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In this guide, we discuss exactly what to consider, and how to succeed when looking at a career as a Support Worker.
13th September 2013
Updated by Miryam Clough 21st December 2017
So you're thinking about getting a Support Worker Job?
With an ageing population, increasing rates of dementia, and over 11 million people in the UK living with a limiting long-term illness, impairment, or disability, the demand for support workers is high.
This means that support work is readily available, and new staff are often taken on without prior training or experience.
If you are new to support work, but the idea of it appeals to you, there are a number of things you should consider before looking for work.
What Qualifications Do I Need?
Your employability relies much more on your personality than your ability at school. We've even found job listings that don't mention qualifications at all; they just want the right kind of person.
However, many job listings will mention NVQs in Care.
If you're looking at an entry-level job, they may talk about an NVQ2 in care.
If you're looking for anything more senior, they'll mention an NVQ3.
Generally, they don't mind whether you have one or not, but you must be willing to work towards one.
Getting an NVQ on the job is simple, and you usually get around a year to complete them. You don't need to be academic for these as all they require is evidence of your skills.
If you're in a position where you can attend college, you can do your NVQs there. This will give you plenty of time to really understand what's needed of you.
The downside is that you get less practical experience, but it does give you more time to become really good at what you want to do.
Skills And Training
A lot of people go into care work without prior experience, and, given the shortage of care staff, don’t be surprised if you are thrown in at the deep end. You should also expect to receive adequate training and will be required to complete the Care Certificate.
This covers a set of standards that social care and health workers are expected to adhere to, and that should be covered as part of the induction training of new care workers in CQC regulated organisations.
The Care Certificate was developed jointly by Skills for Care,
Health Education England, and Skills for Health, and introduced in 2015. It applies across health and social care and links to National Occupational Standards.
It will give you a basis on which to develop your knowledge and skills. It covers the following areas:
Because a lot of the practical tasks are personal or domestic, you’ll soon pick them up.
Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re not sure. You are responsible for other people’s safety and well-being, so it is best to get help if you need it.
The most important skill is your ability to communicate with the individuals you are caring for, and they will often be able to tell you how they like things done. Don’t make assumptions. Everyone is different, and getting small touches right (where you put someone’s glasses or walking stick at night, how many pillows they like or which radio station they prefer) can make a huge difference to that person’s sense of safety, comfort and wellbeing.
If they can’t tell you clearly how they like things, ask their family. The more familiar their routine and environment, the less confusion and distress they’ll experience.
Remember it is your relationship with that person that is the most important thing. If they trust you, they will feel secure and cared for, so prioritise getting to know them.
Your organisation should also provide ongoing training and supervision. Make sure you access this and reflect regularly on your work performance and your own wellbeing to identify areas where you need support.
Do You Care About People?
Do you really care about people? Or do you just need a job?
The need to find employment is legitimate and essential, and I in no way want to downplay or undervalue this. If your primary motive in considering a job in care is financial, I would urge you to first think seriously about your personal and social qualities, your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, and your support systems and resources.
Caring is not for everyone. If you aren't really drawn to it, for your own sake and that of potential clients, don’t do it. Look for something more suited to your personality and skills.
As a support worker, I see my role fundamentally as someone who cares. Yes, my job is to support people to live their lives as independently as possible in their given circumstances, and this often involves practical tasks and skills. However, I am able to do this primarily because I care.
Caring is not, in itself, a task (although it involves performing many tasks), it is an innate quality. Sure, it is a quality that many of us possess; as relational creatures, human beings generally care about others and seek to interact and communicate.
But do we all have the capacity to extend that care to individuals outside our familial or social groups who are vulnerable and need extra emotional and physical support?
Additionally, it is likely that we will each demonstrate care in a variety of ways and that some of us will enjoy a lot of interaction with people, whilst others might cope with only a little.
Some of us will be happy in a role where we are talking, listening, or problem solving. Some will be happy doing practical tasks for people; cooking, cleaning, DIY, gardening. Some might enjoy arranging or facilitating activities or entertainment. Others are happy to be doing hands-on personal care tasks.
If you are keen to work in a social care role, then think carefully about what kinds of activities you enjoy and are comfortable doing.
Ask yourself: if this was my mum, dad, brother, sister, how would I want them to be cared for? What personal qualities would I look for and expect to find if I were employing someone to look after my granny or grandad?
