I recently read an article in the Guardian by Sirin Kale who describes the life of Chevonne Baker, a home care worker, that provides an insight into the trials, tribulations and rewards of those who work in home care services.
Chevonne Baker loves her work and the elderly people she looks after. But even at the best of times she finds it is exhausting and poorly paid – and this winter she’s had to cope with Covid and a staffing crisis.
Why does Chevonne Baker find her job rewarding?
Chevonne Baker does this job because she is good at it, because she cares. She gets a sense of pride when her clients brighten up as she walks into the room. She credits her success as a care worker to her brisk efficiency, tempered with empathy. When a client is difficult, Baker keeps her cool, sometimes stepping outside the room for a few moments to compose herself. She is a master of small talk, keeping up a steady stream of cheerful banalities as she opens curtains, dusts and stacks crockery and attends to personal care.
She understands that she may be the only person her elderly clients see all day, so she makes an effort to draw them into conversation. She understands that if they are rude, it is because they have no one else at whom they can vent their frustration. She understands that a care worker’s job is about more than personal care. She is a confidante, a support network, a healthcare professional and a companion.
How did Chevonne Baker become a care worker?
Baker fell into care work. She had planned to become a primary school teacher, but halfway through her final year of university she realised that she had had enough of academia. She moved to Basingstoke with a group of three friends and found a job working in a cafe, but it went bust. “I’ll be honest,” she says. “I really needed money. I thought: ‘I’ll do anything for now.’” A friend suggested care work. She didn’t expect to like it. “And then I came out of my first week and realised I couldn’t stop smiling,” she says. “So, I thought I’d stay for a bit longer – and I never left.” Her parents weren’t thrilled; they thought she could do better. “I spent months convincing them I do actually like my job,” she says.
Baker finds the perception that care work is low-skilled frustrating. “It takes a certain kind of person to be able to have the level of compassion, but also the technical skills,” she says. “We have to do a lot of manual handling and you want to make sure you do it safely. We use hoists and we give people medication.” Then there is the emotional labour: no matter how Baker feels, she has to control her emotions to project an attitude of cheery professionalism.
Baker is 23 and has been working for the at-home care provider Right at Home in Basingstoke for two and a half years. With her university degree – Baker studied performing arts at the University of Winchester – she could probably earn more in a different sector. She makes between £11 and £12 an hour, depending on whether she is working weekends, and is reimbursed for her mileage. (Relative to other at-home care providers, Right at Home’s pay is generous. Many firms pay only the minimum wage.)
Her responsibilities vary. Sometimes she washes and dresses her clients. She may give them their medication and monitor their mood. Other times she prepares meals, or does housework, or takes them to social clubs, or simply sits with them and talks. She makes tea, endless cups of it – so many that she loses count each day.
Baker was recently off sick with a chest infection. Although she is on a zero-hours contract, she got sick pay, which she is grateful for. She spent most of her time at home feeling guilty that she wasn’t working.
“There were all these messages on the work chat: ‘Can you cover this shift?’ And I wanted to, but I couldn’t.” She kept reading the clients’ notes on the system, to see how they were doing – her boyfriend would tell her off and take the phone out of her hand. “When you don’t see clients, you worry about them,” she says.
Now she is back – and working an extra 12 hours a week to make up for staffing shortages. Baker used to care for Jane, who has just died. She had been living in a care home. They used to sing I Could Have Danced All Night, from the musical My Fair Lady, together. “That was our song,” she says.
Jane was a joy to care for: vivacious and straight-talking. She would tell Baker she needed to get her roots done and chastised her for laying out outfits with clashing colours. But the lockdown hit Jane hard. She missed her daughter, who was unable to visit due to the restrictions. Baker says: “When she was able to visit, you’d never seen joy like it.” Baker didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to Jane: she was put into the care home at short notice.
A look into the working life of Chevonne Baker provides practical evidence that home care workers are not just about providing personal care. Chevonne, along with many homecare workers recognise their role as a confidante, a support network, a healthcare professional and a companion. This requires compassion and technical skills that unfortunately are not financially rewarded. As this article succinctly describes, the rewards of homecare workers have to be found elsewhere, that is in caring for others.
This is not enough. People should not just drop into a job in social care, but see enough in the work to be are attracted to it. Along with the rewards of proper and fair renumeration, opportunities for career advancement and job satisfaction.
Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy
Photograph credit: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian