Researchers call for greater mental health support for aged care workers amid COVID-19 pandemic

With more than 1,700 confirmed cases of COVID within the state’s workforce and 163 outbreaks since the start of the year, the demands on the Victoria’s aged care sector have never been greater.

According to the co-author of a recent op-ed published by the University of Melbourne that calls for a “psychological version of PPE” for frontline workers in aged care, more needs to be done to ensure aged care staff nationwide receive appropriate support for their mental health.

While the federal and Victorian state governments have provided funding and support services during this time, Professor Briony Dow, Director of the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI), says the system generally doesn’t support its workers like the broader healthcare sector does.

“It’s there in the health system more broadly: There’s an emphasis on self-care, there are mechanisms for peer support, there are mechanisms for workplace mental health support, but it just seems to be absent in frontline aged care,” Professor Dow says.

Professor Dow, who has previously worked within community aged care as a social worker, adds the lack of mental health support in aged care isn’t something that she is surprised about.

“Compared to the mainstream healthcare workforce, the aged care workforce is significantly undervalued,” Professor Dow says, adding that the need to more greatly value the aged care sector was identified in a 2018 report commissioned by the federal health department and written by the Aged Care Workforce Strategy Taskforce.

Professor Dow, who co-authored the article with Dr Anita Goh (a research fellow at NARI and clinical neuropsychologist), says the call for “psychological PPE” fits within this expressed need to more greatly value the aged care workforce.

“We need to start appreciating and valuing this workforce… provide them with the opportunity to reflect on what’s happening to them, particularly during the pandemic, and to get some support around their mental health needs,” she says.
Furthermore, she also points out research makes clear that there is a direct link between a healthy workforce and quality of care.

“If you look after your staff, your residents will be happier, and vice versa: If able to provide good, person-centred care with residents, staff feel more satisfied with their role and will also be happier,” she says.

Professor Dow also noted that residential care is both a workplace for staff and a home for residents so the physical environment can also pose challenges for staff mental health, such as finding a private space to debrief or just take a break.

“People [residents] don’t go in there as a lifestyle choice, they go in there because they need care and so it is a care environment,” she says.

“You need well-qualified, well-supported, expert carers, with the right skill mix, so people aren’t working outside of their expertise and their training… and you need adequate numbers, so they’re not expected to do the impossible.
“That’s what it needs to be seen as… care for the older people, but also care for the staff.”

NARI has had to put several key studies in ageing on hold due to the pandemic, and Professor Dow says the cost for both the workers and sector-at-large will be significant if these issues, regardless of whether they are directly linked to the pandemic, royal commission or other issues, aren’t adequately addressed by providers or regulators.

“I think we will see a big spike in mental health issues and people just leaving the sector if we don’t address and support them in these roles,” she says.

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