Underpinning many of the issues facing the social care sector is that of how it is perceived, both by the public and other stakeholders, such as the media or government.
Markel’s The Care Sector: Navigating Turbulent Times report suggests there are many factors which have combined to create something of an image problem in social care. More than four in 10 (41%) of those working in the sector point to a lack of understanding among decision-makers about the interdependency of health and social care as a factor, while 31% say the NHS is seen as a higher priority due to its greater visibility.
An unfair portrait of the care sector
“The general public and some in the medical profession look down on care and there’s this notion that you’re ‘just a carer’,” says Liz Blacklock, CEO of the National Association of Care & Support Workers (NACAS), and owner of domiciliary care company Lapis Care in Hampshire. “But we’re the people who go into people’s homes four times a day, 365 days a year, and liaise with all the various medical professionals, particularly when they have no family.”
This also extends to how those working in the sector are treated by the NHS, she believes. “Within the nursing and medical profession, there’s an attitude of ‘we say jump and you say how high’,” she says. “When I get involved, I have to drop into the conversation that I happen to be a nurse, and the attitude changes. That’s wrong.”
Avinav Nigam, founder of global recruitment platform TERN, agrees there is an issue. “The social care sector is often seen as less prioritised and underfunded compared to the NHS,” he says. “This is fuelled by the public’s strong support for increasing NHS funding and the belief that the government spends less on healthcare compared to other countries. The comparison becomes more pronounced when considering the public’s top priorities for the NHS, such as addressing staff workload and improving waiting times; areas where social care also faces significant challenges. There’s a growing need to invest into the training and size of the workforce within the care sector.”
Improving perceptions and raising standards
The pandemic, however, has influenced how the sector is perceived. Markel’s research finds 70% of people in the sector believe this has improved in the past five years, with only 21% saying it has got worse. Six in 10 (62%) believe people are now more aware of the importance of social care, and 36% say initiatives such as ‘clap for carers’ during the pandemic or ‘care home open day’ have helped.
"The social care sector is often seen as less prioritised and underfunded compared to the NHS"
Blacklock, though, believes the impact of the pandemic is now starting to wear off. “During the pandemic, we were all key workers, but things have gone back to the way they were,” she says.
There are ways in which the sector can help to improve its image, however. Charlotte Rowe, care practice manager at Markel Care Practitioners, believes a more proactive approach is required. “We have an issue of being done to rather than done with,” she says. “We let somebody else write our narrative a lot of the time. If we are involved in lobbying or involved in reviews, they are generally things that are negative, such as Covid-19. The professionals that we work with do an amazing job, and we need to get that narrative out there.”
Claire Rintoul, CEO of non-profit care provider Sheffcare, is a strong advocate of encouraging the media to show what really takes place. “People have an awful impression of care homes, and it’s not like that,” she says. “We take any opportunity we get to bring the cameras in and get pictures on our Facebook page, just to tell those stories. The perception is not the reality. People think they don't want to go into a care home but when they do they think… this is lovely.”
Being able to demonstrate the situation with accurate data can also help to overcome any misconceptions that have arisen due to negative publicity from isolated cases of poor practice or negative inspection reports, says Anita Astle MBE, managing director of Wren Hall Nursing Home. “If we can say ‘in our sector, this is what’s happening’, then we can change the narrative,” she says. “The majority of care homes are outstanding and good.”
NACAS is currently taking steps which it believes will help to raise standards in the sector. Working with the Institute of Health & Social Care Management, it launched a professional register of care professionals in September 2023. The register is currently voluntary, but already 150 people have signed up. “The hope is it begins to change that perception of care and encourage people into the sector,” says Blacklock. The organisation is also working with the Professional Standards Authority to get the register accredited, she adds.
From a recruitment perspective, Brendan Ryan, a director at Hays who specialises in social care, believes care organisations should emphasise the importance of the work they do to help boost the sector’s image. “Professionals want to work for organisations with a strong purpose,” he says. “For private sector organisations in particular, that means making it clear to prospective candidates the contributions and benefits your organisation makes to wider society.”
Read Markel's deep dive into the pain points of the care sector.The care sector: Navigating turbulent times