‘We shouldn’t define the personal assistant role as ‘something anyone could do”

BBC Three's 'Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant' failed to recognise that these workers need specialist training and support, not just the right personality, writes Liz Hutchins

Photo: BBC Three

By Liz Hutchins, company director of PASScard, a provider of support services for personal assistants

The first instalment of BBC Three’s ‘Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant’ highlighted the expectations and needs of the individuals who employ personal assistants, as well as the importance and uniqueness of the personal assistant role in enabling independent living.

But while the documentary evidenced the difficulties employers face in recruiting the right people, it didn’t tackle the challenges personal assistants face in the same way.

From recruitment through to starting work, the experience of the personal assistant (PA) was far from ‘usual’, as is often the case. The interview process centred around candidates’ age, personal interests and willingness to integrate their employer into their social circles, carry out tasks they had no experience of and work undefined hours.

These may be factors that are of high importance to PA employers, but the legislation around recruitment and employment does not allow for determination of suitable candidates to be made in this way. This was a brief glimpse into the world of PA employment, where lines have been blurred and protocols established which, unwittingly at times, enable the unreasonable treatment of these essential workers.

‘Blurred lines’

The statement that ‘being a carer is a job that can be done without any formal qualifications other than a police check, it’s all about having the right personality’, may be true in that formal qualifications are not required. But to suggest that personality is all that is needed does the PA workforce an incredible injustice.

The right personality may assist in meeting social needs and creating a more pleasant working environment, but it does not necessarily guarantee that practical, physical and care needs will be met. Put another way, a PA’s experience, skills and knowledge should not be overlooked in favour of charisma when deciding upon their suitability for the role.

One employer made it clear that for them it was important their PA knew: ‘the boundaries of when to be a friend and when to be a professional’. This is not something that your average employee is expected to manage as part of their day to day work and PAs are being asked to do this with little or no training, experience or support.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why employers are experiencing such difficulty in recruiting the right people.

‘Essential skills

Training was mentioned during the programme but centred around practical skills, which most employers felt could be learned ‘on the job’. Some specialist training was provided, again in the area of practical skills.  However, in a follow-up discussion it was made clear that this was over and above what a PA could usually expect to receive and was provided for the purpose of recording the documentary.

The aspects of training that were not broached during the programme were in regard to understanding the role of a PA, managing expectations, providing personalised support, communication, boundaries, managing risk, keeping yourself safe and how to deal with any issues that arise between you and your employer.

These are all essential skills that a PA requires in order to enable them to work effectively in this unique and somewhat challenging environment. Perhaps if Francesca (one of the PAs) had received this training she would have been able to understand how to support her employer and to more appropriately manage her relationship with him.

It would be easy to criticise many aspects of the PAs’ work and the attitudes displayed.  But I think this simply proves that the right personality is not enough. This is skilled work that requires training and support to provide assistance effectively. Training not just in the areas employers identify with but also in those that underpin a good working relationship.

‘Little or no understanding

It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is little or no understanding of the support and training needs of workers. Defining and undervaluing the PA role as being, ‘something anyone could do’, demonstrates there is no real commitment to supporting employers to have the best possible opportunity to recruit suitable, reliable and competent staff.

We would not describe the role of our nursing staff in the NHS as being ‘something anyone could do’, yet we say this of the people entrusted with the responsibility of supporting and caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. If anything, PAs face an even harder task than other care workers in the fact that they lack the support and infrastructure of a formal care work environment and are working alone on a one-to-one basis in most instances.

Surely the expectation should be that all PAs have appropriate training and are provided with on-going support and supervision to enable them to perform well in their roles as PAs.  This, in turn, will enable them to deliver high quality care.

Rather than trying to solve the problems of high unemployment and a lack of personal assistants by linking the two together, would it not be more effective to address the individual issues of up-skilling unemployed workers who are interested in becoming a PA?

Catch part two of ‘Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant’ tonight at 9pm on BBC Three. 

