Aged care staff are particularly prone to feeling stressed at work because of the huge demands that are placed on them, the lack of autonomy they have in their roles, and poor support networks.

“In aged care, you’ve got the whole shebang, physical demands, emotional demands, cognitive demands,” said Andrea Shaw, director of organisational health and safety consultancy, Shaw Idea. 

She said stress should be treated just like any other occupational health and safety issue: you identify the hazards, assess the risks, and then control the risk at its source.

The fact that stress is common among aged care workers is unlikely to come as a surprise to many of our readers, who often write on our pages about the pressures they feel at work, and their desire to care for residents, but the time and resource constraints that make it difficult for them to do so.

“A whole lot of pressure”

There’s “a whole lot of pressure” on aged care staff, Ms Shaw told HelloCare.

Aged care workers often aren’t given a lot of autonomy. They have a set number of tasks they have to perform in a shift, and this is often a shortage of staff available to do the work required.

Lack of support 

Aged care staff also often find themselves without a lot support in their workplace. “You might not get support from your employer, from your supervisor, or from your peers,” Ms Shaw said. 

“You could be working in isolation. If you’re doing home-based care, you’re working completely alone. In facilities you can be working in a fair degree of isolation at night.”

Casual workers are particularly alone, she said.

“If you’re not in the same workplace every day, you don’t develop a support network in your workplace.”

The physical cost

While stress can lead to psychological illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, there is also evidence to suggest it can cause physical ailments too.

“The evidence is extremely strong that work that involves a high degree of stress is also more likely to result in musculoskeletal disorders,” Ms Shaw told HelloCare. 

“In an aged care workplace, where we know there are the physical risks of manual handling injuries, it makes it much more likely people will have musculoskeletal disorders.”

Stress can also contribute to heart disease.

“The evidence is very strong that stress is closely associated with cardiovascular disease, so in a workplace that has a lot of job stress you’ll also see a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease,” Ms Shaw said.

“In my view they (the physical effects) are more significant than the psychological issues”, she said.

Employ more staff: “it’s a no brainer”

Ms Shaw said the best way for aged care organisations to decrease stress levels for their staff is to employ more people.

“That’s a no brainer,” she said. 

“It’s needed… not just because of the health of employees, but clearly it’s better for the people who are in these facilities. 

“We need to have a better resourced sector. It’s criminal the way it’s been underfunded for so long,” Ms Shaw said.

Staff made scapegoats

Staff are being blamed for actions that arise because of stress and lack of oversight in the workplace, Ms Shaw told HelloCare.

“My concern is that, at the moment, we’re seeing a fair bit of victim blaming. 

“No one would excuse the reprehensible behaviour the aged care royal commission is showing, but when you’re in a workplace that is under such pressure, it’s not surprising that those kinds of behaviours are coming to the fore,” she said.

“In a system under such stress, it’s not surprising that people without a strong moral compass behave in reprehensible ways. And when there’s not really control in the workplace, it comes to the fore.”

Counselling useless if problems’ sources not addressed

Staff who are experiencing stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, should receive the support they need, but the source of the problems also need to be addressed so staff know their concerns have been taken seriously.

“There’s no doubt if someone is experiencing mental ill health, they deserve to have proper professionals to help look after them,” Ms Shaw said. 

“But the problem with that is, if… you don’t change the problem that caused the ill health in the first place, it’s worse than doing nothing at all.”

“The evidence is clear on that count. If you don’t do something about what’s caused the problem in the first place, the ill health reoccurs and in fact can be worse as a result of feeling even less cared for and less valued in the organisation,” she said.

What can you do?

Ms Shaw said aged care staff who are feeling stressed should work with the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) and other health and safety support structures in their workplace.

“Make it clear it’s a health and safety issue, and it’s the same as any other health and safety issue: you identify the hazards, you assess the risks, then you control the risk at its source,” Ms Shaw recommended.

Psychological stress should be treated the same as any other workplace injury.

“There’s a whole lot of mysticism about job stress and I think it’s a way of disguising the fact that it’s the same as anything else. If someone got mesothelioma, you wouldn’t tell them it’s their own genetic fault because they’re got a genetic predisposition to cancer, you find out where the asbestos is, and you get rid of it,” Ms Shaw said.

The health and safety “apparatus” in aged care workplaces can support staff who might worry about being “victimised” about speaking up.

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