Workforce Crisis Compromising Care

The workforce crisis in the aged care sector is dire and it is affecting lives.  Across Western Australia right now there are aged care providers actively considering whether they will be able to look after their elderly tomorrow.  In regional and remote communities, people are being taken off country and out of their communities because local aged care services have closed admissions.  This is happening not because the aged care providers lack the will, or the care, or the funding (tight as it is) but because they cannot get the staff.  The staff they have are working double and triple shifts – on the edge of burn-out, clinical care risks are skyrocketing, the ability to providers to care whilst allowing for choice and dignity is increasingly being compromised. 

Worryingly, we haven’t seen the worst yet.  A recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia has estimated that there will be a shortfall of 110,000+ workers nationally by 2030.  That is at least 17,000 extra workers (net) that are required every year and that is before the introduction of the new minimum staffing standards, assumes only a basic standard of care is required, and does not consider adjacent sectors such as health, disability, community and childcare which recruit from the same pool of workers and are experiencing their own shortages. 

This is a crisis which has been brewing for many years and has now reached monumental proportions due to the COVID-19.  This isn’t just about being able to get a hot cup of coffee or a house built by Christmas, this is about the lives of our most vulnerable  - our elderly.  Tragedy will follow if we can’t get in front of it.

Responding to this issue requires a genuine and urgent engagement by the state and federal governments with ministerial support across the relevant portfolios.  In this respect it is heartening to see that the key WA government stakeholders are significantly more engaged than their counterparts in the east.  There are meaningful initiatives in workforce training and development and also arising out of the state government’s Sustainable Health Review.  We’re also seeing Curtin, Notre Dame, TAFE and Community Skills engaging with the issue.

What is true though is that the “dots” still need to be joined so that the sum is greater than the whole.  We need a coordinated approach at state and federal level to the issue of workforce.  The key elements of this coordinated approach include:

  • First: Understanding and acknowledging the profound and measurable social and economic impact of the aged care sector in our communities.  On any level, it makes sense to nurture this sector;
  • Second: Understanding that any workforce solution must interface with health, community, childcare and disability.  We cannot continue take from one to give to the other;
  • Third:  The solution must address thin markets including remote and regional areas.  Cooperation and collaboration as opposed to competition is key herel
  • Fourth:  A common standard of practice and a uniform approach to employment, education and career path development is required across aged care, disability and community with similar industrial agreements and formal recognition of a transferable and interchangeable skills base;
  • Fifth:  The currently punitive regulatory framework needs to recognise these workforce challenges and work with the sector to meet them.  A sanction can cost upwards of $1.5m to remove, a disproportionate punishments for aged care providers otherwise moving the earth to find staff and money better spent on care;
  • Sixth: The aged care funding mechanism needs to properly value the work of care workers and nurses.

Even Charles Darwin knew that cooperation, not struggle, drives evolution and the same can be said here.  As a society and an economy, Western Australia is facing one of the most profound changes of our time, rapid population ageing.  As big as climate change and as urgent as COVID-19.  The question of whether we can thrive in the face of this challenge will depend on the ability of all stakeholders to ‘join the dots’ and cooperate and evolve.