective of the role. I see first hand the amazing work our carers do each day and the level of skill and personal qualities needed. As an industry, we should be asking ourselves why are we losing valuable talent and what can we do about it?

The obvious solution is pay. However, this presents a significant challenge for companies. You want to reward and hold onto valuable individuals who are leaving you but, in the current climate, you simply can’t afford to pay more to keep them. Despite these extraordinary times, there are things that can be done. We’ve increased our average salary for front-line staff by more than double the rate of inflation since January. Yes, we’ve had to make savings in other areas but, without our staff, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Average salaries for Essex Care Ltd (ECL) front-line staff are now as high as a newly qualified nurse/paramedic, and so they should be! Social care workforces are just as valuable as their NHS colleagues. Having a strong, efficient network of homecare and community services takes the pressure off an already over-stretched health system.

The cost of fuel is a huge concern. Our 750 community-based staff can each travel over 250 miles a week and reimbursement for this is important. Fuel prices have increased 40% in a year but the HMRC mileage rate has remained the same at 45p per mile for the past 12 years, so we’ve taken additional measures to help. When the fuel prices rocketed, we provided a one-off payment to all front-line staff towards this added cost. When we saw the energy price increase, we brought forward annual pay increases by three months to help further. We can’t sustain this and we need commissioners in health and social care to see workforce capacity as an investment worth making to prevent the costs and poor outcomes of hospital admission delays, unmet need, failed discharges and re-admissions.

Hourly rates are important but they are just one element of staff retention. Making employees feel valued, providing a flexible and supportive working environment and offering opportunities for personal development keep your workforce with you for longer and will help to make you more attractive to potential employees. We have to be brilliant at everything non-salary related to compete with other sectors and we are investing more in management training and staff development than ever.

It seems to be working. We have high staff engagement, even after two years of pandemic working, our retention is better than the rest of the sector and we now have more front-line staff than at the start of the pandemic. Yet, despite these promising developments, we still need to recruit more staff to meet the growing demands on care.

Vanessa Worham, an ECL Community Care Assistant, also says that the rising cost of fuel and energy prices are concerning. Vanessa joined ECL during the first wave of the pandemic after being made redundant from her job in print and promotional sales. In relation to the rising cost of living, Vanessa told me, ‘I think ECL, like so many other care providers, is doing as much as it can to help with the cost of living. Providers are very restricted to funding and, as much as they might want to pay staff even more, it’s not always possible. I love this job; even though my old industry paid more, I wouldn’t go back. With the additional benefits and pay rises that ECL has introduced, my salary is close to what I earned in sales and they are funding my health and social care diploma, which is invaluable.’

There’s no doubt these are testing times for everyone and, as Chief Executives, we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to help our staff to get through this. I firmly believe that valuing existing staff not only results in greater retention, but they are also your best assets when it comes to attracting new employees.

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