- 25 February 2022
- 15 min read
Optimism Against The Odds: In Conversation With A Care WorkerSubscribe To Advice
- Mat Martin
- Richard Gill
- Laura Bosworth
- Sheri Gordon
- Julia Orege
- Nikki Goodhew
- Aubrey Hollebon
(Before I begin this piece, I would like to give a special thanks to Harry. He invited me into his home and gave a stark and visceral account of life as a Care Worker).
As he welcomes me into his home, the warm eyes and generous handshake do their best to belie the relentless confidence lurking under the exterior of Harry Hembrough, but after less than five minutes of chatting, there is no denying it.
“I do love it” he remarks, smiling off into the distance and looking a little lost in his own thoughts. This punctuating moment of vulnerability was rare during our hour together; most of the time, there was an efficient, almost hypnotic rhythm to his personality. Unwavering pragmatism, admirable kindness and resolute devotion seemed to underpin everything that he said.
Harry is a Care Worker. A role that requires, so far as I can see, the confidence of a Fighter Pilot, the grit of a Police Officer, the compassion of a Nurse and the same amount of limbs as an Octopus.
The job that he is doing faces much adversity and the country is currently feeling the effects of a Nationwide crisis. The negative factors seem to be coming from outside the tent, though, as opposed to the job itself. Poor wages, inhuman working hours, and a general feeling of under appreciation seem to be driving people away from the profession. For Harry, though, implacable optimism seems to precede everything; he is relatively at peace with the issues that he faces and just wants to help.
The eighteen-year-old accredits much of his passion for the job to his clients and is very quick to mention how rewarding that is for him. The simplicities of making cups of tea, helping somebody get around their house or even just supplying a friendly chit chat genuinely seem to light up his expression.
To some, it isn’t the intense pressure of Nursing in an A&E Ward, but Harry is introspective enough to understand the impact he has by doing seemingly trivial things.
Harry first thought about working in Care thanks to his previous role in a Care Home making tea (it really is a theme) and working in the kitchen. He was doing this alongside another job in a restaurant, where the mundanity was getting the better of him.
He says that during his tea round in the Care Home, he was able to have interaction with the clients and this led to his desire to apply for the job he currently has. The empathy for his clients, even back when he was making tea, is palpable and helps me understand why a restaurant job was never going to be enough. As well as his job, Harry is studying in college and it’s clear that keeping busy is important for him.
Nowadays, Harry is settled in his part time job as a Care Worker and is happy with the leap he decided to take. The responsibility doesn’t negatively impact him, and it shows that where others might see challenges, he sees opportunities. “Being able to go into people’s homes, walk out at the end of the night and know that if you didn’t come, they wouldn’t have got into bed is so rewarding.”
The diversity of the role seems to really excite him, too. In a single day, the array of clients and ways to help is truly staggering. He tells me that his responsibilities can vary from personal care (helping somebody wash, or cook), to welfare checks and sometimes even checking that parents with children are coping okay. This means that during the course of a shift, Harry can go from helping an elderly person, making sure that they are remembering to eat, to assisting people that have been in accidents.
It wasn’t unfeeling when Harry spoke about this patient, his face was visibly etched with sympathy, but you got the impression that his biggest concern was how to assist this man, in a practical sense.
Almost immediately, he begins to talk about how he has been trained to use a system of braces to assist this client in getting up and I can’t help but wish that I was a bit more like Harry.
There is an overwhelming sense of calm and diligence as we speak, he canters through events that might make others squirm as if it were a normal Tuesday afternoon for him and I am forced to catch myself and remember that it usually is.
We move onto more of the experiences that Harry has found rewarding and he speaks fondly of the multi-disciplinary side of his work. “You’re working alongside Ambulance Crews, District Nurses and well-trained professionals. And you’re right beside them. If something happens, you just get stuck in.”
The phrase “get stuck in” sat with me for a moment, not in an overly morbid sense but the consistency with which I was reminded how much is put on Care Workers lingers.
More and more, Harry’s admirable, yet slightly unsettling attitude towards stress and pressure plays on my mind. The product of a system that has shaped him and arguably isn’t looking after him, I begin to see more of a Soldier than a Carer.
“I did look at maybe training to be a Paramedic but it’s not for me.” Harry speaks about the stresses of such a role and laughs a little as he ponders what his future might have looked like as a Paramedic.
Ultimately, I am struck by just how much respect Harry has for his colleagues and the jobs that they are doing. He looks at situations like an opportunity to interact with amazing people and that really sticks in your mind.
We talk about training and Harry has mixed opinions on where the industry is with it. “I think training is lacking a little bit. Practical training is not required, all the training I’ve had has been online.” He smiles and talks about how such training didn’t really benefit him as much as something more hands on would have.
It doesn’t matter, though. To Harry, it seems, training on the job is not an issue. He speaks further about how there is no practical first aid training given and ponders how much better he would feel if it was.
“You’re way more likely to be in a situation where it’s needed in a job like mine, but the (practical) training isn’t there. I can’t believe it isn’t mandatory, to be honest.”
As he speaks to me about cases where he went to houses as a seventeen-year-old with a senior colleague who had only been doing the job a few months, I find no flicker of doubt cross his face. He isn’t fazed by the memories of learning on the job, it just seems to excite him.
The opportunity to learn something, to experience something new flicks a switch. With this in mind, he pivots on an axis and looks me dead in the eye. “It’s completely eye opening, though. I went to one gent’s house; he was only in his fifties, and he had completely neglected himself. One day, I arrived, and he said that he had drunk near enough a whole bottle of Oramorph.” The man in question was fine and Harry is quick to point that out.
