Unveiling the Truth: The Undervalued Role of Carers in the UK
Uncover the harsh truths of the care industry, as 3 carers discuss their experiences in this challenging role.
For over two years now, I have worked as a carer for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems. The job in itself, has been extremely rewarding. It has financially supported me through university and has provided a sense of purpose that has been much needed. Yet, just like any other sector, it has its issues.
To gain multiple perspectives, I conducted interviews with three carers from different care companies, all in supported living. One recurring theme emerged: carers feel undervalued, not just by their employers but also by society at large. Despite the pivotal role they play, carers contend with low pay, understaffing, and a lack of recognition.
Chelsea, who is 28 and a carer since 2018, spoke to me about her job in a supported living facility.
‘I love it, it’s very rewarding, and every day is different, so one thing we always say at my workplace is that there’s never a dull moment!’ The ability to work with a variety of different individuals seems to be what brings her the most satisfaction.
‘But yes, there are a few downsides, understaffing is a constant issue, I think it comes down to low pay and many unsociable hours, it doesn’t exactly catch people’s eyes.’
According to nurses.co.uk, the average wage for a Care Assistant is between ‘£9 to £10 per hour’.
Despite recent government changes to the National Living Wage, which legally entitles workers over 23 to an hourly rate of £10.42, this still falls below the real living wage of £10.90 per hour calculated based on the cost of living.
Chelsea sees the attitudes towards carers changing, but still agrees we need ‘more support, financially and emotionally’. ‘I think after COVID, carers started to be appreciated more for being front-line workers. However, with that, I also find we can be classed as “bum wipers”, rather than caregivers.’ This stereotype, as Chelsea sees it, undermines the various responsibilities that carers undertake on a daily basis.
‘We do various tasks such as cooking, cleaning, personal care, administering medication, yet the pay doesn’t reflect these responsibilities.’
Skye, 21, who also works in supported living, recounts her disappointment at how carers were treated during COVID.
‘During COVID-19, it was all about the NHS. Clapping for the NHS at 8 pm and having it plastered everywhere about just how great they are. What about the support workers and the independent carers that still had to work during COVID? We were not mentioned once!’
Despite an increased focus on, predominantly NHS workers and the public sector. The pandemic has arguably not altered the ways that carers are treated. Perhaps most importantly, the financial incentives to remain in care, are simply not there.
‘Being paid tuppence when you’re conducting some of the most mentally and physically draining tasks and others are doing the bare minimum yet getting paid more, makes us feel like we’re being insulted. ‘
Christine, who is in her early 60s, is well-experienced in the sector. Having worked in end-of-life care, and now supported living; she is well acquainted with these issues that many carers face.
‘The biggest issue we face is that carers are classed as unskilled and that reflects in the pay. The general public only seems to recognise the NHS’. This is an insulting label, especially when one considers the wide variety of responsibilities and training that carers have to undertake.
‘I think the government needs to recognise the different types of care provided’ Christine explains, ‘It can range from care homes, learning disability care, to complex and also palliative forms. The government needs to reflect on carer’s wages and start to recognise what we provide.’
Some political parties have tried to target these financial concerns. For example, The Liberal Democrats have stated their plans ‘to pay £2 per hour more than the current minimum wage for all carers, meaning that hourly pay would be £12.42.’ Yet, the discrepancy between what political parties say for the sake of their manifestos, and their actions, leaves a lot to be desired.
This question of finances is well-worth investigating and research conducted in 2022, found that ‘The UK’s biggest care home chains saw their profit margins jump by 18% on average during the pandemic’ and the ‘highest paid director’s salary surged to £2.3m.’
The saying ‘people over profit’ may seem like a cliché, but in this situation, I don’t think any other phrase is more apt.
It is clear that there is a huge amount of money being made, even during times of national crisis, yet the workers are only taking a very small cut.
There is a huge disconnect between those at the very top of these companies and the workers who are on the frontlines.
As Christine explains, ‘I believe that in the care sector, whether you are a manager, owner, or shareholder, come and work on the floor for a week and see how you feel after that week.’
Christine’s view shows that the disconnect isn’t just financial within these companies, but also emotional too. There is a certain distance that those at the top of the food chain can afford, avoiding the often difficult feelings that care can bring.
‘Care gets you emotional, stressed, upset, grief-stricken and also fulfilled when you know that you have done your best for your clients. Carers go above and beyond their work, clients can become family.'
This seems to be the main feeling that drives all of the carers I spoke to. The sense of satisfaction that they feel when they have genuinely helped or made a difference in someone’s life, is often worth the hardships.
The other aspect of care, that carers such as Skye and Christine praise, is the training that is often provided by their companies.
Skye explains that ‘she receives a lot of updated online training’ and is completing her ‘NVQ Level 2 in Adult Care Work.’
Christine’s experience in the health and social care sector has made her see the immense value in this training.
‘I would say go for your NVQs in care. You can learn so much and improve your career, you can opt for different types of training in all aspects of care.’
Christine and Skye’s responses in regard to training, show the positives that companies can provide for their employees, simply by investing in training and qualifications.’
Yet, the care sector faces significant challenges, and the issues raised by carers like Chelsea, Skye, and Christine need urgent attention. While investing in training and qualifications is commendable, companies and policymakers need to invest in the basics too.
Wages, working hours and the societal view of heath and social care, all need to fundamentally shift, so employees feel respected and acknowledged.
The figures speak for themselves, with a turnover rate of 29%, there is, for many, no incentive to stay.
Skye sums up the situation with a harsh but truthful reality:
‘In this world, you would get more money stacking shelves than you do caring and saving lives of others.’
The irony is blatant. The CEOs of these care companies boast about the importance of compassionate and supportive care, but their treatment of their workers contradicts these very claims.
This grand display of contradictions leaves employees feeling undervalued and unappreciated, while vulnerable individuals suffer from a lack of consistent staffing.
It's high time for these companies to practice what they preach and truly prioritize both their workers, and show that they too, can care.