“A lot of the stories you hear about social care are doom and gloom,” says Robin Bush, CEO of charity and service provider Autism Together. “The story here is a bit different.” And given that the story involves his staff attempting to trampoline for 25 hours straight in a bid to land a Guinness World Record on World Autism Day, part of a £200,000 fundraising drive, he’s got a point.
Even so, the challenges of a sector that is notoriously troubled and cash-starved are not inconsiderable. One in 100 people in the UK is now diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, a figure that has snowballed from one in 10,000 a couple of decades ago, creating seemingly uncontrollable demand for care. The national living wage and auto-enrolment have added hugely to the cost base at a time when local authority funding is standing still or even going backwards.
Bush and his team have relatively little control over such external forces, but they have redoubled their efforts in the areas they can influence – which means communicating with staff and creating a culture of positivity and professionalism that has aided retention, landed national awards and, crucially, improved care.
The biggest employer on the Wirral, with more than 1,000 people, Autism Together is a recently rebranded 49-year-old charity that offers residential respite care and supported living for 400 individuals across the north west. But when Bush came on board almost four years ago, he found an organisation with its “heart in the right place” but a decidedly “traditional” approach to employee relations.
“If you’re an organisation that’s been established a long time, you can become a bit complacent and assume people will just work for you because they’ve always been here. Apart from being naïve, that’s very unfair for them,” he says. “We wanted to change the culture here, to be reflective of our desire for people to work here because they wanted to, not because they had to.”
Key to that transformation was the army of support workers who represent the bulk of the workforce and play a crucial role supporting, living alongside and working with service users. “Our staff need a lot of training and deal with a lot of physical and emotional challenges. People can go to local discount supermarkets and get the same or more money for far less challenging work,” says HR director Jim Strain.
“I don’t think we can ever pay them enough for the work they do,” adds Bush, himself a former support worker. “But recognising that we can’t invest in their hourly rate, the way we’re investing in them from a cultural point of view has been really positive.”
Central to this has been increasing transparency, which has included a responsive HR and payroll system that integrates with learning initiatives and rotas to provide a mobile solution to employees’ needs. The leadership team has been encouraged to get out and actively engage staff who work in homes across the region, while keep-in-touch days bring senior employees together.
Managers are being trained to be more empathetic, a staff council has been given enhanced powers and new feedback mechanisms, and the business has focused on benefits that cost next to nothing but make a tangible difference – such as an annual leave buyback scheme, which the numbers suggest halves staff turnover among participants.
Part of a new set of values has been an ethos of positive communication. “In social care, there was often a very outdated approach where senior leadership teams withheld things from their workforce,” says Bush. “In my state-of-the-nation address I often hear groans from my senior leadership team as I put my foot in it again and give information out – but if we can’t give people a pay rise for whatever reason, we need to let them know what that reason is and tell them when they will get a rise in the future.”
It’s part, he adds, of “investing in people because we like people”, and it has paid dividends when it comes to reward conversations. Local authority social care budgets across the region remain static – Liverpool City Council has questioned whether it will even have such a budget by 2020 – which means any pay increases are, right now, restricted to those on the minimum wage, creating uncertainty for other employees.
“But when we announced that, there was virtually no outcry,” says Strain. “In previous years, I’ve walked across the car park and had staff shout at me ‘when are you going to pay us more?’ People were angry. They weren’t being communicated with, but now there’s an understanding – though not an acceptance, necessarily – of where we are. They recognise we are doing as much as we can and giving them everything we’ve got.”
Retention has improved, despite such challenges. The organisation recruits up to 25 support workers each month, so getting annual turnover below 20 per cent (against a UK average of 27.5 per cent) has saved a sizeable sum. There are other metrics, too: 81 per cent of staff report job satisfaction and 93 per cent have clear goals, up from 67 and 68 per cent respectively in 2013.
But that is only part of the story – the other part is evident in the easy interaction between staff and service users and the sheer joy on show throughout the building. “You’re not going to retire to the Seychelles by working in social care,” says Strain. “But we can make it an enjoyable job and show people the organisation cares for them.”