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The pandemic has exacerbated workplace stress in aged care

OPINION - In the years leading up to the pandemic, workplace stress already became recognised as a major workplace health and safety (WHS) risk factor. According to a five-year review by SafeWork Australia, 91 percent of workers’ compensation claims involving a mental health condition were linked to work-related stress.

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Anna Pannuzzo from WorkPlacePLUS says that aged care providers need to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. [Source: Supplied]

We now know that aged care facilities are considered high-risk settings due to COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the direct health and safety impact of the pandemic on aged care residents and staff, with the staggering number of COVID-19 outbreaks in Australian residential care facilities and, tragically, the thousands of lives lost as a result.

Beyond the WHS risk of COVID-19 infection, the pandemic continues to have a negative ripple effect on the aged care workforce, who are struggling to cope with a range of known workplace stressors. For example:

  • Extreme workloads, long working hours and/or shift work
  • Grief and/or exposure to trauma
  • Low level of control
  • Remote and isolated work due to mandated COVID isolation and restrictions
  • Poor environmental conditions due to the extreme nature of the virus
  • Perpetual donning and doffing of PPE, in some cases inadequate PPE
  • Worrying about infected colleagues or clients and/or fear for one’s own safety
  • In some cases, poorly managed organisational change
  • In some cases, public hostility or rebellion against safety restrictions, portrayed in the media, which directly impacts work

These mental health risk factors are known as psychosocial hazards in the workplace. They can contribute towards the occupational syndrome known as burnout.

Prior to the pandemic, health support workers were already rated amongst the top at-risk occupations for mental health issues. Even though aged care workers are trained to detect and manage mental health issues in their clients, it is common for professional carers to themselves experience work-related stress and burnout. During the challenges or crises such as pandemics, floods or bushfires, the stress risks become amplified for healthcare and aged care workers.

Late last year, Safe Work Australia released new data on COVID-related worker’s compensation claims, showing that 69 percent of those claims were from health care and social service industries, with a significant number of those claims being for mental health impacts related to the virus. Indeed, in 2020 when my consultancy ran a seminar on mental health in the workplace for leaders in Australia’s aged care sector, 89 percent of participants admitted to recently experiencing work-related stress and burnout.

It is important for aged care service providers to be proactive about protecting the mental health and wellbeing of their staff, not only because employers have a legal duty to protect their employees from harm, but because employee wellbeing directly affects the ability of aged care organisations to provide sustainable quality care to their consumers. In turn, aged care employees need to be able to access the tools and support to be able to take care of their own mental health and wellbeing throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Managers and supervisors working in aged care settings can aim to protect themselves and their staff from work-related stress and burnout by focusing on three important factors:

1. Maintaining boundaries by taking breaks and structuring time for resilience boosters such as sleep, nutrition and exercise.

2. Recognising the warning signs, such as headaches, exhaustion, sleeplessness, slow reactions, shortness of breath, difficulty in decision-making, forgetfulness, lack of concentration, irritability, excessive worrying, feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, reduced performance, social withdrawal, compassion fatigue (where you lose the emotional capacity to care about others), impulsive behaviour, and increased alcohol and nicotine consumption.

3. Speaking up, reaching out and seeking support, whether this be from a friend, a GP, or by accessing an employee assistance program. Free community resources are also available nationally, such as Lifeline or Beyond Blue.

In an industry already prone to mental stress, the pandemic seems to be pushing aged care workers beyond their limits.

While workforce shortages and extreme work demands remain difficult issues to overcome, aged care leaders can still foster a mentally healthy workplace culture by ensuring that they provide a supportive environment with positive workplace relationships, where roles are clear and workplace change is well managed.

Employers, duty holders and supervisors who are spread thin or need help can seek support from a professional HR and workplace relations advisor.

Director of WorkPlacePLUS, Anna Pannuzzo. [Source: Supplied]
Director of WorkPlacePLUS, Anna Pannuzzo. [Source: Supplied]

Author biography

Anna Pannuzzo is Director of WorkPlacePLUS, Australia’s leading workplace investigation and HR consultancy supporting the health and community care sectors.

With 25+ years of senior HR management experience, Anna provides organisations with practical solutions to manage complex workplace issues. She is degree-qualified and a certified professional member of several highly regarded industry associations, including AHRI and the Australasian Association of Workplace Investigators.

Anna presents regularly at industry events and trainings, and has provided expert advice on ABC Radio National’s “This Working Life”. Her nursing background provides a unique insight to the HR challenges facing many employers.

For more information, please visit WorkPlacePLUS.

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