Australia experienced a crisis of care during the pandemic, but many people see caring as rewarding work and would consider employment in the sector — cause for optimism about its future.
Australia’s experience at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was an experiment in what happens when the formal care and support sector breaks down — and it’s one that none of us ever want to repeat.
Our recent research, based on a representative survey of 1,035 people across all states and territories, found that Australian carers experienced significantly increased levels of stress during the pandemic. Women carers, working age carers, and people with more intensive caring roles reported particularly high rates of stress and isolation.
A leading cause of increased stress was disruptions in formal services: when schools, childcare facilities and disability support services closed or reduced their hours, this led to higher levels of care being provided at home and took a significant toll on family caregivers.
We also surveyed Australians about their views on working in the care and support sector. We found that less than three in 10 believe care work provides fair work conditions, and only one in five believe it provides good pay.
This suggests that there should be widespread support for the 15 per cent pay increase for aged care workers confirmed in the recent federal budget, but pay and conditions in the disability support and childcare workforces need our attention too.
Both the aged care and disability support systems are struggling to recruit and retain enough workers to meet current and future demand for support, particularly in the context of an ageing population.
But if we address the employment issues within this crucial sector, this could change.
Our research dispels the popular misconception that Australians don’t want to work in these fields.
Most people we surveyed said they thought that care work was fulfilling or rewarding work, and a quarter of respondents said they would consider working in the paid care sector in the future.
Young people and, perhaps more surprisingly, men were even more likely to indicate they were open to this kind of work. Men and young people were less likely to report they currently had a paid or unpaid care role, but they were more likely to view working conditions in the care sector favourably, which might partly explain their increased openness to considering care work in the future.
Care work is often invisible and devalued, but the crises of care experienced during the pandemic have raised public awareness of the importance of this sector like never before.
Increasing pay and improving conditions for workers in the care and support sector will assist with future recruitment and retention, particularly of young and male workers, and help meet future workforce demand.
Critically, it may help raise the standard of care and support. The findings of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and ongoing issues with the National Disability Insurance Scheme demonstrate that Australia has a long way to go in this regard.
Care and support workers are responsible for building and sustaining the capacity of those they care for. Yet, they are often paid significantly less than workers in less skilled roles who don’t have direct responsibility for people’s wellbeing.
If we want a care sector that truly creates a supportive environment that respect people’s dignity and individual autonomy, this has to change.
None of us want to experience the service gaps we faced during the pandemic again – but if we don’t invest in our support systems and care workforce now, we might be forced to.
Find the full report via the ANU Research Repository.
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