Brexit has made the issue of what constitutes a high- or low-skilled worker front-page news. The care sector, characterised by poor pay and low ambitions, is often at the sharp end of that debate. But for Chloé Moore, HR director of National Care Group (NCG), being a support worker at one of its 122 locations across the country requires not only a very definite set of skills but a very special dedication too.
“Our staff are incredibly passionate,” says Moore, whose 1,800 employees work with vulnerable adults and young people to assist them with supported living and residential care. “Although income is important, when you talk to the majority of them about what they want from you, money isn’t always top of the list. They will often ask for things that benefit the people they support. Realising the absolute passion our people have has been really powerful and has inspired us to make sure we are giving employees something back for the hard work and integrity they show.”
That task is far from straightforward. Care is a highly regulated and notoriously low-margin sector, with government funding falling each year. The industry is in the midst of a recruitment crisis, but NCG launched in 2016 with an ambitious mission: to acquire individual care homes and businesses and achieve economies of scale while aspiring towards even greater standards.
An empowered HR function, says Moore, is key to that. “We want to be not only the biggest, but the best. We can do that through the positive impact we have on people delivering care. We think about how we can add value – even if we’re adding a small amount of value to a small number of people, the benefits to the people we support are huge if we have employees who are happy and engaged.”
Focusing on development at a very localised level goes a long way. While people may have joined an NCG business because they felt a personal connection to the work or enjoyed making a difference, what they couldn’t always previously see was how they could progress at work.
The business worked with consultancy Human Capital Department to develop a set of behavioural competencies outlining what is required in different roles and how individual behaviours affect quality of care and career opportunities.
NCG is also using its six mandatory supervisions with frontline employees each year to inform and inspire staff. “If adopted badly, supervisions can focus on the negatives,” says Moore, who joined the business after working across the manufacturing, legal and recruitment sectors, among others. “You store up all the bad things someone’s done, a bit like you do in an appraisal system when not managed correctly, and then you use that occasion to raise all your concerns. We are approaching it very differently, by deliberately being very positive.”
Today, two supervisions each year are dedicated to assessing progress against a framework and discussing progression. That is backed by access to a greater range of blended learning resources – “we don’t want to have employees learning by putting them in front of a TV or sending them an email,” says Moore – which means 70 per cent of training is face to face, enabling geographically disparate individual workers to feel connected.
The other pillar to rethinking the sector’s employee proposition has been to tackle wellbeing. Care is a high-stress profession, says Moore: “A lot of the people we support have mental health issues, and there could be that fear among employees that if they open up about their own mental health they may be judged incapable to look after someone else.”
All employees now have access to an EAP and a range of occupational health services, including cognitive behavioural therapy. But Moore adds that while nothing can ‘cure’ fundamental sector-wide issues, the best way to guard against them is for operations and HR to work together to keep a careful eye on rostering and guard against the potential for overwork.
It also helps to have an HR team that is proactive and understands the sensitivity required in integrating individual care homes into the wider group. Each acquisition, says Moore, begins with showing a friendly face to a group of people who may have joined under TUPE and may have no idea what the implications of joining NCG will be: “We meet the people they support. We go in and talk about what the employees are doing. We put their minds at ease. They realise we’re normal people. We have a laugh and a brew with them and they think ‘actually, if I need to call for help, I can.’”
Persuading so many new employees that work can be rewarding isn’t easy, but it is paying off. Sickness absence is down significantly year on year, turnover is comfortably below the industry average of 28 per cent – and best of all, thanks to a new approach to recruitment, around 40 per cent of new hires in many locations come from employee referrals.
And the business is still learning as it goes. As Moore admits: “Before I came into the sector, I might have looked at someone with a learning difficulty and felt sorry for them. I wouldn’t now. They just have a different life, but it’s still a really successful and happy life. That has been an important lesson for me.”