This feature is from our May-June 2013 edition.
Workplace health and wellbeing programs are on the rise in the aged services sector. In this feature article, Natasha Egan finds that with an older and ageing workforce, taking staff health and fitness seriously is the way to go.
Rebecca Tarpey, a care aide with Silver Chain, feels fit and strong and leads an active life. But a year and a half ago this wasn’t true. The then home help officer applied for her current role but was turned down because she didn’t pass the functional capacity test.
“I was tired and exhausted all the time. I never exercised. I made bad food choices and really didn’t care about myself,” Tarpey explains.
At this time, she had already lost 85 kilograms from a peak in excess of 185 kilograms but was still too ashamed to join a gym because of her weight. However, Tarpey was motivated.
“I wanted to help other people but first I had to help myself and own up and be accountable for what I wanted to achieve. All aspects of my life needed a major overhaul and that is what I focused on,” she says.
Tarpey’s supervisor put her in touch with Greg Crichton, Silver Chain’s corporate health and wellbeing coordinator. Crichton assessed Tarpey and designed a program targeting areas of need consisting of swimming, stationary bike riding, weight training, walking, and stretching, which would build core and knee strength.
After meeting Crichton, Tarpey joined the gym, followed the training program and three months later passed the functional capacity test and became a care aide. “Greg helped more than he realised in giving me hope and the courage to face my scary gym demands and get back in control of my life so I would be able to help others,” Tarpey says.
Caring for staff
Crichton is Silver Chain’s first corporate health and wellbeing coordinator. He’s held the position since November 2008. He holds a Bachelor of Science in exercise and health science and a postgraduate degree in exercise rehabilitation science.
“Silver Chain created the role because they are a caring organisation for their staff. It’s the crux of the business,” says Crichton. All 2500 staff and 1200 volunteers in WA fall within his sights.
Crichton has set up free fitness classes at various sites, with components such as ‘fit ball’ to build core strength, yoga, outdoor boxing and lunch time walking programs. “I run quite a few myself,” he says.
Additionally, he visits Silver Chain sites to run healthy lifestyle sessions and perform health checks, assessing blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol. “I’ve done over a 1000 health checks in four years with 600 different staff members,” he says.
Crichton is available to give advice on exercise, injury rehabilitation and stress management. He also runs smoking cessation courses and arranges for external providers to come in and carry out skin cancer checks.
Between 2010 and 2012, Crichton ran six 10-week weight loss challenges, which were completed by 96 employees. The average weight loss was two to three kilograms, he says. “The maximum weight loss is 11.1 kilograms; 20 per cent lose between five and 11 kilograms in 10 weeks; 33 per cent lose between five and 20 centimetres off their waist; and we’ve had five to six people reduce cholesterol by 1 to 2.5 mm/L.”
Understanding workers’ health
Such staff health and wellbeing initiatives can have a positive impact on workers, including those not taking part in the programs, says Debra King, an associate professor at the National Institute of Labour Studies (NILS), Flinders University.
“If your organisation takes health and wellness seriously, you are more likely to think about your health. If you know someone will give you a health check up, it makes you reflect on your own fitness,” she says.
A/Prof King has been involved in the 2007 and 2012 aged care workforce census and surveys conducted by NILS. She tabled the results from the latest survey at the Tristate conference in February.
The results show 90 per cent of respondents reported between good and excellent health, A/Prof King says. “Recent hires, of less than 12 months, are healthier than longer term employees, partly because they’re younger.”
Overall though, the aged services sector has an older workforce. While this is not new information, the 2012 survey shows the workforce is older and ageing. As a result employers will need to consider how to keep their workforce fitter for longer.
“Healthiness is about keeping the workforce going, and coping with the physical demands of care, so you need to cater for the older workforce,” A/Prof King says.
Many workers reported stress as a health issue in the latest survey, and this may be around particular times such as when a client dies. A/Prof King says workers seem to nominate stress more than employers.
Joint and muscle problems from lifting, carrying and repetitive use, along with strains, sprains, cuts and open wounds are the most common ailments reported. “The cause of most injuries is lifting, pushing, pulling and bending,” A/Prof King says.
These common injuries and their causes and the need to keep an older workforce fitter for longer, haven’t escaped ACH Group, which is another organisation taking staff health and wellbeing seriously. Jane Mussared, ACH Group’s General Manager, Innovation and Development, said ACH made it a priority in the recent strategic plan and is developing initiatives to support the goal.
“We want our workforce, paid and volunteer, to sustain their careers for as long as they want to, and to be as healthy as they can be, to enjoy their lives in and out of work,” Ms Mussared said. The provider has 1700 staff and over 500 volunteers across its South Australian and Victorian operations.
“Following recognition that sprains and strains are our highest injury risk area, we researched, trialed and rolled out information to all care staff about exercises which will assist them to warm up prior to manual tasks,” she said.
Other current initiatives include a grants program for local work health and safety groups to develop programs to support health and wellbeing in their locations. To date, says Ms Mussared, initiatives have included weight loss, healthy eating and quit smoking programs, exercise classes, Pilates, Wii programs, yoga, tai chi and massage.
ACH Group also offers early intervention physiotherapy, counseling for all staff and volunteers, free flu vaccinations, wellness information sessions, and links to national health promotion programs.
“Older people nominated being as healthy as they can be, as one of the six things that make up a good life. It is important that this opportunity is equally available to our workforce,” she said.
Tim Henwood, research fellow at the joint University of Queensland/Blue Care Research & Practice Development Centre, agrees there’s value in workplace health initiatives. “We look at a variety of aspects of healthy ageing for clients and carers,” Dr Henwood says. Blue Care has agreements with Fitness First, walking groups and the partnership with the research centre, he says.
However, he stresses the initiatives should be about more than weight loss. “A lot of people use exercise to target fat stores but the greatest factors we find are risks of disease,” says Dr Henwood. Cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease are flow on effects of sedentary behaviours, he says.
If you think an active job means you’re more likely to be fit and healthy, you might be disappointed to hear about Dr Henwood’s recent collaborative research. With colleague Dr Anthony Tuckett, the UQ study investigated the health differences between nurses meeting daily physical activity recommendations in or away from the workplace using the e-Cohort survey of Australian and New Zealand nurses.
“We found people who were more physically active as part of their lifestyle, had better health outcomes than people physically active in their job. Even though there was physical activity, we found it didn’t have the same health benefits and level of disease prevention in comparison to people with an active lifestyle,” Dr Henwood says.
Nowadays, Rebecca Tarpey is a strong advocate of living an active life. She says there’s no doubt her life is better for getting fit. While her transformation is a work in progress, it’s already made her job easier, lessened the risk of injury and so much more, she says. “Initially I thought it was about losing weight. Yes, that has happened. But I have gained so much more strength and control over my life.”