SMART solutions needed for stressed care workforce

Associate  Anya Johnson
Associate Anya Johnson
Poor work relationships and unmanageable demands on healthcare workers in NSW have prompted the industry to trial work design strategies that improve workers’ mental health and wellbeing.

A report - released today as part of the Design for Care consortium which involved research from the University of Sydney in collaboration with project lead Curtin University and funded by Insurance and Care NSW (icare) - surveyed 1,300 healthcare and social assistance workers over an 18-month period, to better understand whether SMART (Stimulating, Mastery, Agency, Relational, Tolerable) work design strategies could improve employee job satisfaction, mental health and wellbeing.

The report found 37 percent of workers reported they did not have enough time to do their work, 40 percent said their jobs were highly emotionally demanding, 22 percent reported high work-related burnout, and 24 per cent said they don’t spend enough time with their family.

Associate Professor Anya Johnson , Head of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School, said the report is critical for identifying the causes of poor mental health of those who care for the most vulnerable in society.

Our report highlights why we can’t ignore how care work is designed and experienced. We need to be acting now to design smarter work if we want a sustainable caring workforce in the future. Associate Professor Anya Johnson "It’s important to adopt a holistic approach to redesigning work, as changing one aspect of a job will influence others. That’s why we are evidence-based and data-informed in the work redesign projects we want to pilot with Australian employers. There is no one size fits all solution."

The report also found younger workers aged 16 to 24 were more likely to experience higher rates of poor mental health compared to all other age groups, while permanent full-time employees experienced the highest level of work demands compared to casual workers.

Client-facing workers, such as aged care workers and disability support workers, experienced less autonomy in their jobs, poorer relationships at work and higher levels of burnout than the average worker.

Project lead and John Curtin Distinguished Professor Sharon Parker, from Curtin’s Future of Work Institute, said the report highlighted the urgent need to drive innovation with work design tools across the healthcare and social assistance industry in NSW.

"Individuals with high SMART work design, compared to those with moderate or low SMART work design, report lower levels of burnout and mental ill-health, lower intention to leave, and higher job satisfaction," Professor Parker said.

"Redesigning work involves changing systems, roles and tasks in a way that improves the wellbeing and mental health of employees. The findings from this project will help create recommendations that will be tailored for the healthcare and social assistance industry to embed SMART work design into organisations as a preventative and sustainable strategy for mental health and wellbeing."

The latest set of insights and learnings from Design for Care are being made freely available to industry groups and employers, aligned with a long-term goal to deliver work design interventions and resources to half a million health and social assistance workers in New South Wales who are covered by icare, Australia’s largest public insurer.

Mary Maini, an icare Group Executive who leads the Nominal Insurer scheme, said the long-term project will give employers new strategies to address rising mental health pressure in the private health care sector.

"An increasing body of evidence from Design for Care has demonstrated that poor work design is a common factor behind the rising rates of anxiety, burn-out and depression among our healthcare and aged care workers," Mary Maini said.

They’ve supported Australians throughout the COVID epidemic, and now deserve our support in return. That’s why icare are looking to pilot innovative work practices that will lower the workplace risks contributing to psychological injury. Mary Maini, icare Group Executive

"In the future, we believe an expansion of work redesign across the health and social assistance sectors will enrich the lives of individual workers, by reducing levels of stress and burnout. It will also help employers in many different ways. The early adopters of SMART work design tell us it improves the recruitment and retention of a highly motivated and engaged workforce. Building a more mentally healthy workplace can also help solve operational problems that many employers face."

The report will be launched in NSW on Tuesday, July 4, with the support of employers and industry groups that are already working to address psychosocial risks in their workplace and promote a mentally healthy workplace.

It follows on from the Design for Care consortium’s first report , which showed healthcare and social assistance workers were twice as likely to file a workplace compensation claim for psychological injuries, with nurses, midwives, ambulance officers and social workers revealed as highly impacted jobs.

Download the full report, titled How work design shapes mental health in the Healthcare & Social Assistance Industry.

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