‘I wasn’t able to give my clients what they needed and it broke me’

This festive season care workers will be working unlawfully long hours and walking the streets between shifts for very little extra pay

Published in partnership with Unison

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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


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7 Responses to ‘I wasn’t able to give my clients what they needed and it broke me’

  1. Gerald December 16, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    Unison needs to communicate with the Local Authorities to get them to fund this service better.

  2. Julie Chapman December 16, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    I have done split shifts for the past 10 years, have worked over 10 days or more without a break. Start work at 7 am finish 13.00 and only get paid for 3.5. Had enough just handed notice in.

  3. Barbara MacArthur December 16, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    Reminds me of the days I worked as a local government social worker in the 1960s. Part of my contract was that I was on 24-hour call with a telephone at home provided by the department. I paid for my private calls. My telephone number one year was in the local telephone book in four places, including emergency welfare inquiries, mental health, and social services emergency after-hours number. I remember, for instance, working three days and two nights without sleep to deal with day-to-day work and out-of-hours emergencies. Even if one was out all night on casework emergencies – seeing relatives of suicide victims, sectioning, child care, homeless families, burials and cremations of destitute people – one still had to sign on for work at 8.30 that morning or one would be on the carpet with the Director of Social Services or his deputy. I had to provide my own car – could only afford a banger – but was paid a petrol allowance for mileage. Even when I was out all night – perhaps because of families being made homeless by a fire, or sectioning someone and taking the children into care – one still was paid no overtime or time off in lieu.  We had no clerical back-up staff. I can remember once I decided to claim for two lots of medication I had to buy from the chemist to disinfest myself because of scabies I had caught from a down-and-out elderly homeless client I had helped. I was told I could not claim because it was “an occupational hazard”. Those were the days!

  4. Graham December 16, 2015 at 5:29 pm #

    We seem, as a society, to have become slaves to our own needs and desires. We want shops open 24/7 so shop workers have to cover a 24/7 working week, we want our personal care to be available when we need it so care workers have to work split shifts to meet our needs. The controversial new doctors contract is about making more health care available at weekends and the working hours of health and social care professionals seems to be extending relentlessly into evening and weekends so that we get what we want when we need or want it. Before long everyone will be expected to be available for work all the time and life will not be much fun!

  5. Joan December 16, 2015 at 6:59 pm #

    I did this job for 2 years, and every single word in this article is true, nothing is exaggerated. The way care workers are treated is nothing short of disgraceful.

  6. Sam December 16, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    This is a fantastic article so true and a reality of a home care worker

  7. Diane January 9, 2016 at 12:46 am #

    If pay went up there would be more people joining this sector, more staff = decent breaks and easier days. Easier days = enjoyment in the job. I started working in this sector back in October, the level of staff sickness is shocking and quite frankly I’m not suprised. It’s sheer exhaustion that force people to go off. They say travel time is included in hourly rate. If it’s calculated it’s basically NMW per hour and roughly about 1 hour extra of NMW for travel per day.