Who is caring for the care workers?

Many of us have moms and dads or older friends and relatives in nursing home facilities and care very much about their well-being and the supports they receive. But who’s caring for the care aides who do the bulk of the frontline work in nursing homes? Their welfare is almost entirely overlooked in the health system. And it turns out, the health of the care aide affects the quality of care they deliver.

Care aides — also known as nurses aides, personal support workers or continuing care assistants — are the largest workforce in nursing homes in Canada. Research suggests between 75 and 90 percent of direct care to residents is provided by care aides, including physical care, such as helping those they care for to eat, bathe and dress, as well as emotional care and social interaction. Their role is central to the quality of care and quality of life of nursing home residents.

Yet up until recently, we’ve known little about them. When the health force is studied at all, typically care aides and registered nurses are lumped together, even though their job functions are distinct, and their educational, social and ethnic backgrounds, as well as their positions in the hierarchy of the health care workforce, are often significantly different.

So what happens when you focus specifically on the contributions and the health of nursing home care aides? You discover that care aide burnout in Canada is rampant.

Along with our colleagues at the Translating Research in Elder Care (TREC), we recently published a study in the International Journal of Nursing Studies which surveyed almost 1200 care aides from 30 different nursing homes in three Western Canadian provinces. We found that care aides, despite a high belief in their professional abilities and finding their work meaningful, were at high risk for emotional exhaustion and cynicism.

What is burnout exactly?

Burnout is a psychological condition that results from work-related stress and can present itself as emotional exhaustion, such as a lack of emotional response or a lack of physical energy. It can present as a negative and detached attitude and a lack of feeling of accomplishment in your work. Research shows that those who are burnt out report providing lower-quality care.

In our study, we found that care aides work efficiently, sometimes under challenging conditions, and with a strong sense that what they do is meaningful — but the risk for burnout is great.

More than 60 percent of the residents in the nursing homes where care aides work have a dementia-related condition. High-stress demands on care aides are linked to this complex and demanding care. We found that, on average, care aides experienced at least three dementia-related behaviors in the last five shifts.

Combine these complex care demands with often inadequate staffing, limited or nearly non-existent continuing education and training opportunities and lack of decision-making opportunities for the residents they care for, and it’s no surprise that the threat of burnout is high.

The consequences for burn out are significant — and costly.

If care workers are not healthy, their work suffers, and so does the quality of patient care as a result. Care aide burn out can also result in job dissatisfaction and affect workplace productivity, high staff turnover and poor staff retention, as well as high absenteeism.

So what can be done?

Based on this study and over 10 years of research in nursing homes, we have many recommendations aimed at improving our understanding of the care aide workforce.

Firstly, we need the implementation of national training and continuing education program standards for care aides. Care aides increasingly need to know how to deal with complex residents, such as those with dementia and need opportunities to learn the latest best practices and have the skills to provide quality care.

Improving the work culture for care aides would also help with burnout, including strategies to engage them in decision-making about the residents they care for.

Finally, we need coordinated efforts across governments to track the care aide workforce including numbers and migration patterns across Canada. We also need mandatory provincial care aide registries.

The regulation of the care aide workforce must be addressed, particularly given the frail, highly vulnerable population of older Canadians that are in their care. And what’s good for the carer turns out to be good for the nursing home resident too.

Carole A. Estabrooks is a professor, faculty of nursing, University of Alberta and Scientific Director of the Knowledge Utilization Studies Program (KUSP) and the pan-Canadian Translating Research in Elder Care (TREC) research program, Alberta, Canada. Stephanie Chamberlain is a doctoral candidate.  This article originally appeared in Evidence Network.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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