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3 Responses to ‘We shouldn’t define the personal assistant role as ‘something anyone could do”

  1. Russell Smith - CarePair July 31, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    Hi Liz,

    I’m Russ, Creator and Director of CarePair, and I wanted to air a different side to that you have said. I know nothing about you, I don’t know what you do, but I do now know your opinion, and it reads to me, like the opinion of someone who has never had to employ care services or have someone look after their intimate needs.

    I want to start out by saying, with respect, that your article reads a lot like a spectator, someone who has been in the system, learning about care and care related activities rather than someone in it and trying to make it work, that aside though, here is my opinion, and how it is from the inside.

    The first point you made was, “The interview process centred around candidates’ age, personal interests and willingness to integrate their employer into their social circles, carry out tasks they had no experience of and work undefined hours.”

    I think from this you are referring to when Josh asked Francesca if she’d introduce him to her friends? Obviously this is not something that the carer is obliged to do, and in now way would I condone any instance that they do so. However one of Josh’s aims was to increase his social circles, and to “get out there” which he wanted his PAs support to do. Is it wrong to ask the question? Francesca is well within her rights to say no, and if that was the case, then Josh would have made other plans. However if she was happy to do that, where is the harm?

    Your second issue within the first point, is that the candidates for the job were not given defined hours and had no experience. Firstly, there were defined hours, it was filmed over ten days of the employer being with the employee, and hours were clearly specified, but that detail was omitted from the show, as boring contractual stuff doesn’t really make good TV.

    Your point about the carers having no experience though is a little contentious. I agree that they had no experience of care, and that they would be learning on the job. However let me as you a question, from a slightly different perspective… How many 16-18 year olds that go for a job in a supermarket, come with experience of knowing how to use a checkout? How many have pulled pints in a bar? All of the skills that you learn in jobs are often learnt on the job, so why shouldn’t basic care be any different?

    Your next issue was the the carers were recruited based on age alone. Whilst the program did seek out similarly aged carers, for the purposes of meeting the TV demographic, in real life applications are much more diverse.

    I think it is important to remember that although there is legislation around fair employment and not falling foul of age discrimination, the role of employer and carer can be a tricky thing to navigate.

    Let me give you a specific and personal example.

    I employed, admittedly through an agency, a carer in their 50’s, (I would guess) they were totally competent in their job, and provided my care more than adequately. However, on the Saturday night, we went to a gig. It was a rock gig, and totally not in the usual array of music that the carer listened to. I asked them afterwards if they enjoyed it, and the answer was a resounding no! They said to me that they usually worked in older people’s homes and that when they were given shifts with “young people” they found it hard as they didn’t know how to relate to us!

    Now I understand that it could be argued that the night in question was an isolated incident, but if the carer is uncomfortable with a younger employer, as they can’t relate, how can it be wrong for an employer to look for someone they can relate to, especially when such intimate tasks will be carried out and so much time will be spent together?

    Also your comment about knowing the boundaries is a little bit of an odd one too. You said that the employer asked the carer to know ‘the boundaries of when to be a friend and when to be a professional’. Isn’t this a life skill?

    I have worked in professional companies across the UK, and I have had a boss. I knew that they were to be respected and that I was there to do a job they employed me for. However on a Friday after work, they’d take us to the pub to celebrate a good week (if we’d had one) and we’d chat informally and on a friend basis. I was never taught these skills, they were inherent as a decent human being. Are you implying that carers do not have these skills and need to be taught them?

    I agree that some training could be a good thing if the carer and employer feel that it would be beneficial, and there is a fund specifically for this: http://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/Funding/Individual-employer-funding/Individual-employer-funding.aspx

    Skills for care will provide training funding, and also backfill funding to employ a carer to fill the carer’s space that is being trained. Again these real life situations weren’t shown in the program, but any correctly supported and decent employer will know this.

