Employment

'I skip meals to save money': Life on social care frontline is leading to a support worker exodus

Poorly paid and overworked support workers are leaving in droves and it's hurting people with learning disabilities, warns Mencap

Image of carer holding elderly person's hand

Support workers are having to use food banks, work back-to-back shifts, or leave the profession altogether due to government underfunding, a report has found. Image: Matthias Zomer/Pexels

Support workers are having to use food banks, work back-to-back shifts, or leave the profession altogether due to government underfunding, a report has found.

Learning disability charity Mencap surveyed more than 360 frontline support workers about the reality of working in social care, as funding for the sector faces a “perilous state”. 

Danielle, a service manager who lives in Sheffield, explained that she has seen a “real issue” with recruitment and turnover, with staff not able to afford to have a “work-life balance”.

“We have a duty of care to the people we support so I will often step in to cover the shifts even if I have worked all day and then have to do a night shift,” Danielle explained, adding that people often take support workers “for granted”.

“Like everyone, I am affected by the pay and cost of living. I sometimes walk to work because of the cost of fuel. I skip breakfast and lunch to save money and focus on one meal in the evening.”

Research released as part of Mencap’s Why We Care campaign found that over a third (39%) of frontline staff said they were in financial difficulty, with staff adding that this had impacted recruiting and retaining support workers. 

This had a knock-on effect on mental health, with almost a third (28%) of support workers saying long hours affected their work-life balance, and one in six (14%) saying their mental health was affected. 

Nick, a support worker who lives in Wigan, explained that a lack of support workers has meant working extra hours to cover sickness or Covid-19 cover. 

He added that concerns about a client, who could have seen a “disruption” to his routine if staffing issues occurred, ended up “affecting my health”. 

“I got rushed to hospital with heart pains and was told I’d had a panic attack, caused by the stress.”

Families have added that government underfunding has impacted their ability to access care, with Jenn Smith from Hull explaining that finding the right support worker for her son Alastair has been an “ongoing nightmare”.

“We are only able to pay minimum wage for this hugely important role due to government funding and have seen people turn to other roles that can pay more,” she said.

“When there are too few staff in social care it’s people like Alastair and our family that suffer. The government needs to recognise the important role carers play, how complex the role can be and fund it properly so people get a fairer wage and stay in the sector longer.”

Mencap has urged the government to inject £8.4 billion into the social care system, as well as providing a minimum wage for social care staff similar to NHS band 3 staff, in order to help alleviate the issues currently facing the industry.

Jackie O’Sullivan, acting chief executive of Mencap, said: “Our social care workers, who are doing such a crucial and important job, are facing huge challenges because of the lack of funding for social care. 

“Local authority finances are in a perilous state. They are only able to pay social care providers from the funding they are able to raise themselves and that they get from the central government. 

“Hundreds of thousands are leaving the sector each year and this then puts pressure on existing staff to plug the gaps. People with a learning disability and their families are missing out too, unable to access the full amount of care they need because there aren’t enough staff. 

“We believe those working in social care do not get the recognition they deserve.”

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