De Berkjes, Belgium: redeployment, training and development
De Berkjes is an observation and therapeutic centre for children and adolescents with severe psychological problems, located in Bruges. The centre has two units, one for young children (aged three to 14) and one for adolescents (aged 12 to 18). There are 60 beds available, 44 beds for children and 16 beds for adolescents. The children are divided into different communities and each community is looked after by permanent staff members.
Altogether, 60 people are employed in the centre (51 full-time equivalents). Nine employees are aged 50 years and over and 25% of staff members are over 45 years of age. Two-thirds of the staff are women and the turnover rate is low.
While part-time work is permitted, it is not always possible to find a part-time job for employees who want to work part time. Because of the importance of continuity of care for the young residents, all caretaker staff need to work different shifts, including the night shift, and most staff members who work directly with the children work full time.
Staff members are informally updated about and involved in different organisational matters. Problems and solutions concerning health and safety issues and work organisation are discussed in the CPWB (committee on prevention and safety at the workplace).
The original initiative
De Berkjes began to experience difficulties between younger and older staff members, for example, in handling behavioural problems. Sometimes, older tutors were blamed by their younger colleagues for causing the problems, and younger colleagues often found it difficult to accept the opinion of older employees, which was often based on experience and not on educated knowledge. As the job can be stressful for older employees and conflicts impact greatly on this group, it was decided to pay special attention to employees (mostly tutors) aged 40 years and above. These were intensively coached by their group leader, who held a daily coaching interview with all staff members, at which the specific troubles and concerns of older staff members were highlighted. Understanding was shown to the often difficult situation of older staff members. In these interviews, they were given extra support and appreciation by the group leader.
A collective agreement for the sector stipulated that from 1 January 2002, additional paid leave was to be granted to employees older than 45 years of age, which would be compensated for by employee replacement. Arising from the introduction of these so-called ‘rimpeldagen’ (wrinkle days), an increase in the number of staff members was possible. Although this new agreement required more organisational planning efforts on De Berkjes’ part, it benefited the well-being of older staff members.
Following the new recruitment drive, there was an intake of younger staff members. As the gap between younger and older employees has widened over the years, coaching of the tutors by the group leader has been necessary on a continual basis over the last decade.
Good practice today
Work in De Berkjes is very demanding because of the nature of the work: caring for young children with severe psychological problems. The aim of the new ‘wrinkle days’ agreement was to relieve the physical and emotional strains of the job on ageing carers. Today, there are approximately four tutors, instead of three, assigned per team, which has made it possible to reorganise the different shifts. Currently, it is usually possible for older tutors to be relieved from the hardest shifts or the heaviest tasks, e.g. physically intense play.
As the extra time off for older staff members is not always easy to organise, it is preferred that the extra days off are taken during quieter periods.
Most of the staff members work full time. This is desirable from an organisational perspective because of the need for continuity of care for the children. Therefore, while some employees, especially older staff members, sometimes want to work part time, requests for part-time work are not always granted because it can be difficult to find a suitable solution. Some ageing tutors do work part time, and this can necessitate a change of job, e.g. one of the older tutors only works at weekends and during school holidays (when most of the children are at home).
Because of the ‘wrinkle days’ provision, older staff members can take more days off. For example, older staff members sometimes find it difficult to work night shifts. Although it is not possible for the organisation to relieve older personnel permanently from these night shifts, the extra days off can be planned during the hardest night shifts.
Regular coaching – both team coaching and individual coaching – is still a common practice in De Berkjes. As already mentioned, the generation gap has widened throughout the years and because of recent developments in training programmes, younger employees tend to work according to a different approach and using different paedagogical methods than their older colleagues. Sometimes, the incongruity between academic knowledge and knowledge gained through experience causes conflicts between younger and older, experienced staff members. On a positive note, the differences in approach also represent an opportunity for employees to learn from each other and to exchange experiences. Topics such as these are discussed during the weekly team meetings and the atmosphere during the meetings is generally very good, as most staff members treat them as a learning experience.
Individual coaching occurs in an informal manner. Young tutors are closely monitored and guided, and all staff members have an individual talk with their supervisor every three weeks. During this talk, all topics concerning work are open for discussion. The experience is that it has become more difficult to coach new, young employees, a reality which is attributable not only to the growing generation gap, but also to the fact that young people are more self-confident.
Due to the close guidance and coaching of employees, the turnover rate at De Berkjes is relatively low, even though the work is physically and emotionally difficult. Interestingly, the employees who do drop out are mostly young people. After three or four years, however, people tend to remain working at De Berkjes and are usually highly motivated and engaged.
Because of a sectoral agreement, it is possible for staff members to avail of a part-time bridging pension at the age of 56 years and a full-time bridging pension at the age of 58 years. However, the experience is that no one makes use of their right to a part-time bridging pension at the age of 56 years. Part-time work is not common at De Berkjes, which is one of the reasons why few employees request a part-time bridging pension. Most staff members retire at the age of 58 years, though some tutors are willing to stay on beyond this age because they are committed to the job and to the children.
Staff members are informed about management decisions. The hierarchical organisational structure is flat, with close and informal contact between management and staff members. In issues concerning working conditions and health and safety, staff members can participate in decision-making through the committee for prevention and protection at the workplace.
Contact person: Pierre Gantois, General manager