Death and dying in aged care: managing worker mental health

Tuesday, 06 February, 2024

Death and dying in aged care: managing worker mental health

The Australian population is aging at an increasing pace, with over 65s expected to double and over 85s to triple in mere decades. To support and care for our aging population successfully, our precious aged care workers need to feel similarly supported and comfortable reaching out for help and support, writes KATE CARNELL AO, Chair of the Violet Initiative.

Recent research conducted by the Violet Initiative uncovered nearly half (41%) of aged care professionals exposed to death and dying are impacted professionally and mentally, but only 16% seek help, information or support — and nearly a third (29%) have considered leaving their occupation. Research respondents admitted that while caring for ill, old and frail patients was a rewarding experience, it also took a mental toll.

The number of deaths each year is predicted to double by 2040. It is no secret that aged care workers are overworked, overstretched and overstressed, which is resulting in significant workforce issues for providers nationally. Creating an environment where our aged care workforce is supported and protected will be key to caring effectively for Australians through the last stage of life.

Below are some considerations for aged care leaders to support staff effectively and, in turn, better care for the aging community.

Establish an open environment to discuss mental health challenges

Empowering staff to talk about death and dying, as well as the challenges they face when caring for their residents, is critical. It is equally important to establish policies that support workers outside of a professional environment, such as encouraging them to take leave regularly to rest, reset and reduce instances of burnout.

Aged care leaders could create an environment where open discussions around the mental health impacts of their roles are normalised and encouraged by establishing a peer-to-peer support group. This could create an environment where experiences and knowledge are shared to help aged care workers support each other and feel a sense of community.

Establishing a ‘buddy system’ whereby workers are paired together can also be beneficial and enable them to regularly check in and support each other.

Ongoing education can also help leaders support and protect their staff. Providing training and mental health education for workers to learn strategies to navigate grief, mental health challenges, improve their wellbeing and better communicate and care for their residents is invaluable.

Work delivered by the Violet Initiative over recent years has confirmed that many staff want to increase their capability, confidence and willingness to open and manage sensitive conversations about the last stage of life, to better support residents, family members, caregivers and other staff.

Train staff to be aware of the warning signs of distress and burnout

Spotting signs of stress and burnout in staff is vital to providing support promptly and effectively. Some warnings signs to be aware of can include: low productivity and lack of concentration, a noticeable lack of energy or exhaustion, or increased absenteeism. Leaders may also spot noticeable shifts in a staff member’s interactions with them, such as a change in their mood.

Implementing a ‘check-in policy’ whereby leaders meet regularly with staff to gauge their thoughts, experiences and be on the lookout for warning signs are important. From those conversations, strategies can be created to address burnout, fatigue and distress, such as offering reduced hours or leave, or access to internal or external initiatives to support them further.

Access existing initiatives

It can be common for aged care workers to overlook their own grief when supporting a resident’s loved ones in the event of their death. Allowing staff to access existing, external initiatives to process grief and navigate mental health challenges is just as vital as internal programs. Leaders can implement debriefing, counselling or confidential support services, provided by a third party.

Ultimately, government funding and support for initiatives designed to assist aged care workers is critical. Digital support, tools and resources, and the provision of dedicated hotlines (already established in countries such as the UK) are specifically designed to support healthcare workers, offering a listening ear and an opportunity to discuss challenges openly and without judgement.

Initiatives that use technology to offer round-the-clock support are also emerging and can be utilised by aged care professionals. For instance, at the Violet Initiative, technology has been greatly beneficial to those who access the organisation’s services. The organisation has started implementing AI tools, including a ‘conversation with Violet’ which is always on, and always free, delivering information and advice 24/7, helping people access strategies and guidance to navigate challenges while caring for someone through the last stage of life.

A lack of preparation, discussion and funding for the last stage of life can result in dire consequences, including decreased workplace productivity due to unresolved grief, aged care workforce burnout and unplanned hospital admissions, increasing pressure on our already overstretched hospitals. Encouraging regular, open discussions about death and dying, implementing policies and initiatives, and accessing external programs are vital to keeping aged care staff healthy, happy and equipped to care for the aging community effectively.

Kate Carnell is Chair of the Violet Initiative, a national not-for-profit organisation that provides information, resources and support to help people navigate the last stage of life and grief. Previously, Kate has held positions as ACT Chief Minister, inaugural Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO), CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, CEO of beyondblue, CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, CEO of the Australian General Practice Network (AGPN) and CEO of the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI). Kate was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2006 for her services to the community through contributions to economic development and support for the business sector, knowledge industries, the medical sector and medical technology advances.

Image credit: Lohacharoenvanich

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