Why autonomy and control are key to solving the staffing crisis

Jim Thomas, 17 March 2022

‘The trouble is that every time a new supermarket opens, we lose lots of our workforce.’

Working at a checkout at the local supermarket must be better than working in social care is a refrain I have often heard. Yet is it always the case that supermarket working must be easier or more rewarding than working in social care? Or is the only thing that drives movement between the two sectors levels of pay? 

In conversations with housing and social care colleagues about how we can improve the ways in which we find (recruit) and keep (retain) our workers, I have begun to wonder about the image of social care. We need to understand where our unique value lies and what we need to highlight about working in the sector so we change change people’s perceptions.

The Resolution Foundation’s 2021 publication ‘Work experiences’ explores what we mean by quality of work and how work has changed over time. For low paid workers, one of the things that stands out is how many of them feel that they have much less control and autonomy over their work than they did in the past.

The nature of work in a supermarket, or a warehouse, is often very prescriptive and this leaves employees without much autonomy or control over any aspect of their work. Autonomy and control are one of the motivating things about their job that social care can offer people.

In terms of finding new people to join social care, there are two groups I think we need to focus on: young people and people retiring early.

Before the pandemic my colleagues did a piece of research exploring young people’s perceptions of social care. What came back shocked me. ‘It’s dangerous’, ‘no one respects you’, ‘you might die’, were common refrains. This is a false narrative we urgently need to reframe. 

What if we attracted young people to social care by highlighting the autonomy and control on offer? Do you want a job where you can have control over what you are doing, or do you want to work in a place where every part of your day is closely managed?

With health colleagues looking to retire early, this made me wonder what this group of ‘youngish’ older workers with relevant skills might do next?

Coming back to the theme of autonomy and control - are we able to get more of these ‘young retirees’ to see social care as a place where they can use their existing knowledge and skills more creatively and again have more say over their working lives?

We need to make autonomy and control in your work one of the key elements that make social care an attractive place to be. But do we make enough of this in how we sell social care to a diverse spectrum of workers?

In the longer term, I’d like us to see is work towards a new refrain – this time from the supermarkets:

‘The trouble is that every time a new social care service opens, we lose lots of our workforce because they can offer them autonomy and control.’