“Not bad but you’ve missed a few bits. In future make sure you get right inside the creases.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll get a cloth.”
“Leave it for now else we’ll be here all day.”
When a care worker is expected to run the lives of thirty odd clients, it’s not surprising that even the most conscientious are going to find a short cut or two in order to finish their shift on time. The above is an extract from my novelette Cattle Market and shows Amanda, the Matron in charge, cutting a corner when it comes to the personal hygiene of a client. Her attitude is that she has no intention of staying at work any longer than she has to. Sadly, this is the attitude of many carers I work with today, both good and bad. When you’re paid very little for your time, you tend to give as little of it as possible.
I’ve heard it said on many occasions that a care worker shouldn’t expect high wages to care about another person, that it should just come naturally. To a point, this is true. The difference between a low paid care worker and a highly paid one is the difference between a part time burger flipper and a five star gourmet chef.
Would you expect a gourmet chef to pull out all the stops if he found himself flipping burgers for minimum wage? Should he be expected to put in the same love when he is told to just get the work done as quickly as possible? Surely he will eventually stop seeing the art in cooking, instead prioritising the monotonous process when he is simply paid to just produce as many burgers as he can, in the shortest time. Eventually, he will forget about his high standards, start to cut corners and not put in as much effort.
I can already hear some of you gasp at the fact that I’ve compared the care of a human life with cooking a cheap burger, but this is an accurate analogy of how it can be to work in a large care home. When short staffed, or just unusually busy, there is a lot of in-joking in the industry that it’s time to enter ‘Burger Flipper Mode’. This simply means getting the basics done and putting all other things on hold until the time is there. The primary consideration when dealing with any life is the basic care. This is the personal hygiene, food and water. The basics a human needs to survive physically.
So, the basic care is finished and now you can turn your attention to the other things a human needs to survive. Love, compassion and companionship. But your shift is over. You could stay behind for an extra hour or two and complete that crossword with Mr Smith in room fourteen, but you know that you wont get paid for your time. You think of your partner sitting at home waiting for you. You think of the fact that you only have ten hours before you have to come back and do it all again. You know you need your rest because the only way to pay for your mortgage on a low income is to work double time.
You go home. Regardless of your intentions, you make your excuses and you go home to care for the people you have chosen to care for in life knowing that there will be burgers to flip again in the morning.
Money will never make someone care for a stranger more than their own family. At least it shouldn’t. But it would most certainly give them the time to fit it in their schedule. Most of the people I work with, not all but most, do a large amount of additional hours to supplement the rising cost of living. For instance, I worked 105 hours over my contracted amount last month in an attempt to pay off a loan that I wont be able to manage when my wages are cut by £619 per month in January. This means that when time off does come up, it’s cherished and ferociously protected.
Care homes are also generally short staffed. This is often a result of the low wages and high turn over of employees. Also, not all staff members, usually the older generation, are in need of the additional money. Some others generally feel that the extra tax, effort and time away from home isn’t worth it. So those that do over time are often spoilt for choice when it comes to extra shifts. But due to the amount of hours that require covering, you can be sure they wont all be picked up. Those uncovered hours are the one to one hours, the caring hours and there is physically no one available to work them.
Imagine instead that care work came with a respectable wage. The job would be more sought after among employees and this in turn would mean that employers could expect more for their money. Currently there is no requirement for experience or training to perform the risky and complex tasks of caring. By increasing wages, the expectation of the employee is also increased and mostly those with a true passion for the work would spend the time obtaining the required training. Since mostly those with a true passion for the job are now applying, Winterborne scandals should become a thing of the past.
Employees will be at less risk of burning out as they’re no longer in need of hundreds of hours of extra shifts. Your one to one hours will be covered as there would be more incentive to work in a care home. But most importantly, the clients are in some of the happiest, safest hands around.
Steven Hawley lives just outside of Stratford-Upon-Avon and has worked in the care industry for 8 years. He is the author of Cattle Market which is a fictionalised account of his experiences working in care. He would have loved to provide more examples of the UK’s failings in care provision when writing Cattle Market, but felt that this would sound too much like a one sided cynical rant to be believable. Though, judging by the string of care home scandals cropping up in the press lately, perhaps this assumption was wrong.
Cattle Market is available for download from Amazon.