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Unravelling the Dedication Dilemma in Aged Care Leadership

Synonymous with aged care, constant commitment and dedication of our leaders is seen as a virtue. Managers and leaders in this sector are renowned for their unwavering commitment and high work ethic. However, this admirable trait often becomes a double-edged sword, leading to challenges that ripple through the lives of individuals and the culture of organisations. This blog delves into the complexities of leadership dedication in aged care, exploring its impacts and seeking a path towards sustainable commitment.

The High Cost of High Work Ethic

Aged care leaders are in a unique position, balancing the needs of their clients, their teams, and the demands of regulatory bodies. Their high work ethic, while crucial for navigating this challenging landscape, often comes with significant personal and professional costs.

  • Boundary Blur: Many aged care managers and leaders find it difficult to establish and maintain healthy work-life boundaries. The nature of their roles, steeped in responsibility and care, makes it challenging to step away, resulting in a cycle of continuous work without adequate rest.
  • The Myth of No Breaks: The reluctance to take breaks, holidays, or even adequate daily rest is prevalent. This is partly cultural, with a belief that taking time off could compromise the quality of care, but also a sentiment that ‘no one else is capable of managing responsibilities of the person taking leave’, certainly not adequately, or impending compliance / accreditation obligations. Perhaps people might believe if you take a break it indicates a lack of dedication.
  • Burnout and its Fallout: The inevitable result of this non-stop work culture is burnout. Manifesting as physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, burnout not only diminishes an individual’s capacity to provide appropriate leadership,  but also impacts their personal well-being and the overall morale of their team. I have experienced this personally myself this year. 

Culture at a Crossroads

The culture within aged care organisations plays a pivotal role in either exacerbating or alleviating the pressures faced by leaders. A culture that prizes relentless work without recognising the signs of burnout contributes to a troubling cycle.

  • Skin in the Game: A common phrase in aged care leadership, indicating a deep personal investment in the organisation’s success and the well-being of its clients. While this commitment is invaluable, too much skin in the game without adequate support and respite can lead to detrimental effects for both leaders and the teams they manage.
  • Rethinking Dedication: It’s time to redefine what dedication means in aged care leadership. True dedication should encompass not only the commitment to one’s work and clients but also to one’s own well-being and the health of the organisation’s culture.
  • Monkey see monkey do: Leaders and managers in aged care who choose not to set the example of appropriate ‘time outs’ are setting their team up to fail. Monkey see monkey do – aged care leaders need to lead by example – practice what they preach also.

The Ripple Effect of Leadership Burnout

The consequences of leadership burnout extend beyond the individuals directly affected.

  • Impact on Employees: Leaders who are burned out cannot effectively support their teams, leading to increased stress, lower job satisfaction, and higher turnover rates among staff.
  • Impact on Employers: The organisational cost of burnout includes decreased productivity, higher absenteeism, and increased recruitment expenses because of staff turnover. Furthermore, the quality of care provided can suffer, potentially impacting the organisation’s reputation and financial stability.
  • A Sector-Wide Concern: In the broader aged care sector, the pervasive issue of leadership burnout can deter talented individuals from pursuing or continuing careers in this field, exacerbating the existing talent shortage.

Pathways to Sustainable Commitment

Addressing the issue of burnout and unsustainable work practices in aged care leadership requires a multifaceted approach.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

  • Educate on Importance: Organisations should provide training and resources to help leaders understand the importance of work-life balance and the practical steps to achieving it.
  • Policy Support: Implementing policies that encourage taking regular breaks, vacations, and mental health days can reinforce the message that rest is not only allowed but encouraged.

Building a Supportive Culture

Appropriate Governance:

  • Recognition and Resources: Creating a culture that recognises the signs of burnout and provides resources for support can help prevent it. This includes access to counselling services, peer support groups, and wellness programs.
  • Redefining Dedication: Encourage a culture that views dedication not just as hours worked but as the quality of care provided, innovation, and the ability to lead a balanced life.

Strategic Staffing and Workload Management

Employing contractors to fill a void:

  • Adequate Staffing: Ensuring there are enough staff to share the workload can alleviate the pressure on individual leaders.
  • Flexible Work Arrangements: Adopting flexible work practices can help staff manage their personal and professional responsibilities more effectively, reducing stress and preventing burnout. We’ve been working with a Sydney based client and their CEO is a big believer in flexible workplace arrangements for her leadership team, including hot desking from their facilities and also working from either home or their corporate offices. They understand people’s personal life commitments and also that people can provide suitable output and meet KPI’s.
  • Succession planning: people to step up when the leaders need a break.

Leadership Development and Support

  • Continuous Education: Offer ongoing leadership development programs that include modules on self-care, resilience, and emotional intelligence.
  • Mentorship and Coaching: Providing access to mentorship and coaching can help leaders navigate the challenges of their roles more effectively, offering them strategies to manage stress and prevent burnout.

Conclusion: A Call to Action

The dedication of aged care leaders is a cornerstone of quality care. However, when this dedication leads to burnout, the costs are high, affecting individuals, teams, and the sector as a whole. By re-evaluating the culture around work ethic, establishing support systems, and redefining what dedication means in this context, aged care organisations can help ensure that their leaders can sustain their commitment without paying the price of their well-being.

It’s a collective effort that requires not just individual changes but a sector-wide commitment to transforming how work is approached and valued. Aged care, at its heart, is about caring — not just for the external ‘customer’ but for internal customers, the staff and everyone involved in providing that care. By fostering an environment that equally values the health of its leaders and the quality of care they provide, organisations in aged care can pave the way for a more resilient, effective, and compassionate sector.

As we move forward, let this be a call to action for aged care organisations, policymakers, and the community at large. It’s time to shift the narrative from one of endless sacrifice to one of balanced dedication. In doing so, organisations not only protect and support our current leaders but also inspire the next generation of leaders to step forward, knowing that their dedication to aged care will not come at the cost of their health and happiness.

I wonder how aged care organisations can effectively measure the success of their efforts in promoting work-life balance and preventing burnout among their leaders?