By Barry Sweetbaum, managing director of SweetTree home care services
As the debate around zero-hours contracts rages on in politics and the media, the questions remain the same: Is it a fair deal for workers? Or do some workers prefer the flexibility?
These are, of course, very important questions. But for the social care sector, there is also one question that hasn’t yet been answered fully: How do zero-hours contracts impact on the people who use services?
For the last decade, those of us who work in social care have made great strides in providing care that offers choice, control and independence. The word personalisation no longer just sits in policy and good practice reports – it has been integrated into how we interact with people, provide care, make decisions and train our workers.
At SweetTree home care services, this means people have choice over who provides their care, and when they provide it.
‘No ‘one size’ fits all’
The very nature of home care means that there can never be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. People develop trust and strong relationships with individual carers. They want a level of control over their care that means they can request who comes to support them.
Many of the people we support have conditions that change and progress. People want a level of continuity in their care that means they can request the same carer that visited for two hours a week, to start coming to their home twice a day.
Flexible contracts allow this choice and continuity. If they are to be abolished and replaced with fixed hours, there is no doubt this will result in a loss of control for service users.
As an employer, we would be required to always ensure those working hours. This could mean sending numerous carers to support one person with complex needs – even if they hadn’t built a relationship with them or didn’t know what personalised care to deliver.
Flexible contracts do not mean that we don’t value and care for our staff, their individual circumstances or their livelihoods.
Our recent ‘Investors in People Gold Award’ was based on the way we develop workers, invest in training, pay for qualifications and notably, offer flexible working arrangements. In my experience, it is only in very rare circumstances that good, dedicated team members who are committed to meeting people’s needs are ever without work.
Most people receive so many requests to fulfil shifts that they need to turn some of them down. But we do also place responsibility on individual carers to ensure that people are happy with the support they’re providing and want to continue to use us as their provider.
‘Change is needed’
All of this is not to say that there don’t need to changes to current arrangements. Our staff tell us contracts that are not permanent and full-time make it difficult to apply for mortgages, tenancies and other commitments.
The National Trade Union Centre recently reported that just one in every 40 of the net jobs added to the economy between 2008 and 2014 has been a full-time job. It’s clear that financial structures have not caught up with changes to the job market and that should be looked at swiftly.
We would also welcome a level of government guidance on the use of flexible contracts by each sector. That should identify any organisations that are misusing zero-hours contracts, while appreciating the necessity for others.
I realise this approach is not popular everywhere. But within the debate around flexible contracts, we do need to look at how they sit with other government policy, especially in social care. In reality, it is the voluntary sector (34%) and the public sector (24%) that are more likely to use these contracts – private sector employers sit at 17%.
So, before we promise anymore headline-grabbing policies, the reasons for flexible contracts in the care sector must be examined properly. Otherwise we risk making snap decisions that could damage our shared vision for the people we support.