Case study: Halving staff turnover at Aspirations Support Bristol

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How caring for staff helped transform the care home provider's retention issues

The organisation

Aspirations Support Bristol is a care provider for people with learning difficulties or mental health issues. Founded almost a decade ago with two houses in Bristol, it has now expanded to 15 supported living houses and a day service. Aspirations employs around 130 staff, with support staff making up roughly 80% of the workforce.

The problem

Staff retention is notoriously challenging in the care sector, with recent estimates from Skills for Care placing turnover of directly-employed staff working in adult social care at 27.8%. Low pay, long hours and demanding work all contribute. And this was no different at Aspirations.

Having shifted into specialising in the highly pressurised area of supporting adults with mental health issues, the organisation saw its turnover reach 38.7% in 2015 – much higher than the industry average. This presented a worrying picture and pointed to a wider concern that staff weren’t feeling valued.

“These are frontline workers so, while turnover of this level is never positive in any part of any business, among workers providing this type of frontline support it’s a particular worry,” says The HR Dept’s HR manager Ryan Gay.

“It’s all about continuity on the ground,” adds Aspirations’ director of services Colin Ivey. “If we can keep turnover low then continuity goes up and consistency is maintained for the individuals being cared for, which is really important.”

As Ivey points out, there was clearly more at stake than just the retention of staff.

The method

Aspirations does not have an internal HR function and so The HR Dept’s Gay was brought on board for a fixed period of around three years to work with Ivey on tackling the issue.

The first step in the wider goal of reducing turnover was to identify the root causes behind the figures.

Gay rolled out a staff survey and established an open-door policy at the top of the organisation to gather feedback from employees.

“A big learning in itself came from the low response to the engagement survey, which told us that the culture wasn’t good,” he explains, adding that they also gathered informal, qualitative data from general conversations with staff and observations from management. “We knew turnover was a problem, but I think it became clear that it was a bigger issue than we’d probably first considered.”

What came to light was that some management practices weren’t geared towards valuing, supporting and developing staff.

“We had a very casual approach to supporting staff,” admits Ivey. “Some staff were put on a pedestal while others were not developed and supported enough.”

To turn this around, Gay and Ivey built a plan focused on two strands: developing a new culture and improving staffing systems.

Underpinning this cultural change was a drive to increase engagement and create a ‘no blame’ environment of positive and effective communication. It was here that an overhaul of the existing workplace structure was required.

“We looked at the structure of support staff and found there were too many senior care managers,” says Gay.

“So we changed the model of management; removing some roles and introducing middle managers who are more specialised and manage fewer staff.” Gay explains that, with managers having specialisms and fewer reports, they could increase engagement and create a sense of ownership among teams. This would also allow for more focused meetings between employees.

The result was a structure with various layers of leaders that is “a world away from the structure before” and means staff of all levels have opportunities to progress.

This then fed into the other key strand of creating fairer and more professional systems for staff.

“Once we’d decided on this new structure we then introduced training and robust recruitment to get people into the right roles,” says Ivey. “The structure has given people clear identifiable levels of development.”

Staff had complained that, in the past, promotion opportunities came about through little more than “cherry-picking” people. So fair robust criteria were developed, creating clear pathways for career progression.

“Before things were a bit random and people were making knee-jerk reactions on the ground,” says Ivey. “We had to create a clear path of what is expected of people and then support them through the processes.”

More effective staff support, disciplinary systems and incentives were also rolled out. As Ivey points out, it was all about “cement[ing] our changing culture with practical measures on the ground”.

The result

Proof that Aspirations is winning over its staff can be seen in the figures. In just two years staff turnover more than halved, falling from 38.7% in 2015 to 18.5% in 2017, and with figures as low as 13% in early 2018, all of which stands well below the industry average.

While staff turnover marks the biggest game-changer, Ivey also points to a marked change in atmosphere. “Different groups and people across the different structural layers now talk to each other more and there’s greater trust between us all,” he says.

“As we’ve become more transparent and open it makes it easier to turn things into an opportunity for everyone to grow.”

The organisation is now also better able to identify the right staff for promotions or training needs. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to take the foot off the pedal.

As Gay explains: “The big change has been that the company now stops and listens to staff and it needs to continue to listen to staff so it can improve things in the future.

“It’s about not standing still but continuing to move forwards in a positive way to tweak the staff structure as and when it’s needed, so staff can provide the level of care needed.”

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