Five aged care worker stressors and what to do about them

Last updated on 7 December 2022

Reducing stressors and making aged care a better place to work is key to a strong workforce. [Source: Adobe Stock]

Aged care workers have a true passion for caring but sometimes stressors can impact their work, so providers need to be aware of the challenges facing workers and actively reduce these stressors in order to have a strong workforce.

Wellbeing Manager at Victorian aged care provider Benetas, Felix Cheng, said the past three years in particular have resulted in a series of stressors leading to a “very weary workforce”.

“If stressors are not managed, there’s a tendency for them to spread rapidly resulting in it becoming a systemic issue. This can result in increased turnover which puts pressure right across the organisation,” he said.

Identifying the stressors affecting your staff and providing them with the tools to overcome these challenges can help develop a stronger, more resilient workforce that is always at the top of its game.

Below is a list of five stressors impacting your workforce and ways to reduce these stressors to better maintain your workforce.

1. Workforce shortage

We’ve all read the numerous reports that show there are many more aged care workers needed now and in the future than the numbers of workers that are currently employed.

The shortage of workers puts more strain on those who are currently providing care as they don’t have the numbers around them to meet the level of care they need to.

Mr Cheng said workforce shortages lead to rostering gaps and a requirement for more agency support.

“This puts pressure on the existing workforce to carry the load, continuously train new staff and buddy with them for on-the-job training, oversee temporary workers and more,” he said.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation (ANMF) Federal Secretary Annie Butler said many workers also feel pressured to take on extra shifts or work overtime to fill gaps in rosters, resulting in many care workers becoming burned out.

The obvious solution to mitigate the effects of workforce shortages is to hire more staff – which is easier said than done, but there are some steps you can take to be more successful when looking for additional staff.

Investigate recruiting workers on visas and whether this would work for your organisation, you can read more in our article ‘How to recruit overseas workers’.

Think about the ways you can attract the best workers through all your recruitment processes, for example becoming an Employer of Choice with a great workplace culture, and read our top tips for a successful recruitment process.

It is also important to focus on staff retention, develop a staff retention strategy and support the development of staff so that they can confidently take on leadership roles that improve care delivered while building a better environment for employees.

Additionally, providers that create an environment where staff don’t feel pressured to pick up more shifts or work longer hours will be able to reduce the chance of having a workforce affected by burnout, leading to a stronger workforce.

2. Feeling undervalued

The aged care sector has welcomed the recent announcement of the wage rise of 15% for many aged care workers.

Whilst there are fears that it may not be enough for the workforce, money is not always the driving factor for employees and there are additional things a provider can do to ensure their staff feel valued.

Providers that give workers a voice in the way their organisation operates have found staff feel more valued when their opinions are heard.

For example, consulting personal care workers and nurses over a change to rostering to determine if they think the change is necessary and whether it will be beneficial. It allows workers to give feedback on something that will affect them, as well as open up discourse around other options that may have a more positive impact.

Mr Cheng added that providers have also found success through:

  • Using existing partnerships with superannuation providers to provide employees with financial advice and support
  • Having a strong communication plan and strategy to address uncertainty and concerns
  • Having a framework for employee education and skill development to lift capability to be able to work through organisational stressors

Additionally, when concerns are raised by workers with their managers, having a policy of discussing the solution and involving the worker in the process of solving the problem will also help staff feel they are valued.

3. Moral distress

Aged care workers often develop close relationships with their clients or residents, in some cases even thinking of them as family, and it is well known that workers experience grief and loss when those they are caring for pass away.

It can be even harder for workers when they feel they are unable to help a person enough, either in their end of life stages or in general care, for example if they are unable to take away a person’s pain.

Ms Butler said that being able to truly look after a person makes it easier for aged care workers to cope with the grief.

“Part of working in aged care is knowing that many of the residents are staying there at the end of their lives and most of the residents that’s how they leave so that’s always part of it but there’s a big difference between a bad end of life and a good end of life,” she explained.

“So if you’re in a place where you’re able to provide good care and the resident is happy and comfortable, they’re still approaching end of life but that can be peaceful.”

Making sure staff have the resources and time they need to make a resident comfortable and happy, which is part of the quality care that many providers already deliver, helps alleviate moral distress for workers.

In addition to resourcing, Employee Assistance Programs (short term, confidential counselling services) are a common way for organisations to provide wellbeing support to staff.

Offering counselling sessions is particularly beneficial if this is through a counsellor or psychologist with qualifications and experience in grief counselling.

You can read more about staff wellbeing in our article, ‘Why staff wellbeing is critical for your organisation’.

4. Feeling there’s a lack of support

The past few years of COVID-19 affected work have brought to the fore a push for employers to better support their employees’ overall wellbeing.

Ms Butler said providers need to build a culture of supporting workers, giving workers a voice in what’s going on around them and making sure they feel comfortable to reach out with any concerns they have.

Support should encompass physical, emotional and organisational factors in the workplace, such as:

  • Making sure the workplace is safe, for example, with good ventilation to reduce the spread of COVID-19 or having access to proper safety equipment
  • Offering wellbeing activities for staff, such as activities that help staff culture
  • Making sure staff feel supported to raise their concerns with management
  • Making sure staff struggling with their mental health feel supported and are not ‘punished’ for reaching out for help
  • Developing employees’ resilience so that they can adapt to cope with a stressor as it is unlikely the stressors can be eliminated entirely
  • Having strong communication with your workforce to provide assurance, clarify misconceptions and direct people to the right support

Mr Cheng said, “Make time for relationships and fostering organisational values to prioritise and enhance employee experience. A strong social community contributes positively to health and wellbeing.”

Offering the support that workers need will mean they have more reason to stay in the industry and more drive to work to the best of their ability.

5. The physical environment

Caring is a physically demanding career that sees workers on their feet for hours at a time, pushing wheelchairs, lifting and moving people or heavy items.

Almost 60% of workplace injuries in aged care are related to manual handling tasks, but according to Mr Cheng aged care workers are also continuing to deal with the physical pressures of COVID-19 practices in a way that no other industry continues to experience.

“Whilst most workplaces have returned to some form of normality in terms of COVID-19 practices, aged care employees continue to work in some form of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the level of vigilance with hygiene practices not just in the workplace but also out in the community because of the risk to residents and clients,” he said.

To help workers cope with the physical stressors of aged care providers should keep up strong communication about the rules and restrictions, particularly for COVID-19.

Non COVID safety measures include ensuring lifting hoists are working properly, there are procedures around safe medication management and hazardous materials or chemicals are replaced with non hazardous options.

Workplace health and safety policies should be kept up to date and followed, and there should be adequate staff rostered to cover the physically demanding tasks that need to be completed.

A supportive workplace

With each of the major stressors affecting aged care workers, the solution boils down to creating a supportive workplace.

This is a workplace in which staff feel valued, listened to, safe, and are able to deliver the best care possible to the clients they are passionate about caring for.

Reducing the stressors and making aged care a better place to work will be key to attracting the workers needed now and into the future, while retaining the current stock of workers.

In what ways has your organisation tried to minimise workplace stressors for your staff? Tell us in the comments below.

aged care workforce
aged care sector
workforce shortage
moral distress