I met Mandy a few years ago when I was studying the best carers in a domiciliary care firm. Off her own bat she’d cooked ten extra Christmas lunches and delivered them to people who would be alone on Christmas Day. Mandy is the sort of person I’d want to care for my loved ones, but we simply aren’t recruiting or retaining enough Mandys in the sector.
There is a shortfall of 122,000 people in the current workforce and 1,100 workers leave the sector each day. It’s estimated that a million new care staff will be needed to meet demand by 2025.(1) It’s a crisis that has been in plain view for many years and yet successive governments have failed to deliver a long term sustainable solution.
Recruit and retain
It’s easy to think the critical factor is pay. It’s undoubtedly important and needs to be addressed, but it is perhaps the factor that makes less difference than is commonly believed when looking at the recruitment challenges facing the sector. Despite the pay, there are some providers who are able to recruit – and more importantly, retain – great care staff.
What’s the key? It is actually fairly obvious, though few have cracked it.
Research by Skills for Care(2) into providers with less than 20% staff turnover found that three key factors helped in retention – they recruited the right kinds of people; they supported and valued their staff; and they were clear from the outset about the realities of the job. This reflects our own experience of working with private care companies who reduced their care worker turnover by more than half by doing these things.
So why aren’t more organisations getting this right?
Our view is that the process for understanding who the right people are is too superficial. The benchmark for assessing who will make a great carer is also often too low. As one care worker said, “we have people applying who think they can do the job because they’ve occasionally looked after their gran. They don’t last long”.
Doubtless, the tendency when creating a workforce plan for social care will be to pack it with initiatives and targets. In our experience, these can be useful but if we ignore the evidence-based characteristics that make someone a good care worker, as well as the factors that promote loyalty (being part of a high performing, established team), we will continue to see the high vacancy and turnover rates that characterise the care sector.
This strengths-based approach to recruitment starts from the perspective that the natural strengths, values and motivations that the “Mandys” have in common can’t be taught. It is therefore critical that these strengths are identified and ‘tested’ as part of the recruitment process. Employers implement strengths-based recruitment by establishing a profile of the right-fit carer by studying those that are superb at the job and discovering what natural strengths, motivations and values they have in common. In other words, work out what great looks like. Then train your interviewers to assess applicants against this profile.
There are tangible benefits in taking this approach and getting it right. Experience shows that done properly, it can save millions in staff turnover and agency costs and is in fact the only approach to recruitment that has a decade-plus long track record of quantitative and qualitative results.
For example, when Saga entered the social care market they needed to reduce staff turnover and its associated costs. They implemented strengths-based recruitment and their turnover halved, putting £2 million on the bottom line in year one(3). The managers liked the approach because it gave them confidence that they were appointing the right people and they found it ‘common sense’. It’s fair to say that managers generally don’t enthusiastically embrace traditional recruitment approaches that feel ‘tick box’ and don’t routinely do what they’re meant to do – that is, identify great people.
Apart from the lack of popularity of the ‘same-old, same-old’ way of doing recruitment, there’s a lack of return-on-investment evidence in care where adverts list no requirements other than ability to drive and work certain hours, or which look for characteristics like ‘compassionate and caring nature’ but use no reliable method of assessing for these. Many employers would like to switch to something better, but know of no alternative.
The recruitment process also needs to recognise that care jobs of the future will be different. The use of technology in care has evolved fast, sped up by the impact of the pandemic. There is also an unprecedented level of innovation being deployed that means the way care is delivered in the years ahead will bear little resemblance to how it is delivered today.
Robots increasingly contribute to how care is delivered for future generations and care workers will need to know how to use them. However, they will never replace the love, care and empathy that the legions of people like Mandy provide. The people who show up each day and make a difference.
Whilst technology will doubtless change the particular skills and training requirements for care workers in the future, the strengths that make those carers great will remain the same. Taking a strengths-based approach to attraction, recruitment and workforce planning now will mean that we can secure a dedicated and stable workforce.
The crisis in care makes it an imperative that we respond quickly. The best thing about the strengths-based approach is we know what to do and have the evidence that it works. We can act now. We don’t even need a workforce strategy in place to do so!
(1) Section 142 of Workforce Burnout and Resilience in the NHS and Social Care Report. Hanover (a provider of housing, care and support) told us that a further one million care staff would need to be recruited by 2025 “to meet the needs of an ageing society and the implied increase in disabilities”.207