It amazes me that these experiences seem to fascinate Harry, more than scare him. And coming out the other side only seems to imbue him with pride in his achievements. This unmoving sense of excitement is infectious, and I can’t help but feel happy just listening to him talk about his experiences with such enthusiasm and compassion.
“I met a gentleman whose wife has Dementia, and he loves her so much that he will never leave the house… And if he does, he will go on a five- or ten-minute walk. He’s going somewhere in a couple of weekends’ time and that will be the first time that he’s gone anywhere properly since the start of the pandemic.”
He visibly smiles as he considers this man, clearly revelling in the idea that he can provide something for somebody that might help relieve the stress they’re experiencing, if only temporarily.
We move onto pay and Harry is candid in his approach. He tells me that he earns either £10, or £10.50 an hour, depending on whether he is working at the weekend or not (excluding expenses) but also cites pay as a possible contributory factor in a lack of staff retention.
This comment was all too ominous and the fact that Harry was quick to mention it told me that it must be present in the minds of a lot of Carers. But he is quick to point out how lucky he is that he only does this as a part-time job. Aside from running his car, his expenses are minimal but that isn’t the story for a lot of people.
He thoughtfully posits the idea of being a single mum, or anybody with more responsibilities and suggests it as a potential reason for stress. “Imagine the stress of the job already and then not getting paid enough”, he says, clearly thinking about colleagues and their experiences.
When I ask about other reasons for bad staff retention, he says that a consistent decline in time with clients could make people feel like they haven’t done a very good job. “How could you?” he says, clearly a little exasperated by that side of his job. “I’ve had several instances when I’ve been asked to travel fifteen minutes but been given five minutes.”
We talk about burnout and while Harry will not admit that he has suffered massively himself, it’s clear that it’s something he’s witnessed. Hearing this made me feel for an entire industry of people trying to do high pressure work for little reward. And it’s scary to think that the pressure only seems to grow, and the rewards diminish.
Harry also points out that these pressures are impacting clients, too. He talks about “Business Contingency Plans” and how these result in visits being cut for many. “For some people, their visits can’t be cut but they’re cut anyway.” This is a consistent worry for Carers and it seems that only having time to do the bare minimum is all too regular.
A topic then comes up which I had to confess, I had no idea about and that is the stigma attached to Care Workers.
It troubled me to find out that Harry himself had felt looked down upon and I wondered why, considering the fact that age comes to all of us, people would look down on somebody who may one day be performing tasks about their person that most of us wouldn’t even consider.
Harry then points out the other side of the coin, making it clear that so many people are grateful for what he does and show their appreciation effusively. We laugh as he tells the story of one lady with reduced vocabulary, who regularly waves to him as he leaves and says, “Thank you.” We joke that there are worse things for her to be able to say.
I ask about the difficulties for some family members in letting go of control of the care for their loved ones. He tells the tale of a husband who is struggling to come to terms with the equipment permanently in the house to assist his wife and how situations like these can cause physical confrontation.
“You just have to think and put yourself in other people’s shoes” he says. “If somebody is being a little bit challenging, you just have to step back and think “How would I feel?” I find this attitude admirable, and we laugh that in any other circumstance, some of the abuse he gets regularly could be seen as offensive, but Harry is caring before anything else and tries to understand.
This instinctive desire to empathise with his clients cannot be taught and again reminds me just how much Harry has to offer.
Next, we chat about loss. Harry speaks about losing clients and how he copes with these situations.
However, he does say that it’s easier now than when he first started and also says that the advice is not to form bonds with people. That is, however, very difficult and Harry clearly still gets affected by loss.
“Sometimes it’s important just to take fifteen minutes and chill out, if you can” he says. It’s important to focus on the positives, though and throughout our time together, it becomes clear that this is what Harry wants most.
“It really humbles you. It makes you feel quite lucky’ he says with a grin as we chat about other clients. It’s obvious that the positives really stick with Harry and that he really does appreciate every interaction, however small it might be.
As we talk about Clients with Dementia, he jokes that he sometimes just agrees. “I find that I just tend to agree with people sometimes” he says, smiling at the floor. I get the distinct impression that he remembers everybody and appreciates them, as much as I’m sure they appreciate him.
Despite all these experiences, though, Harry is adamant that Care will not be a long-term career for him. His future, it seems, will be on the sea. A long-term ambition to work on Super Yachts will deprive the Care industry of Harry.
Which I can’t help feeling a little bit sad about, to be honest. Obviously, a career Captaining Yachts is not to be sneezed at and you cannot begrudge somebody pursuing a life-long dream, but I really do feel that the Care Industry will have lost a valuable asset.
Somehow, the idea of having a Harry to look after me when I am approaching the inevitable seemed comforting and reassuring. Harry will not forget his time working in Care, though, and he is sure that the interaction skills he has learnt from his role will stay with him as he moves into the next phase of his life.
He remarks that learning to talk to a multitude of different people, in a lot of different scenarios is one of the most transferable skills he has learned during his time as a Carer.
You know, I wasn’t sure how to write this piece. As I left Harry’s house and made my way home, I felt a little bit daunted by the prospect of putting the experience into words. This exceptional person, only a year past being a child had both renewed my faith in the Care Industry but also made me worry about the prospect of not having enough Harrys to keep us afloat.
Talking to him was a humbling moment and I want to leave you with some of his own words:
This, I think, sums up the essence of what life means, not just for Harry but most Carers. Their relentless pursuit of making a positive impact on somebody’s life is remarkable and that’s what I hope you can take from this piece.
In the ubiquitous media coverage, there is only ever a lament. Whether it be to the challenges Carers face, or to some isolated incident that is by no means representative of most Carers.
To the people that do the job, though, for those who put others first, their devotion is absolute and unwavering. This undeniable bravery is admirable in the utmost and in my experience, all they want to do is share the positivity and beauty that comes as part of the job.