Caring for the carers at Sunrise Senior Living

4 minute read

The COVID-19 pandemic is a chance to redefine what 'valuable work' is. Sharon Benson, HR director at Sunrise Senior Living and Gracewell Healthcare, shares her experiences over the past year and outlines how HR can help to make work more equal

Caring for the carers at Sunrise Senior Living

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed perceptions of care workers and the entire social care sector. Frontline care workers have finally been acknowledged and praised for the work they do, for their bravery, passion, commitment and selfless acts of kindness as they look after the thousands of vulnerable people in our society. They are now seen as key workers. National and worldwide campaigns such as ‘clap for carers’ throughout 2020 is just an example of this. This global crisis has really highlighted just how important the social care workforce is and how important it is to train, reward and treasure this workforce. For the first time, social care is being seen as equal to the NHS.

We know that many people joined the care sector in 2020 after being made redundant (job applications to Sunrise and Gracewell doubled), but what is really overwhelming is just how many of these people have been pleasantly surprised by how genuinely rewarding this work can be, and how each and every single one of them can make a huge difference to the lives of others. Last year, we saw 100% increase in converting bank team members to permanent, compared to 2019.

Working on the frontline

Most people who work in care, do so because they are genuinely passionate about the role. They all go above and beyond to ensure that the people they look after and support are happy, safe and well and this is exactly what happened at Sunrise and Gracewell during the pandemic. It’s not just a job, it’s their life. All of our team members, every single one, has come together to support each other as a team, but more importantly our residents. We are so proud of all the hard work that they have put in this last year.

Some of our care workers left their families and moved into our homes to ensure residents were protected, many of our team members took on multiple roles outside of their usual day-to-day roles to ensure everything ran smoothly. We really thought we would see a rise in absences due to sickness throughout the course of 2020, but this didn’t happen. Everyone pulled together and worked harder than they ever have.

However, there is no question that it has been some of the toughest months for our care workers – the toughest they have ever had to experience. They have seen and felt the effects of this pandemic firsthand and that is why we have been doing everything we can to ensure our team members are supported. We have launched a mental health app with Aviva, we sent mental health and wellbeing books from charity Mind to all our homes. We will also be offering even more mental health and wellbeing training to team members this year.

On top of the wide range of benefits we offer as standard to all our employees, during this pandemic and period of uncertainty, we have been providing additional benefits to key workers. With the added pressure that comes with working in a care home during this period, we wanted to make sure that everyone working in one of our homes were getting a free hot meal cooked by our on-site chefs.

For any colleagues who were financially impacted by COVID-19 and unable to work, we introduced team member loans. This scheme was temporarily available for two months from 1 April 2020 to 31st May 2020. What’s more, from April 2020, our Living Wage increased to £9.10 as a minimum hourly rate for all team members and £9.20 per hour for care positions. This is 4.36% above the national living wage for non-care positions and 5.5% above for care positions. From mid-March to mid-May (2020), we were also pleased to be able to offer pay enhancements to those colleagues on hourly rates. We have continued to offer this for colleagues working overtime. We also amended our sick pay policy from statutory sick pay to full pay sick pay to encourage colleagues to get tested as quickly as possible, without having to worry about the outcome. Other benefits that we initiated during COVID-19 included, giving out bumper stickers to all our key workers. We also lobbied Care England to ensure that all our team members who showed their care badges could get priority shopping hours.

A shift in reward strategies in lower paid industries?

We are constantly thinking about how we reward people. This won’t just apply to financial rewards but in all other areas too. For example, we will be looking at the free meals on shift and whether we can make it a more permanent offering; transport allowances – how we can enhance this. A lot of our team members don’t necessarily have their own cars or form of transport, so we will look at transport strategies and how we can help our team members get to and from work more easily. Additionally, how can we really boost recognition? A lot of our team members don’t work in care for the money, but because they want to make a difference. So how can we show them how much we recognise them and appreciate them. We already have a number of recognition schemes but what more can we be doing or do any of these schemes need to change? Lots for us to continue to think about. We really do value our team and we want to keep showing them that we do.

From crisis comes opportunity: redefining recruitment

It is said that in crises come opportunities, and this is true for the recruitment process at Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare. During this difficult period, we strengthened our processes and centralised some aspects of our recruitment activity, such as having an initial telephone screening and the virtual interviews. This has led to double the conversion rates from application through to offer stage. Once ‘normality’ resumes, we are planning to keep telephone screening at the front-end before the face-to-face interview. This adds another layer and helps us invite only the strongest candidates to the face-to-face interview stage. As part of our virtual interview process, we’ve also built in some behavioural competencies which we score and assess. These will also be included as part of our face-to-face interviews in the future. This allows us to recruit the right people with the right values – especially as we have seen a rise in applications from people who have never worked in the care sector before. Gone are the days of strict office working, we understand that long commutes and travel puts pressure on our productivity and the mental health of our staff members. What’s more, the concept of the normal working day has changed, especially given that we work in a sector that is 24/7. We want to be able to offer more flexible hours, where team members can really fit work around their lives.

HR’s role in resetting inequality at work

HR has had a huge role to play during the pandemic – if not one of the most important roles. It’s all been about the people – whether it has been to mobilise people working from home and trying to keep them connected, right the way through to how we motivate people to come and work in a sector that has historically been undervalued, a sector that is on the frontline of a crisis. It’s been a real opportunity for HR teams to shine – to show the tangible difference it can make to this sector.

I would personally like to see HR professionals really focusing on putting themselves in the shoes of the people they are providing HR services to – the employees. Do they really know the person or the people they are working with? Do they understand the jobs well enough? Do they understand where the value is created? Our frontline care workers and are the people that provide care and support to residents, our customers that drive the commercial value. We want our people to feel valued, so there is always more we can do in this area. The profession, the sector needs to step up commercially. In this sector, the people are our product – so we need to have strategies and processes in place to ensure we recruit, train and retain the best people. This is an ideal opportunity for HR professionals to grasp that top c-suite level position and maintain it in a post COVID world.

HR professionals need to look at the organisational design to ensure that all the roles across the organisation are designed to be successful. From those on the frontline – those who work directly with the customers, right the way through to executive roles. Does everyone add value in that chain and does everyone in that chain make it easier for those frontline team members to do their jobs so that residents can receive the best care and the best service? This is where the design element of HR is front and centre – whether you have to reorganise the structure or reshape it. HR is at a point where it is most critical and most needed. We want HR professionals to be seen as just as valuable as financial directors and as CEOs.

Sharon Benson, pictured below, is HR director at Sunrise Senior Living

Sharon Benson, HR director at Sunrise Senior Living

Published 24 March 2021

This global crisis has really highlighted just how important the social care workforce is and how important it is to train, reward and treasure this workforce. For the first time, social care is being seen as equal to the NHS

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