Social care network: leadership, learning and development hub Balloon buddies and cycle rides: the care staff getting active at work

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By Alannah Francis

Making healthy choices can be tricky for some care workers, but activities with clients help incorporate exercise into a shift

Emma Chick is passionate about helping her team maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. As head of caregiver experience at Home Instead in Maidstone, she compares the office to a base camp for the 30 staff who spend most of their shifts delivering domiciliary care.

“We’re a place our caregivers can come to if they need us – if they want a coffee [or] if they want a chat,” says Chick.

The office kitchen has the usual coffee, cake and biscuits – but it also has fresh fruit, herbal teas and a smoothie maker. Employees can use the fridges, cupboards and freezers to store nutritious snacks and meals, which they can heat in the microwave.

The range of facilities enables staff to make healthier eating choices during their shifts, something adult social care staff – especially domiciliary care workers – often struggle with due to the nature of their work.

A recent study revealed that 39.1% of unregistered care workers – such as nursing auxiliaries and assistants, care assistants and workers, and home carers – are obese, compared with 25.1% of nurses, 14.4% of other healthcare professionals and 23.5% of the general public. While the research by Edinburgh Napier and London South Bank universities doesn’t expand on the reasons why these care workers are at higher risk, its authors have some ideas.

Aspects of the work environment can make it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle, says Jane Wills, co-author of the study and professor of health promotion at London South Bank University. These include shift work, a lack of breaks and poor access to healthy food during working hours.

Ann Soden, a care assistant at Barchester Healthcare in Southport, says her 8am to 8pm shifts mean she can’t attend external exercise classes on the days she works. But thanks to the home’s regular yoga classes for residents and staff, she can fit physical activity into her working day.

Alex Petersen, head of activities at Lucerne House in Exeter, another Barchester care home, says staff are invited to join the residents’ exercise sessions, ranging from seated workouts to balloon buddies – a game where participants bat a balloon around the room.

“The staff are in the middle of a massive circle of residents and you can see the sweat dripping off them – they’re really getting a good workout,” says Petersen.

Getting care workers to take part in activities with residents helps them integrate exercise into their shifts, but this can be trickier for homecare workers because they spend less time in one place. Home Instead’s minimum call-out time is one hour, which gives care workers time to do some exercise with their clients – and cook and eat a nutritious meal with them too.

“We encourage our caregivers to take clients out if they’re able [to],” says Chick. “It’s not just for the clients – our caregivers can incorporate a healthy life for themselves so everyone can benefit from it.”

Chick describes Mark Craig, the owner of Home Instead in Maidstone, as the office’s health guru. He pays for staff to join Perkbox, a subscription service that gives them access to resources on wellness and healthy eating, and discounts on membership at major UK gyms and Halfords – giving them an incentive to cycle to work.

“We’re offering our caregivers as many resources as possible to keep them living a healthy life,” says Chick, who has also created a health and wellness booklet for staff.

The approach seems to be working. Last year Home Instead won a Kent Healthy Business award, the office facilities are popular with staff and Chick says the branch has a high staff retention rate.

Sally Bradford, a Home Instead caregiver, says her employer’s regular workshops on wellbeing have had a massive impact.

“To sit down with a group of people and talk through lifestyle and healthy living does inspire you to make a few changes,” she says.

Barchester, which plans to introduce a cycle-to-work scheme this year, is also keen to inspire staff to maintain active lives, and supports their sponsored fitness challenges.

Last July, Soden completed a 1,000-mile cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats to raise money for Barchester’s Charitable Foundation. Two years ago, Petersen took part in a sponsored walk to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society, along with some colleagues, a resident who used a wheelchair and her husband.

The walk has become an annual event for staff. Encouraging healthy lifestyles among employees is important, says Petersen, because it enables them to practise what they preach to those they care for.

“It improves energy and morale. The endorphins released are second to none,” he says. “It creates a healthy environment that our staff are working in and encourages them to pass that on to our residents.”

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