Moving Fast, Doing More, Breaks A Workforce

2 years ago
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You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one makes two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and’.

– Sufi Teaching

Faced with ever-increasing market pressures and demands, it is safe to say that many age services organisations have been mandated to take on more than they can handle, and are stretched to the limit.

Not only is there more work to do, there are also more kinds of work to deliver—and this is laced with the imperative of ever shorter timeframes, increasing performance standards and persistent financial pressures.

Over the last four years we’ve seen a succession of changes and disruptions to the sector: consumer directed care, expansion of Home Care Packages, new Quality Standards, a workforce review, a Royal Commission, challenging bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic, and comprehensive aged care reforms.

For any organisation navigating through these changes and disruptions, what began as a spurt of success and achievement probably now feels more like chronic overloading, with potential calamitous workforce and care outcomes.

The furious pace of our sector’s new normal, primarily instituted onto us by policy-makers, is now leading to less than ideal outcomes for older Australians and their families. Not only has this frenetic pace sapped our workforce’s ability to care better, our providers’ focus and energy is now scattered in a multitude of disparate regulatory and operational directions.

The recent series of federal and state government discussions to consider surge workforce initiatives for the sector is indication that something is wrong. However, in typical fashion, much of what is considered merely addresses the symptoms and not the cause.

All the while, fatigue envelopes our sector, and passionate workers, who’ve lost the strength to ‘push on’, hand in their resignations.

The present sector state-of-play exhibits the following destructive activity patterns:

  • Overloaded. Employees are saddled with too many activities, and don’t have the time and resources to do their work.
  • Multi loaded. Employees are asked to do too many types of activities.
  • Perpetually loaded. Employees are having to deal with never-ending cycles of change, and levels of high-intensity work.

While there’s nothing that can be done to circumvent sector regulatory requirements and reforms, the board members and CEOs should consider ways to ensure workforce sustainability with organisation-specific initiatives.

Professors Heike Bruch and Jochen Menges offer the following:

  • Stop the action. Ask employees for ideas on ‘What we should stop doing?’
  • Be clear about strategy. Terminating nonessential tasks requires CEO fortitude. They must ensure that the organisation’s strategy is clearly understood throughout the entire firm.
  • Decide how to take decisions. Find a systematic way to make hard choices, as not every project that supports the firm’s strategy is essential.
  • Declare the turmoil over. Avoid continuous rounds of change, and carve out opportunities for workers to reasonably work at their own pace.

The main lesson here for ambitious policy-makers and sector leaders is this: don’t perpetually push organisations to their limits, because something will eventually break. The last few years of non-stop sector reforms during a pandemic illustrates this point clearly.

Everyone in the sector understands that we go through energy-intense phases, and must navigate through crisis situations. However, demanding from our workforce the same levels of high intensity every day without end is unsustainable.

It’s unacceptable that we allow the current landscape to be defined as ‘just another day in aged care’.

Non-stop change leads to fatigue, burnout, and loss of organisational focus and innovation. For many weaned on a rhetoric of growth (at the expense of everything else), it’s realising that addressing our present predicament is an exercise in subtraction rather than addition.

Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING and Director of the Centre for Workforce Development & Innovation, Leading Age Services Australia.