First thing every morning, Sandra wakes up and checks that her phone is fully charged for the day. Then she does a mental check that she is fully charged too, and not ‘bringing her own stuff’ to her vulnerable clients’ spaces. She can’t afford for anything to go wrong. When she is working with people with mental health challenges in the community, her entire focus has to be on their needs.
Sandra is a highly experienced community support worker, starting in Gisborne before moving to her current role in Auckland.
“I’d tried other kinds of care work before, because I have such a passion for working with people. Caregiving in aged care, early childhood, I’ve done all that but my heart is in mental health. I feel just as strongly about this job as I did when I started 18 years ago. My role is to walk alongside people, to help them understand what they’re going through. That yes, there’s an illness but it’s not forever. It comes, it goes. There are things we can do to reduce agitation, they can reach out for help.”
“Help looks different for everyone – it might be medication, it might be prayer, sometimes it’s a social group or just being alone for time out. I help them look at the options they might not know they have, and find something that works for them.”
Sandra usually sees two clients a day for two hours each, in their own environment. “The first thing I do when I arrive is check in that they are on board with the plan for the day. If they have to catch the bus that day and they’re feeling anxiety about it, we’ll have a talk about it, what we’re going to do.
“Some days we’ll make it to the bus stop and just go back home. Then we’ll have another chat about what happened. The next day, we’ll try to get on the bus. Preparing before I even get to work is important to make progress in small stages.”
In the evening, Sandra does medication rounds for another four hours to observe clients taking their prescriptions at home. Then she returns to the office to write up notes. She walks out the door after 9pm – and the emotional work isn’t finished when she gets home.
“It usually takes me about three hours to unwind after work, to get back to zero. You do go over everything that happened in the day, you relive it – it’s all part of the process of preparing to go back again tomorrow. You have to be very resilient to work in community support. Not everyone can do this job.”
“It does take its toll on your family life. To be honest, I don’t really have one. We’re so short staffed, I have to work in the weekend too.”
Sandra has a son who works back home in Gisborne, in forestry, and a much loved four year old granddaughter. Because of her intense work schedule she doesn’t get to see them often. “My son, he really rubs it in. Like, ‘Mum, you’re getting paid twenty bucks an hour and I get paid more to look after trees!’ I say, ‘Hey boy you were raised on this wage’. He wants to see better for me, he’s been really supportive.”
Despite Sandra’s 18 years’ experience, her wages mean she can’t live the kind of life she’d like with her family.
“My granddaughter, when I get to spend some quality time with her, I buy her an ice-cream, but Christmas presents and things like that it’s pretty much out of the question. I haven’t had a holiday in three years. All the leave I’ve been able to take has gone on placement for my studies.”
“I’m actually in the process of looking for a new house at the moment too. My landlord is moving her family in, so she’s said I’ll be able to stay a bit longer, but it’s not permanent. The scary bit is when I go to all the viewings there are just desperate people looking, it’s the same people. I’m a full time worker with good references but it’s still hard. If our pay matched our responsibilities, it would be that much easier for me, I could look at a more houses. I don’t think so many full time workers should be in this position of not knowing if we can stay where we’re needed for our jobs.”
Sandra has been on the bargaining team with her union, E tū, to push for better wages and recognition for community mental health support. She has high hopes for the pay equity negotiations the Government just announced for mental health support workers. She and her colleagues were left out of the aged care settlement won by Kristine Bartlett and the unions by the last Government.
“If we had equal pay, I could afford to look for a little place, somewhere a little bit more decent. The caregivers case has shown us that it can be done and inspired us to keep going, to never give up. When I saw Kristine won New Zealander of the year, I was like, yes you go girl, I voted for you!”
“It was wrong we were left out of that deal and, since then, lots of people have jumped ship to get better wages in aged care. It’s caused an even bigger problem with short staffing, and I’ve had to work more hours. I get that a lot, like, why don’t you just go work in aged care or why don’t you go be a truck driver or work in forestry like your son? But it’s like, that’s not where my passion lies. If your heart’s not in it, you shouldn’t do it. Someone has to hold the fort here in mental health and keep looking after our people.” “And besides” she laughs, “I’m really bloody good at it.”
In February, the Minister of Health announced that the Ministry would begin formal negotiations with unions and businesses to deliver equal pay for mental health and addiction support workers. Unions are asking the Ministry to bring their pay back in line with aged care caregivers and support workers. The Council of Trade Unions is campaigning for a better equal pay law for all women to be able to take claims, within the next 250 days –more information at this link.
Want more of the latest sector news, information, opinion and discussion straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter: http://healthnzme.wpengine.com/subscribe/