The COVID-19 pandemic demanded a rapid response from the aged care workforce, with the unprecedented challenges leading to increased workloads, intensified emotional demands and staff feeling undervalued, a study has found.
Seeking to understand aged care worker’s experiences of the pandemic, University of Tasmania researchers interviewed 15 aged care workers from across Australia.
Analysis of data revealed five key themes, with aged care workers identifying intensified procedures and emotionally demanding roles, and feeling undervalued and detached from the frontline, amid the pandemic. They also felt the exposure of system deficiencies could help reform the sector through improved standards, more funding and better training and pay, recognised the newfound importance of teamwork, and reported increased confidence using technology and online resources.
Increased workloads for participants who took part in the study were associated with infection control measures, such as the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), strict screening for staff and visitors, lockdowns, and supporting residents and families who were also experiencing heightened emotions.
Almost half of aged care workers reported being treated unfairly or abusively by family members in response to visitor restrictions. Tellingly, when surveyed about the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and wellbeing, almost two-thirds of people working in residential aged care facilities reported work-related stress including burnout, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and grief.
“We have the residents themselves becoming more lonely and feeling more isolated and more disoriented because their people couldn’t come. And we can’t have any entertainment. And we can’t take them out,” one participant said.
The study also found that aged care workers felt their caring efforts during the pandemic were not valued, and that they were put under a microscope because of the Aged Care Royal Commission. They largely attributed the negative image of aged care workers to their portrayal in the media and by community leaders.
“It’s [aged care] a damned space where no-one receives accolades. Frontline healthcare staff are never inclusive of aged care staff,” a participant said.
Despite the issues, some participants felt that the increased attention on aged care had rightly exposed system deficiencies, and expressed optimism that it may lead to reform.
Researchers say the study highlights the need to better support and acknowledge the important role aged care workers play in caring for older Australians, including at an organisational level by providing supportive environments and adequate resources, as well as at a community and policy level by recognising aged care workers as frontline workers.
“The findings of this study highlight the need to address lack of support for aged care workers to improve their wellbeing and the provision of quality care,” researchers said.
Read the full study here