Important changes in staff conditions of service have taken place in recent years: the introduction of a shorter working week and payments for overtime; an increase in staffing levels to accommodate reduced working hours; and the employment of more non-resident and part time staff.
But what have been the effects of these changes, now that many residential care staff work no more unsociable hours and have comparable occupational groups like field social workers, nurses and policemen? Have they resulted in greater job satisfaction, improved morale, lower staff turnover and more commitment to the work? Are residents being offered a better service now that they can be given more intensive care and attention by these larger numbers of people, who, when having a hard time, have the consolation of being able to "get away from it all" at the end of their shift?
We have no definite answers because, to the best of our knowledge, there has not been an empirical study to assess the effects of these changes. If one was to be carried out we suspect our worst fears would be confirmed – neither staff nor residents have really benefited and the introduction of industrial practices and conditions to human service organisations like residential units has brought as many, if not more, problems than it was expected to solve.
One consequence is that the caring process has become increasingly bureaucratic. For many workers in even the smallest units, organising complicated duty rotas has become a nightmare. The whole care programme has to be geared to the availability of staff. Hours worked have to be carefully calculated and overtime sorted out.
Communication remains another major problem. Staff may have little contact with each other for days at a time and getting everyone together for a staff meeting or supervision session begins to require as much planning as a military operation. Off duty staff often have to be called in and paid overtime – if this is allowed. Small wonder then that such activities are given low priority and supervision practice is so rudimentary. The effects of poor communication and lack of support can be clearly seen on residents and staff for whom caring becomes "just another job"; a matter of clocking in and out of the shift. Commitment, work satisfaction and morale all suffer.
A system that revolves around the duty rota must inevitably corrupt even the most basic caring principles. For children, the experience of being in care under these circumstances will be very confusing and fragmented, with few of the predictable reference points which are so essential if a sense of security is to develop. This does not imply that the solution is to revert to the "ever present houseparent" model, but something needs to be done to ensure a degree of continuity. As the system now operates this seems impossible, and the greatest effects are being felt in those smaller units which set out to reproduce home-like, family-style living.
It is not being looked after by different people from day to day that creates the confusion. This occurs when there is no attempt to reconcile the different behaviour of the caring adults to the children's needs. Each adult brings to the children a different set of attitudes and values, standards of behaviour, style of interaction and other personal qualities. The differences in approach can be either a resource or a handicap to the children.
With fewer staff and simpler working arrangements, a fairly consistent pattern of care is guaranteed, yet under the present system it is common for gross inconsistencies to occur. The effects are evident in the different styles of getting children up in the morning and going to bed at night, in the effects of casual remarks made about such matters as their personal appearance, which so affect children's self image. They are apparent at mealtimes and other important focal points for interaction; in conflicting decisions about television programmes, use of pocket money, smoking and inconsistent attitudes towards swearing, quarrelling, fighting and sexual behaviour.
Control is made more difficult because conditions for the development of relationships where there is give and take are absent. Activities which can be a means of developing a relationship and an opportunity for children to experience a sense of achievement are also more difficult to sustain. How frustrating for a child who has to wait until a member of staff comes back "on duty" at the right time to continue a particular interest together. An adult can take up or put down an activity at will, as when attending an evening class, but a child is more volatile, the interest quickly evaporates unless the supply of attention is maintained.
Of course, children learn to survive in whatever circumstances they find themselves, but often in ways that are far from conducive to their healthy development. What they learn is to exploit the weaknesses of adults, to get what satisfaction they can from them, where they can and using any means at their disposal. Where there are such discontinuities and inconsistencies of approach we should not be surprised if the children reject or manipulate what is being offered, or indeed be given to displays of uncontrolled anger.
Surely residential workers cannot find satisfaction in this situation? Like the children, they must become confused, muddling through from one duty period to the next. The conditions have been created which, potentially, provide a richer source of relationships and variety of experiences for children in care. It is evident that in some units progress is being made towards creating a consistent, caring environment, even though working practices and numerous other problems make this very difficult. But in others it seems that staff. through no fault of their own, have given up trying.
This feature: Douglas, R. and Payne, C. (1981) Alarm bells for the clock-on philosophy. Social Work Today, 12 (23). Reprinted as Residential Care and the Industrial Model in Payne, C. and White, C. The Best of In Residence Vol. 2. London: Social Work Today/ Residential Care Ass. pp. 110-111