    You said that “It would be easy to criticise many aspects of the PAs’ work and the attitudes displayed. But I think this simply proves that the right personality is not enough.”, and I agree, yes it is easy to criticise, they were thrown into a situation they weren’t prepared for, and were adapting and learning as they went along. You say that finding the right personality isn’t enough, but consider this…

    It was a TV show that was made, and if it all went swimmingly, it perhaps wouldn’t be interesting TV. However if you think about mixing up the pairings a bit, if Francesca supported Michael rather than Josh, it would have been a completely different story. Francesca and Michael have a much similar personality, look at things in a similar way, and have similar goals ambitions and drive. Surely that is exactly the point that they right personality IS enough? I can’t say for certain that Francesca could deal with Michaels care requirements, but if she could with appropriate training, which Denny had, and their personality matched, they’d be an ideal pairing.

    You then go on to say, “Defining and undervaluing the PA role as being, ‘something anyone could do’, demonstrates there is no real commitment to supporting employers to have the best possible opportunity to recruit suitable, reliable and competent staff.”, but who are you to decide what is suitable?

    Someone that is suitable for the role of caring for me, may not be suitable for the next person requiring care. The whole aim of the direct payments system is to provide personalisation, something which by it’s very nature makes things personalised. One way of working for one employer/carer pairing may not work for another.

    Lets look at it realistically, the role of carer is something that most people could do. If we look at basic, non specialist care, washing, dressing, toiletting, food preparation and domestic support, most people could do that if they were given the opportunity. For more complex tasks such as catheter care, digital evacuation etc, specialist training is supplied. If it is something extremely complex and life threatening, such as tracheostomy support, the NHS continuing healthcare funding provides staff, or at the very least specialist intensive training for existing staff.

    You then go on to say “We would not describe the role of our nursing staff in the NHS as being ‘something anyone could do’, yet we say this of the people entrusted with the responsibility of supporting and caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

    No, I agree that we do not say nursing is something anyone can do. We send people on nursing degrees and they are specially trained. I think that you miss the point somewhat in your analogy though. If you are comparing the role of a carer to a hospital setting, you are looking more at a Health Care Assistant, and to prove that please see this link: http://www.nhscareers.nhs.uk/explore-by-career/wider-healthcare-team/careers-in-the-wider-healthcare-team/clinical-support-staff/healthcare-assistant/

    As you can see from the HCA job description, the basic requirements are:

    washing and dressing
    serving patients meals and assisting with feeding when necessary
    helping people to mobilise
    bed making
    generally assisting with patients’ overall comfort
    monitoring patients’ conditions by taking temperatures, pulse, respirations and weight

    Aside from the last part, that is exactly what 95% of most carers employed by direct payments do! Not really a nursing job, and fair comparison to nursing is it?

    You also state that the carers are looking after the most vulnerable people in society. Whilst I agree that physically we are, if someone doesn’t have the capacity to manage their own care, they are supported by various organisations. Implying that vulnerable people aren’t safe with untrained carers is a little unfair, and seem to be said for the shock value.

    Getting towards the end of my reply now, your last two paragraphs are a great conclusion to your slightly shaky argument, but again not particularly fair on the situation as it is currently.

    You say that all PAs should have appropriate training, ongoing support and supervision, but surely the point of the governments devolvement of the responsibility of employing, to the disabled person, is in contradiction to that. Whilst I fully agree that in an ideal world, carers would come to a job fully trained, it isn’t essential. Especially from the point of view of a service user, I am happy to train my staff on the job, why wouldn’t I be?

    Many disabled people are ‘experts’ in their own care, so on the job training becomes less of an issue. What you will find, if you are a user of services, is that when a ‘trained’ carer comes to you, they have ideas of what would work best for you, very often not being open to what works realistically. You get treated as if you don’t know what works, and very often feel like you are lacking in control, as the carer knows best. For me this is totally unacceptable, and I like to work with more of a ‘blank slate’, someone willing to learn and develop a routine that works for us both.

    I think your final comment about linking unemployed people to the care profession is both a bit short sighted and rather contradictory. On the one hand you are saying that unemployed people shouldn’t be employed into care roles, but then in the next sentence saying they should be if they are trained. Why does it have to be a two stage process in your opinion, training then a job, when in reality it can, and does work as a one stage process of a job with training on the job attached?

