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Why we urgently need a social care workforce plan

The sector has a major staff retention problem – policymakers and providers must work together to ensure workforce security.

By Rebecca Pearson

In the face of an ageing population and increasing demand for elderly care services, it is worrying that vacancies in social care reached an all-time high in 2022 of 165,000 roles. With this in mind, it is only right that the next government publishes a comprehensive social care workforce plan.

As the general manager for Bupa Care Services, one of the leading care providers in the UK, we and others across the care sector are navigating this unprecedented workforce challenge. We employ more than 10,000 people to provide high quality care for our much-loved care home residents, and must keep a firm focus on retention and recruitment to ensure that we have a steady pipeline of committed, caring professionals who want to grow and progress in their careers in care.

However, decades of government underfunding, high levels of post-pandemic burnout and perceived lack of career progression has led to an increased reliance on attracting overseas workers, high staff turnover and a sector in crisis. It is now crucial to address these challenges and find the solutions.

A truly fair cost of care (FCOC) paid to providers

Damning Fair Cost of Care (FCOC) figures released earlier this year show that, in many areas, a fair cost of care is significantly higher than the fee rates currently paid by local authorities to aged care providers, with an estimated £2.3bn gap.

This, put simply, means that providers are having to plug the gap. While larger providers can absorb some of these costs in the short term to offer competitive pay for its people, the costs are crippling for smaller providers. With an ageing population set to reach 13 million by 2033, we cannot afford to lose aged care provision when market trends forecast increasing demand.

Central to any workforce plan must be proper medium- and long-term funding settlements, ensuring that providers are able to offer pay uplifts to their people. Initiatives such as allowing care providers to reclaim VAT on their costs associated with providing care, as well as providing better oversight of existing funding pot allocations will reduce the burden on central government to directly fund all of this uplift.

[See also: Covid inquiry reveals what many already knew – the elderly are neglected]

Incentivise providers to invest in their people

The latest Bupa Wellbeing Index data shows that a third of employees (33 per cent) believe their employers have a responsibility to support their health and well-being, and more than half (53 per cent) say they are more likely to choose to work for an organisation which offers good health and well-being benefits.

At Bupa Care Services our people told us that they wanted more support with their physical and mental health at a time that worked around their shifts. We have responded with providing physiotherapy and mental health support, as well as GP and nurse helpline access available around the clock.

To enable greater employer-led health benefits, the next government must focus on reducing the tax burden on health-related benefits. Health insurance is currently subject to a triple burden of tax, more so than so-called “sin taxes”, such as those on cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and vaping. This has to change.

Digital transformation for care of the future

Digital solutions have the potential to transform how care is provided, perceived and experienced, which can act as a powerful tool to attract people to a career in care. Caring is a vocation for people in our sector; they want to spend time with residents. So digitalisation is important: for example electronic care records can drastically reduce paperwork, while piloting the latest dementia memory apps and games can play an important role in helping residents to live fulfilling lives.

The government’s Digitising Social Care programme is a step forwards in driving digital transformation. However, long-term funding is needed to position the sector as a leader in technology. Digital tools and better data improve quality standards and care outcomes for our residents, and ensure our people’s time is spent on meaningful human connection that creates happiness for our residents in our homes. Digital technologies require investment and time, and the next government should ensure that transformation is prioritised for social care to meet increasing demand and provide the technology-led experience that an ageing population will expect and need to stay independent and well for longer.

Social care is a lifelong vocation

Last year 390,000 people working in social care left their jobs. With 1.6 million people working in the sector, the number of leavers must considerably reduce. This requires long-term investment in career opportunities. Career pathways for workers in social care, promised by past government reforms, have been limited. While there are apprenticeships of all levels available in the sector, increasing awareness of these, as well as creating long-term career progression opportunities, would position social care as an exciting, forward-thinking profession.

Ultimately, current and future governments do not need to be told of the challenges facing the social care workforce – the statistics tell all. After decades of underinvestment by successive governments, the care sector is in crisis. With growing demand for social care services this can no longer be ignored – it is time for real change, and the happiness, safety and expectations of our ageing population depend on it.

[See also: Punitive welfare reforms won’t help sick Britain]

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