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Going back to basics

Poor literacy and numeracy skills can be overlooked in aged care staff but workplace reforms can lead to positive results. Mardi Chapman reports.

The three Rs – foundation skills of reading, writing and arithmetic - might sound a little dated in the digital age but aged care providers who invest in workplace literacy programs are benefitting from a high rate of return.

Increased productivity, a safer workplace and improved client care are just some of the outcomes when aged care workers are given the opportunity to improve their English language, literacy and numeracy skills. Rod Cooke, chief executive officer of the Community Services and Health Industry Skills Council (CSHISC), says low levels of literacy in Australia are a “national travesty.”

A 2006 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found more than 40 per cent of Australian workers have inadequate levels of language, literacy and numeracy. Extrapolated into a workforce that is older than the national average, marginalised through part time hours and shift work, historically low paid and with low levels of education, it is obvious why the aged care sector is a priority area for reform.

“Literacy is an Australia-wide problem in every sector of the workforce however in aged care there are very important concerns that impact on safety as staff need to read clients’ charts or give out medications,” Cooke says. “The shortage of staff means recruitment is often unskilled labour with no previous training or qualification or people returning to work after long absences from the workforce. Cultural diversity of both staff and clients also contributes to communication problems in the workplace.”

He says underlying the urgent need for better literacy in the sector is the simple fact that unskilled jobs are slowly disappearing.

The Productivity Commission’s 2011 Caring for Older Australians report recognised the increasing demand for well trained aged care staff including ‘significantly more nurses and personal care workers with enhanced skills’.

The federal government’s Aged Care Education and Training Incentive Program offers financial support for aged care workers to upgrade their formal qualifications and their aged care reform plan specifically addresses workforce capacity building through its Aged Care Workforce Fund.

Cooke says there is a broad mix of programs and initiatives dedicated to workplace literacy including the Workplace English Language and Literacy (WELL) program, administered by the Department of Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. “Employers are well aware of the need for workplace literacy especially around documentation, communication, information technology and workplace health and safety. Literacy might require a significant investment of time and money but there are direct benefits.”

Sue-Ellen Evans is a WELL broker for CSHISC – appointed to help bring aged care providers, government funding for literacy and training providers together. She often suggests employers introduce literacy programs at the same time as new IT initiatives.

“There are no barriers or stigma associated with learning new computer skills and it’s relatively easy to roll in together. The WELL trainer would support the IT trainer, ensure their training materials are easy to read, and work with any staff members who need extra assistance.”

Maroba Living Communities, an aged care provider with about 150 staff in Newcastle, introduced a WELL program alongside a computerised care planning system including medication management.

Director of Nursing Karen Best says the integrated program was layered so every staff member received a ‘values and vision’ session and more than half received the full system training. Senior staff received additional training to help them identify and help other staff with problems, decision- making, problem solving, conflict resolution and giving presentations. “Technology is taking its place in aged care. We now have wireless continence management systems for example, so we need all our staff to be computer literate.”

“The TAFE trainers were exceptionally discreet. No one felt singled out for their literacy or numeracy – in fact all staff felt very valued through the process. Some staff members became our biggest champions.”

She says the training was delivered in short sessions, making it relatively easy to release staff from their duties. Morning and afternoon sessions were held to suit people on various shifts and an online training component helped cater for night shift workers who couldn’t come in during the day.

As a consequence of the training program, their new staff induction process addresses workplace literacy issues such as writing progress notes and the use of acceptable abbreviations. “With the multiple problems affecting the elderly, we need skilled, competent and confident staff. You do need to make a commitment but it’s been a great way to improve communications through the shifts and different levels of staff.”

She says literacy is an increasing issue for the sector with some providers bringing in staff from overseas to cope with the workforce crisis. “Aged care workers are very much in demand and they want to be where they can get good training, benefits and a career path.”

Uniting Church Homes in Western Australia is a much larger organisation with about 1400 staff across 24 sites in Perth and regional WA. Their manager of training and development Margaret Antonucci rolled out a WELL program ahead of installing a data management system. “We surveyed staff on their computer needs and identified about 250 with limited computer skills. WELL funding was available to support staff in our metropolitan sites with one on one training from a TAFE trainer.”

“We have also developed a language and literacy tool to screen people before they start work with us. It gives us capacity to know what the deficits are and where additional training is required.”

Antonucci says people from a non-English speaking background are appreciative of the assistance but they aren’t the only ones to benefit from literacy training tailored specifically for the workplace.

“Reading a material safety data sheet, writing up an incident report, understanding a risk assessment matrix – there is scope for improving literacy levels in aged care.”

Evans says literacy is often an underlying issue where the untrained eye might otherwise see a poor performer, lazy or stressed worker.

“A number of organisations are still unaware of literacy problems in their workforce or think they’re coping. Aged care settings are busy environments but they need to find time for their staff,” she says.

She suggests aged care workers who believe there are literacy problems in their workplace, can discreetly raise the issue internally in forums such as health and safety meetings.

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