As part of the Working Well, Working Wisely study, researchers from the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the University of Melbourne investigated the health concerns of older workers in the aged care sector. We focused on ‘pink-collar’ workers, that is, care-related roles requiring less than a bachelor’s degree qualification.
This study is situated at the confluence of three policy concerns.
The first arises from a push to extend the working lives and the participation of older adults in the labour force. Policy makers have argued that this is a justified response to the cost of supporting an ageing population (Department of the Treasury 2015).
The second concern is with the effects on workers when aged care is conceptualised as a marketplace in which consumers make informed decisions about the care they wish to receive.
Our third concern is with the crisis in the aged care workforce. Maintaining and developing this workforce is critical, and requires a focus on job quality and employment conditions. The rollout of NDIS (the National Disability Insurance Scheme) is likely to drive increased competition for personal care workers (Isherwood et al. 2018; Tune 2017). Overall, employment in the health care and social assistance sector is forecast to grow by a further 16.1 per cent over the next five years (Department of Jobs and Small Business 2019).
Our findings suggest that the health of older aged care workers can be improved—and in some instances, working lives extended—through three measures:
(1) mandatory minimum hours of care per client in residential facilities
(2) employment conditions to improve ‘time and income capability’
(3) a professionalisation agenda with three elements:
- professional registration to enhance autonomy and care quality
- clinical supervision to address emotional depletion
- training and supervision for specialist roles.
Our findings point to a lack of balance between the interests of service providers and the needs and entitlements of people who give and receive care. This imbalance has had unintended social and economic consequences, including compromises in the quality of care and in the longevity of the workforce. Other jurisdictions such as New Zealand and Sweden have made different choices that have resulted in preferable conditions for workers and people in care.