Would I be happy with them being supported by someone who needed a job, but would far rather be working as a plumber or librarian? Would I feel confident with someone who didn’t really enjoy working with people, who found the practical tasks of care work distasteful or who was not patient, thoughtful, or kind?
The quality of care we want for those we love, and indeed for ourselves, is the quality of care we need to be able to offer those we are working with.
Think Carefully About Your Preferred Client Group
There will be some people and groups we each relate to more comfortably. I remember, in my twenties, visiting a home for disabled children in Calcutta run by Mother Teresa. One look at those kids and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I was surprised, and even shocked by my reaction. Instead, I spent two days volunteering at her home for the dying, where I was more in my comfort zone.
At several points in my life I’ve worked in elderly care. Each time, I’ve done so because I felt I had something to offer older people. I’ve always enjoyed their company, even as a child.
Over time, I identified a preference for working specifically with people with dementia. You might be drawn to supporting children, young people or adults with learning disabilities, individuals with addiction or mental health issues, or people needing palliative care.
It is important to think very carefully about your potential client group. The more comfortable and ‘at home’ you feel with your client group, the more authentically you will relate to them. Care cannot be forced.
The practical aspects of care can be learned, but your ability to engage authentically with the individuals you seek to support is the key to working successfully in this field. Fundamentally, your most important asset is your ability to form genuine caring relationships with the people you will be supporting. If you don’t feel able to do this, then support work is not for you.
That’s fine, we are all different, but for your own wellbeing, and that of potential clients, do not become a support worker unless your primary motivation is to care and you already experience a genuine empathy for your client group.
Are You A Compassionate Person?
Our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to be able to imagine the world from their perspective, is crucial to our ability to care. If you can’t imagine what someone else might be going through, or are not interested in knowing or finding out, then support work is not for you.
The essence of good care will be in your relationship with your clients, and in your ability to be truly person-centred in your approach; your willingness to strive to meet the needs of the individuals you are supporting.
In under-resourced and understaffed institutions (as many are), you will need to maintain your person-centred focus in an environment that often feels more like a conveyor belt. This can be frustrating and demoralising, and can make you unpopular with colleagues who are more task-orientated.
Equally, you will need to be able to reassure clients who may be struggling with illness, incapacity or diminishing capacity, loss and bereavement and other profound changes in their lives. People newly resident in care homes, having lived independently throughout their adult lives, can be deeply disorientated and distressed.
Do you feel able to get alongside someone in this kind of situation and offer them support?
Are you patient?
As well as it being essential that you can empathise with someone who may be very different to you, there will be times when your patience is tried. There will be times when you are overstretched and overtired, when you are doing your best to assist someone and they are responding to your efforts with impatience, rudeness or even physical aggression.
How do you think you will react?
When your client with dementia calls you repeatedly to ask you the same question several times over, you will need to resist your impulse to be impatient and frustrated, and instead imagine what it is like to not know whether it is six at night or six in the morning, whether the meal in front of you is breakfast or dinner, why you are in a strange room with people you don’t know and not at home, or why your parents still haven’t come to collect you.
Are You A Respectful Person?
Again, the answer to this question is crucial. If you are not, then care work really is not for you.
Do you have good levels of self-respect?
It is hard for us to respect others if we struggle to respect ourselves.
Sadly, care work is a poorly paid and low status occupation, where respect for workers is often lacking. You will need to be robust to survive in this environment.
If you find it hard to respect others or you struggle with self-respect, then, again, I would urge you to look for a different kind of job.
A New Zealand colleague who has a post-graduate degree in nursing is currently working as a carer in the UK. She commented to me recently that she has encountered a lack of respect in her current role that she does not experience when working as a nurse back home. This is clearly both irritating and demoralising.
I had a similar experience when working in a nursing home. In that environment I frequently struggled with the lack of respect towards carers and other staff from some nurses and managers, and occasionally from residents or relatives.
Where there is a hierarchical model of top-down leadership, care assistants, support workers and domestic staff in institutional settings are very much at the bottom of the heap. Without conscious, respectful, non-hierarchical leadership, disrespect and bullying have a trickle-down effect in organisations, including those providing health and social care.
At worst, this lack of respect transfers from frontline staff to the individuals they are supposed to be caring for.
