Care home brings down agency staff bill

With an agency staff bill spiralling out of control, a residential care home manager knew that she had to tackle staff recruitment and sickness problems. Jo Phelps tells Graham Hopkins how


NAME: Jo Phelps.
JOB: Manager, Hastings Home.
QUALIFICATIONS: Registered Manager’s Award, Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
LAST JOB: Registered home manager, Heathlands, Pershore, Worcestershire.
FIRST JOB: Care assistant – residential home for adults with learning difficulties.

You would think as a society we would treasure care staff; but we don’t. They are sometimes unqualified, poorly trained and paid and largely unvalued. And, they are overwhelmingly female.

The work is physically and emotionally demanding, which can result in high levels of sickness and high rates of staff turnover.

Invariably in care homes, if there is a vacancy or someone phones in sick there is no slack: you need to get someone else in. This often means a call to the local staff agency.

For one voluntary sector care home manager in Worcestershire those calls had become increasingly frequent. “By the end of our opening financial year, we had a £150,000 agency staff bill for care assistants – nearly a fifth of the entire staff bill,” says Jo Phelps, manager of Hastings Home.

Hastings had previously been a local authority 40-bed home but was taken over, rebuilt and reopened as a 60-bed home – requiring a 50 per cent increase in staff.

“The issue was that agency staff made it easy for those planning rotas because at the end of the line was a bank of staff – who  you could pull in whenever you needed them,” Phelps says.

With premiums and agency fees, the staff would cost double or triple the hourly rate of permanent staff.

The organisation decided to tackle the problem. “One idea was to pay staff to recommend a friend to work here,” explains Phelps. “We wanted to encourage people to come into social care, so we paid staff extra if they got an NVQ. We found that newspaper adverts didn’t work but cards in newsagents’ windows did.”

The home displayed a recruitment banner, which proved so attractive that it was stolen, and built up a small bank of relief staff.

It welcomed part-timers as a way of “encouraging mums back into the workforce”.

Similarly, university and nursing students were actively recruited during holiday periods.

Given its location, Hastings offered a slightly higher rate of pay than other homes in the organisation. Staff also received an extra 50p an hour for each hour worked over their contracted hours, along with extra payments for working weekends (staff used to work every other weekend now they work two weekends out of three).

The home also changed some standardised practices. It used to run a fixed, set-instone four-week rota. Phelps says: “We did a full consultation with staff and put them on a flexible rota. We set up a rota request book, so if staff want to book a day off they  can request it and will do best to grant it while still meeting the needs of the home.”

Vacancies, however, were not the only difficulties faced by the home; staff absence was also a problem. “Sickness was a big issue – it’s a general problem in the industry – but it was high here. Persistent shortterm sickness is difficult to manage.”

In response, the home beefed up the prominence of its absence policy. “The organisation has a sickness tariff that means if a member of staff has three periods of sickness that totals eight days then we have procedures in place to go through informal absence interview, then a second formal interview. It’s just about being a lot more proactive,” says Phelps.

All of which, over four years, has helped reduce agency staff payments to a minimum.

From a cost of £150,000 a year it fell to £70,000 and then £50,000, and is now negligible.

“We were making the agency so much money they would leave doughnuts in the staff room for us,” smiles Phelps. “They were lovely and very expensive doughnuts – but we had paid for them!”

● Be flexible: meet the needs of the service but also meet the needs of people out there who want to work.
● Reward and value the staff you have in place.
● Take a firm but sensitive line on staff sickness.

● Agency staff can keep permanent staff on their toes – lets them know no job is safe.
● Just expect permanent staff to work longer hours – they’d probably be grateful for the extra cash.
● Don’t consult staff on changes – just tell them and let them know you’re the manager.

This article appeared in the 23 November issue, under the headline “Homesick Blues”




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