Published in partnership with Unison
Last weekend, home care worker Katie* was rostered on to work a split shift. The visits on her rota were back-to-back and there was no time factored in for travelling between them. She was also on call for the agency she works for. If Katie hit a problem, she was the back-up.
This was Katie’s seventh night in a row on the job. A job she starts at 7am and often does not return home from until 11pm at night, all for the grand total of £8.50 an hour.
Unsurprisingly, it has led to Katie being signed off work.
“I went to the GP and I just completely broke down,” she told Community Care. “I feel I’m quite a strong person but I’ve put up with this for so long, it reached the point where I’d get to a call and I couldn’t cope. I wasn’t able to give my clients what they needed and it broke me.”
Katie’s story is not unique. Split shifts are a common working pattern in the home care sector but findings from a survey by Community Care and Unison suggest they are not being used in line with the law. Frontline staff told us they were trapped between trying to provide the best possible care and the pressures of a system that is damaging their health and wellbeing.
Of the 417 care workers who responded to the survey, 296 worked split shifts. Nearly half of these workers (141) said they started the first shift of the day between 6 and 8am and finished the second shift between 9 and 11pm. The time workers stopped for a break varied – most people finished after lunch calls between 1 and 3pm, but more than 1 in 10 (34) said they didn’t get a break at all.
What are split shifts?
A split shift is divided into two or more working periods, such as morning and evening, with several hours break in between. In home care, workers tend to visit clients in the morning, at lunchtime, teatime and in the evening, with the break usually falling between lunch and tea.
Government guidance on ‘rest breaks at work’ states that workers have the right to 20 minutes uninterrupted break if they work more than six hours in a day. Workers are also entitled to 11 hours rest between working days – if they finish work at 10pm, they shouldn’t start again until 9am the following day. But for many care workers, this just isn’t a reality.
Sally*, a care worker who has worked in the community for 12 years, told Community Care she’d had to stop working the evening calls at the beginning of this year due to exhaustion.
“I was coming in at 9.45 at night, I’d had nothing to eat, I was dehydrated, my head was thumping,” she said. “All I wanted to do was go to bed because I was back up again at half past five the next morning. The next day your head is absolutely bouncing off you.”
We tell our clients that they’ve got to drink, but we’re the very ones that don’t do it. We don’t look after ourselves.
The survey also asked care workers how often they had time to go home in the break between shifts – 158 respondents said ‘most days’ but 139 reported either never being able to do this or not being able to do this for the majority of their working week.
Not enough time to travel from their last call to their home was the most common reason cited.
Sally told us that, despite reducing her hours, she is still working from 7am until 5.30pm without a break. “The minute I step out of the door, the most I get to have is a coffee and a few biscuits. You’re eating and drinking on the move. You don’t get a chance to go home, sometimes you don’t get a chance to go to the toilet. The pressure we are put under, it’s horrendous.”
‘Out in the cold’
On top of this many care workers often have gaps between visiting clients. These gaps are not a scheduled break and most do not get paid for this time.
Unfortunately the length of the gaps can vary and, again, usually do not leave care workers enough time to go home so many end up spending long periods of time wandering the streets or sitting in their cars until their next call.
Of the 296 care workers working split shifts in our survey, 201 had gaps between calls. Most said the length of the gap varied and 226 didn’t get paid for this time.
Marion*, who has worked as a home care worker for 17 years, told us: “You might finish a call at 11 but have nothing until your lunch call at 12. What are you supposed to do for that hour? I’d just have to hang around and I wouldn’t get paid for that time.”
This is particularly difficult during poor weather, as Marion uses an electric bike for work. “Last autumn, the weather was really bad, we had gale force winds, torrential rain, icy roads, all within a few weeks of each other. You’d get absolutely wet through and by the time you did get to go home, thaw out and get warm, it would be time to go back out again.”
Amy has had a similar experience. She told us she has gaps between calls every day and there’s no point in going home because she’ll just have to come straight back out again.
“You can’t really do anything. If you travel all that way then you’re not going to get paid for it, so you might as well hang around in the car,” she said. “I do some paperwork or work on my NVQ, but I have to keep the car running to keep warm and that is an extra cost.”
The guidance on working hours also states that workers are entitled to an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week or 48 hours without any work each fortnight. But Amy* told Community Care she’s constantly being asked to pick up extra calls.
“Last week I worked seven days in a row because even on your day off they just keep ringing you until you give up and answer the phone,” she said. “It makes me angry because I only get one day off but the office will ask other carers to call me at 7am asking me to help them out.”
“You feel guilty if you say no because you’re supposed to work together as a team. It’s frustrating.”
As Christmas approaches and the cold weather sets in, many care workers will be working day and night for very little extra pay to compensate them for missing out on time with their friends and relatives. Amy says she’ll only get a £2 increase on her hourly wage of £7.55.
Many of our survey respondents said it was often only the people they care for that kept them going. As one care worker concluded: “This job is difficult, it’s tiring, soul destroying sometimes. I have days where I think ‘I can’t do this anymore’. But it’s the clients that keep you there – they rely on us.”
**All care worker names have been changed