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.
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.
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.