    As I’m sure you know, we have a shortage of carers in the UK, and there are are lot of people who are unemployed. By working as carers, they are able to provide a role that is useful to society, and often is accommodating enough to get over a lot of the barriers that prevent people from having traditional jobs, issues such as qualification levels, hours of work and providing hands on jobs rather than theoretical jobs.

    Whilst I fully agree that in an ideal world we’d have enough budgets for training, carers would be fully supported and supervised, this isn’t the reality today. Your insistence in implying that disabled people aren’t capable of providing on the job training seems to say that you have no idea of how this situation really works. As a user of care services, and an employer, I find it offensive that you think I am not capable of training my staff to an adequate level to care for me?

    As a professional, I also see your article as somewhat skewed to the unfair side of the story. Lots of registered carers in CarePair are ‘untrained’ in your opinion, but they are working excellently with their employers. I don’t think that it is fair to say that untrained equated to a poor service.

    I can see your point that trained carers may feel more secure in their jobs, but so far, feedback about ‘giving it a go’, has been positive. Not all matches work for all people, but then not all jobs that people fill suit them, no matter the industry.

    I think that you seem to be confusing the content of the program with the reality of the situation. A lot of disabled people have very successful relationships with their carers, regardless of the experience and expertise of both parties.

    I just hope readers of your article, considering this as a career aren’t put off by your reporting of inaccuracies.

    Enthusiastic workers, of any ability are what this industry needs. If you are willing to listen, come with an open mind, learn from your employer and from specific training, where required, I firmly believe that anyone can do well as a carer.

    All the best

  2. Liz Hutchins August 4, 2015 at 11:47 pm #

    Good evening Russ.

    It’s been very interesting reading your response to my article about Part 1 of the BBC Three documentary “A Very Personal Assistant”. As an employer of personal assistants (PAs), and one who features quite heavily in the documentary, your views are incredibly helpful in shaping the service I am in the process of setting up.

    Although I intend to address your response more fully, as you mention you know nothing about me or what I do, may I direct you initially to the website for my service – passcard.co.uk. As you will see, PASS is a support service for PAs employed in the same way as those represented in A Very Personal Assistant. Whilst my viewing of this documentary took place with the complete appreciation of the perspective of PA employers, as a director of PASS I have a responsibility to represent the perspective of the PAs when passing comment on its overall message.

    Despite your obvious displeasure at the content of my article, I would suggest that our views may not be completely at odds, we merely represent different sides of the PA/employer partnership. In any event, I will be addressing the points you raise through the PASS blog, which will be Tweeted and published on our Facebook page over the next few days. In the meantime, you might be interested to read the following blog entry to understand further who we are and where we are coming from – http://passcardextra.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/who-and-what-are-assistants-it-could-be.html?spref=tw

    Finally, despite our potentially opposing viewpoints, we at PASS are keen to take on board the views of employers and organisations such as CarePair. With this in mind it would be really good if we could work together to make our service, and consequently the service PAs provide to their employers, the best it can be.

    Liz Hutchins, Director of PASScard
    (In addition to the above website, details of PASS can be found on Twitter under the username @PASS_CARD and on the Facebook page for PASS – Personal Assistant Support Service.)

  3. Caroline August 17, 2015 at 2:48 pm #

    As a person who has worked as a PA for 4 different employers I’m really grateful for Liz raising these points on behalf of the PAs. I enjoyed my time as a PA and got a lot more satisfaction than when I worked as a care worker for an organisation but it was also a more isolated work environment and the boundaries between friend and employer were less clear and always up for negotiation.
    I did a small amount of research into the experiences of PAs for a training course I was doing at the time and found that the responses from other PAs also showed high job satisfaction but also some emotionally draining aspects of the role due to the lone working nature of the job and the need to be an employee but also sometimes a companion which required tact and sensitivity to a greater degree than if working in a more boundaried and structured caring environment.
    I think it would be a great thing for both PAs and their employers if more specialist training and support was offered along the lines that Liz is suggesting, as the turnover of PAs and some of the the challenges that employers get in relation to employment legislation could be reduced. This would be a great benefit to both employers and PAs in what I consider to be a role that requires a high level of trust and respect in the relationship for it to flourish well.