Materia, Cyprus: Recruitment/Training and development
At Materia, high-quality residential and home support care for older people is achieved by recruiting staff of mixed ages, ensuring systematic training for all staff and valuing the specific contribution older care workers can make in dealing with older clients.
Materia is a limited company that runs a senior residential unit, a day care centre and a Help at Home service. It is located 8 kilometres outside the capital city of Lefkosia (Nicosia). The company employs 30 people in the residential unit: 4 men (2 certified nurses, 1 administrator and 1 carer) and 26 women (2 are certified nurses with third-level education, while the others are carers with practical experience or cooks). Five of the staff are over 50 years of age. The Help at Home service, which began in 2000 and was then incorporated into the company’s other activities, employs a further 10 people, 4 of whom are aged 50+. Overall, 3 members of staff are aged over 60. Half (50%) of those doing the care work are people who have completed upper secondary school, while the remainder is equally divided between those who finished primary school only and those who completed lower secondary school. Specialist staff (e.g. physiotherapists, hairdressers and doctors) are used regularly on a contract basis. Nearly all staff are Cypriot in origin.
The aim of Materia's HR policy is to retain workers and also to ensure a balance of ages. Older workers are highly valued as experienced people who are able to mix socially with the older clients. The initial high staff turnover reflected the desire of the Director to obtain the best possible staff. Training and counselling are a key part of ensuring high-quality staff. There is no works council, although there are regular opportunities for feedback and discussions between the staff and Director.
Good practice today
The present Director, a trained gerontologist, started a Help at Home service as a private venture some years ago and was then offered the chance to develop the senior residential unit by a private company. She supervised all stages of the building, which was designed especially for older people, and the running of the company, and is a small shareholder. The residential unit has a capacity of 60 beds, with 40 beds currently occupied (many clients prefer not to share a room). Among the residents are people who stay for a limited period only while undergoing rehabilitation. The services provided are mainly for those with the ability to pay, although some financial help can be obtained from the government.
Materia also runs a Help at Home service, currently serving 26 people, plus a day care centre within the residential unit, serving a variable number of attendees (on average, 5-6 per day).
In general, hiring people to work in the care sector is difficult, even though wages are higher than in the retail sector. There are several reasons for this: caring is seen as a blue-collar job, it is concerned with personal hygiene and it is associated with more generalised negative attitudes towards the old, as well as sickness and death. Furthermore, care workers (disproportionately women) are not well organised in trade unions and there is little professional identity (generally, anyone who wants to do the work can take it up).
Attempts are being made to raise the standards of qualification for care workers, with a new law stating that they should have completed 3 years of lower secondary school. However, those with 7-10 years of experience as carers may remain employed and have their practical experience acknowledged by the Ministry, thus ensuring that older workers do not become excluded by a lack of educational qualifications. As yet, there is no national diploma for professional carers and currently employers have to be proactive in trying to ensure the work is given recognition, a matter not only of salary but also of incentives (e.g. bonus systems for productivity).
One example used in this company's case is feedback from clients. Recently, a carer saved a client’s life through her knowledge of first aid and this was recognised at the monthly meeting, with a bonus being given to the carer in question. The company runs staff seminars and awards staff certificates. This is important for older workers, who rarely have any professional or academic certificates, since it gives them a sense of their value to the company and to clients.
There is regular evaluation of work performance and problems or issues arising in the work. All staff are valued for their contribution of ideas to make their tasks easier or the clients happier. This has resulted in learning in the organisation and flexibility, and allows older workers to use their experience to improve performance in the company. It has also allowed redeployment of staff to jobs they prefer. Clients (or their children since they are the primary carers for their older family members) are asked to complete an evaluation questionnaire every six months and this is acknowledged by the staff.
Older workers are much valued and are seen as being essential to the positive atmosphere in the residential unit. Being closer in age to the clients, older workers can share many common memories, perspectives and understandings with older clients and thus help to provide a sympathetic and family atmosphere. The intergenerational mix among the staff is seen as a bonus, with younger employees having a different relationship with the older clients (e.g. more like their children or grandchildren).
From the start of the Help at Home project and subsequently the residential unit, recruitment policy has focused on personal qualities and individual capacities. This has meant that older applicants are viewed positively and hired if appropriate in terms of their attitudes and experiences.
Since 2005, 4 of the 10 people originally hired are still working for the company, with the remainder leaving on the basis of a decision by the Director. It was felt that in such a personal service organisation, the retention of someone who is inappropriate (e.g. steals, speaks badly of clients or other staff, or does their work badly) can ruin the atmosphere and reputation of the home or service. If training and retraining do not improve the situation, then they have to be asked to leave. This is not age-related. The company will continue to hire without reference to age.
Training is a priority for the Director and the company. Specialists, such as doctors or physiotherapists, are brought in to teach the staff. A lot of role play is involved and hands-on learning, which can be acquired by all educational levels of staff, including older and less educated members.
The company is currently considering how to develop its Help at Home service – in particular, investment is needed in the area of transport since the public transport system is inadequate.
In general, geriatric services in Cyprus are not of a high standard. Materia puts the emphasis on good service, which it wishes to be the hallmark of the organisation.
Contact: Marina Polycarpou, Director