The cracks in Australia’s aged care workforce

In a 2017 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, over one in seven Australians were aged 65 years and over. Australia undoubtedly has, like so many other Western countries, an ageing population. It comes as no surprise then that the number of Australians receiving home care has been steadily rising in the last decade. With the Baby Boomer generation starting to look into their options post-retirement, it’s increasingly important to fortify the foundations of Australian aged care – namely, the nurses and carers who work in the industry. But at such a pivotal time, those in the industry are seeing a staffing crisis.

According to the CEO of superannuation fund HESTA Debby Blakey, 23% of the aged care workforce will be leaving in the next five years, supported by government research which indicates that nurses often work in their current job for one to five years. While this certainly provides opportunities for fresh-faced nursing graduates, it’s not only taking away years of experience from the industry but also creating unnecessary instability in residential homes that can affect the health of those being cared for. The question that must then be asked is this: why exactly are nurses and carers leaving?

HESTA’s research suggests that it’s mainly a desire for new skills but that may not always be the case. The aged care industry is known to be demanding in more ways than one; the physical and emotional demands of nursing often come to mind, with long hours and understaffing contributing to nurses’ poor health. Heavy-lifting and exposure to machinery, needles and infected bodily fluids are just some of the work hazards that come to mind for nurses. We have seen shift times and allocation being reduced by management due to funding shortages, leading to lower morale levels and nurses feeling like they are no longer part of a team. In addition to these this, discrimination based on skill-level is an issue that many new nurses face at some point in the start of their career. Nurses can be faced with unwilling mentors who do more harm than good, all while adjusting to the stresses and procedures of a new workplace. With all these factors working against nurses and carers, it comes as a surprise to no one that those in the aged care industry are leaving and widening the gap between supply and demand. Who would, realistically, want to stay in an environment like that? Why would they?

It’s not enough to rely on the compassion of those delivering therapeutic care; it’s time for systemic change in the industry to combat these issues and create a workplace environment that supports and values their workers. Ensuring that workers want to come to work is crucial for both maintaining workers’ mental health and for the function of the workplace. It’s important that nurses feel like they are part of a team, feel like are looked after, and enjoy coming to work. Not only will this improve social connections with their colleagues and their own motivation levels in providing the best level of care for residents, but it will guarantee that our care-givers in the aged care industry are being cared for too. While this isn’t a finite solution, changing workplace cultures is the first step to improve the industry despite its harsh working conditions. This change to nurturing our own staff will provide the foundations for greater progress once funding is provided and ratios of care-givers and residents are improved, hopefully through the work of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

Written by: Melanie Wong