Recent research indicates that Brexit is likely to exacerbate already existing problems of recruitment and retention in the social care workforce. The policy position of the government and main opposition Labour party make it likely that Brexit will result in greater restrictions on immigration from the EU to the UK. Recent reports have highlighted that this may result in severe future workforce shortfalls across health and social care. In this context, how are social care employers evaluating Brexit’s prospects for their workforce?
We explored this question in a recent research project examining social care managers and employers in Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset. Although not representative of England as a whole, this is an area in which the Brexit-related challenges for social care employers are crystallized. This is because there are higher than average levels of need for social care services due to greater numbers of older people and also because EU/EEA citizens form a larger than average proportion of the local social care workforce.
Our research project encompassed a survey of 17 social care organisations, including eight home care and nine residential care businesses, as well as detailed interviews with three home care and two residential care employers and/or managers. We asked respondents for detailed information about the size and staffing of their organisation and ratio of client base served through contracts with local authorities and the NHS. We also asked respondents to indicate their current experience of recruitment and retention, and to anticipate what, if any, future difficulty lay ahead, should EU/EEA workers be subject to the same restrictions as non-EU/EEA workers.
Our findings confirm that social care employers are viewing Brexit through the prism of the substantial present day difficulties they are experiencing, particular with recruitment, retention and staying financially afloat. For example, we found that, although the percentage of client base served through contract with local authorities and the NHS varied significantly across different providers (home care: 95% - none, residential care 67%-7%), the majority of managers and employers in our study felt that the rates at which contracts were set was insufficient and unsustainable for their business. Residential and home care employers and managers alike were experiencing current problems with recruitment and retention, but these were more acute for home care managers. Although they often employed and managed a loyal and dedicated group of core staff, home care managers recognised that the conditions of home care work (prevalence of zero-hour contracts, low pay and anti-social hours) reduced the attractiveness of this work.
Most home care employers and managers in our study were businesses without a nursing arm that recruited care assistants locally rather than internationally. Their EU workers had typically long settled in the area before moving into work in social care. The foremost concern of these employers and managers was not that Brexit might prevent them from easily hiring care workers from continental Europe. Rather, they worried that in a context of wider workforce shortages, they would be unable to pay their staff a sufficiently competitive wage to retain them post-Brexit.
‘’Employers that currently use Europe to recruit from…they will all be fishing in a far smaller pool of people...those carers we have trained ...will be pulled by hospitals, residential homes and other care providers. Particularly here...it’s a very difficult place to recruit from because it’s an expensive area to live in‘‘.
‘’Imagine how many foreign people are working as nurses in the hospitals: If they go the hospitals come first, don’t they? And they’re going to pull out all the stops to make good incentives to work for them, and staff are going to go. Why would they want to have wear and tear on their vehicles and do all that? It’s going to be really, really difficult ‘’
This research dispels any assumptions that Brexit is only of concern to those social care employers with a large EU/EEA staff base. Even employers and managers with a 100% UK-born workforce indicated their severe anxieties about how Brexit could impact on the staffing arrangements within their organisation. Brexit increases the urgency of the challenge of placing the social care sector on a sustainable financial footing such that it is able to meet the increasing needs of an ageing UK population.
Dr Rosie Read, Principal Academic