Revaluing Social Care

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Social care is more than just a sector of the economy. It’s central to life and underpins how people live and work across the country. The importance of the social care sector and ‘soft’ caring skills to the future of work is growing fast.

Demand for social care is increasing across demographics - including now from working-age adults - and delivery requires human skills which are insulated from technological disruption. Social and emotional skills are also a form of human capital that is becoming more valuable to the economy as a whole. This is a key feature of the skills shift which accompanies economic restructuring – giving a sense of urgency and new perspective to an old problem.

Where women account for 70% of employees in jobs at ‘high risk’ of automation across sectors, it may be tempting to propose that displaced female workers should simply transition to working in the social are sector, where the majority of the workforce are female. To pre-empt this – and avoid compounding gender inequalities – we need to shine a spotlight on the value of good work for a workforce whose skills are critical for the future.

Our workshop on ‘revaluing social care’ in July piloted our social policy innovation accelerator to think about how – as a society – we can revalue social care work. We drew on design-thinking principles to facilitate a safe space for communication, collaboration and fresh ideas.

The accelerator has been developed to address problems where multiple spheres collide at the intersection of systems and individuals, human needs and economic demands, business and society. Breaking down silos and barriers to participation is key: social care workers worked alongside policy-makers, academics and the third sector to make sure the discussion was grounded firmly in the experience of the individual. The workshop was led by RCA’s Professor Dale Russell and supported by the Health Foundation, Department of Health and Social Care and the TUC.

Our background brief draws out some key themes that emerged from an earlier evidence review and was used to inform the workshop. These themes include: the huge potential of the social care sector at a time of economic turbulence, the invisibility of social care work to the headline economic indicators, the ‘feminisation’ of the sector, and the narrow framing of social care in the media which reinforces individualist ways of thinking about social care.

‘We have lost a sense of what caring is’.

Here is a preview of some of our headlines:

  • Higher levels of staff engagement would improve work quality and act as a tool to drive improvement. There’s broad consensus within the health community, supported by a strong business case, that staff engagement leads to better patient outcomes too. The most basic tools for measuring staff engagement – work place surveys – could be used to kick-start a renewed focus on the experience of care work across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

  • The Care Quality Commission is well-placed to lead on measuring job quality in social care work. At the moment, the CQC only measures job quality tangentially, notwithstanding its significance to both turnover rates and patient outcomes. All social care providers that register with the CQC could be mandated to complete yearly staff surveys, covering features of good work and drawing from the NHS staff survey.

  • The integration of social care and health data systems would enable a better understanding and measurement of the ‘value’ of the social care system. Decisions about new models of social care provision and other interventions are being constrained by limited information. Integrating the data systems from both halves of the DHSC would be a first important step to enable bolder interventions led by DHSC and to assess direct and other impacts. This will inevitably involve logistical hurdles – but should be possible, as integrated local systems are demonstrating.

  • Targeted recruitment initiatives aimed at underrepresented groups led by DHSC could help start tackle gender stereotypes. As our brief anticipated, ‘feminisation’ of social care was a common theme through our workshop. One entry point into this mammoth problem would be high profile dedicated recruitment drives aimed at other demographic groups vulnerable to job loss through disruption. This would have to be designed alongside other interventions aimed at improving work quality.

  • A human-centred, user-led approach to introducing technology to support social care work and provision is needed to maximise the efficiency and impact of new technology. The connective and tracking power of digital technology has huge potential to support social care workers, as well as patients. A collaborative approach, including early consultation with care workers, will support the effective and intelligent design and use of technology across the social care ecosystem to compliment human skills.

Our report will be published in October.

Paula Hagan