Liam Butler: What are some of the strategies that the aged care and retirement sector can use to maximise performance by protecting the psychological wellbeing of their staff?

Dr Giles Burch: Having spent some time in the early part of my career in the aged care sector, I have some insights into the particular challenges staff working in this sector might face, e.g., being witness to dementia and death, factors that may compromise staff psychological wellbeing (PWB).  At this point we need to define “psychological wellbeing”.  Simply stated, PWB refers to feeling positive and functioning well.  Given this, it should come as no surprise to hear that the academic research has found PWB to be negatively related to sickness, absenteeism and turnover, and positively related to productivity and job performance.  Therefore, we can see why it is so critical that we protect and enhance the PWB of staff.

It is important that those managing organizations in the care and retirement sector ensure that ‘sound’ management practices are in place. One area of the academic research relevant here, is that looking at the relationship between PWB and ‘high-involvement work practices’.  Most notably, research conducted by Kathleen Mackie and her colleagues in the USA found ‘involvement management practices’ (i.e., redistributing power, sharing information, rewarding performance, and increasing skills & knowledge) were negatively correlated with both stress and depression in a sample of 728 day-shift workers in a residential care facility.  Such findings highlight strategies that can be taken to enhance PWB, including: giving employees powerto make (or contribute to) decisions regarding their work; sharing relevant information with staff members (e.g., regarding clients and the organization); providing staff with meaningful rewards and recognition (e.g., pay, ‘treats’, verbal recognition and praise); and providing staff with training and development opportunities (e.g., relating to job skills and resilience).  Specific actions that line managers can take, include: promoting and modeling appropriate behaviours; engaging with, listening to and proactively helping staff deal with problems; educating staff on the causes, consequences and management of stress and anxiety; providing positive feedback to staff for good work and ‘constructive criticism’ where development is required; providing staff with the opportunity to ‘use’ their skills and make decisions; encouraging staff to show positive emotions when working with clients; supporting staff with personal and family commitments; and providing staff with supervision and support – particularly around the clinical and existential challenges they may be faced with in the workplace.

Meanwhile, individual staff can develop their own PWB by: learning to identify their emotions and factors that contribute to how they feel, and how to modify these emotions; focusing on positive things in the workplace – not just the negative; trying to reframe things in a more humorous (although appropriate) light; engaging in regular supervision; and venting to other people (but being careful who to!)…as well as the more obvious: taking regular exercise; getting adequate sleep; eating a regular and balanced diet; reducing alcohol, caffeine and tobacco intake; engaging in ‘active’ social activities; and developing time- and self-management skills.

In adopting these strategies, organizations in the care and retirement sector should be able to not only ‘maximize’ performance, but also develop a more satisfied and ‘happy’ workforce!

Dr Giles Burch is an Occupational & Clinical Psychologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at The University of Auckland Business School. Having originally qualified and practiced as a mental health nurse in the UK, Giles went on to train as both an occupational psychologist and a clinical psychologist. He has over 20 years experience as a therapist, coach, organizational consultant and university academic, and continues to work with individuals, teams and organizations with a specific focus on enhancing psychological wellbeing, building resiliency and maximizing performance. 

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