If this is likely to be the nature of your organisation, think carefully about whether you have the personal and social resources to maintain your own self-respect and to hold on to your empathy for those you will be caring for. It is not always easy.
Equally, while many people have a huge respect for individuals who care for others, and indeed may be in awe of the work they do, you will encounter those who regard care or support work as unskilled (it is not!) and low-status and who treat care workers accordingly. This attitude is reflected nationally in the underfunding of social care.
Again, is your sense of self-worth robust enough to cope with this?
Are You Good At Your Own Self-care?
Support work can be stressful as well as physically and emotionally demanding. In order to support others in their care and wellbeing, we need to have the resources to maintain our own health and wellbeing.
Do you have someone you can talk to when things become stressful or difficult?
Do you have a good work-life balance with a range of leisure and social activities?
Do you eat well and exercise regularly?
Are you able to identify when you are feeling stressed or over-tired and to take steps to address this?
Are you able to reflect on your work, and to seek help where things are not going well?
Carers are encouraged to put others first, and we can feel that we are being selfish if we attend to our own wellbeing.
On the other hand, it can be hard caring for others when we feel that our own needs are not being met, and when we are not adequately remunerated for our hard work or supported by managers. This can lead to resentment and burnout, which is bad for us and for our clients (sometimes with devastating consequences), and ultimately, reflects badly on the organisations we work for.
Think carefully about your ability to care for yourself and your commitment to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, whilst doing work that can be challenging and demanding.
Are You Comfortable Assisting Others With Their Personal Hygiene?
As a support worker, you will probably spend a lot of time wiping bums. This can take a bit of getting used to, as can helping another person to wash and dress, clean their teeth or dentures, blow their nose, empty a catheter bag etc.
Most carers get used to this fairly quickly, although we may have our weak spots.
Some find mouthcare difficult. Some find it hard to deal with vomiting. Sometimes, we may feel disgusted by the smell of a particular person’s poo or body odour.
Often, colleagues will be supportive and personal care tasks can be shared, but on the whole, you need to feel comfortable dealing with the things that naturally cause disgust in human beings.
Body products remind us of our physical frailty and mortality, so it is normal to feel uncomfortable around them.
Are you confident that this won’t worry you?
Choosing Your Organisation/Employer
Before applying for jobs, have a think about what kind of organisation you’d like to work for.
Do they have a good reputation? Ask around in your community. Check their CQC rating and latest report online.
Do they appear to have a caring ethos? Does this extend to staff as well as to clients? How thorough is the recruitment process? What training and supervision do they provide? Are there any staff benefits?
If you're applying to work in a nursing home or residential care environment, ask to have a look around (you will most likely be shown around at interview). How does it feel? Are staff friendly and welcoming? Do residents seem well cared for and happy? What kind of activities are provided for residents?
What’s the environment like? Is it clean and tidy? Is it homely or clinical? What does it smell like? Would you feel confident to see someone you loved living there?
If you will be working in the community, do you get paid for your travel time to get from one job to the next? Is the time allocated for visits adequate?
If it is a live-in position, does the agency check that the client’s home is safe for you as well as the client, and that the hours you will be paid for tally with the hours you will actually work?
Is there adequate provision for you to have time off? Does the agency care about your wellbeing and that of your client?
Once you've decided the job is for you, it's time to start crafting your CV.
When it comes to writing a CV, resume or application form, it's good to start with the basics.
Unfortunately, mistakes happens to the best of us, especially when we're doing something stressful like looking for a job.
Are your contact details correct, professional and present? Make sure the right phone number is on there.
Email addresses can catch you out too. You must make sure you have a professional-sounding address for job applications.
Go to one of the standard email providers online and make a new account that only uses your first and last names (and spell them correctly too, no 'fun' spellings). If you have a common name and can't use it by itself, you could add your middle name or birth year to make it unique.
Similarly, make sure your voice-mail is set up and the message is professional.
It may seem amusing to have a "different" voice-mail greeting, but employers won't find it funny.
How Does It Look?
There are a few simple steps you can take to make sure that any CV or application form looks good when you send it in.
For application forms, black pen often looks best.
Make sure your name, address, telephone number and email address are at the top, and don't make it any longer than two pages
This can be a really good way of catching mistakes and the word processor can generally suggest the right spelling or grammar too. Just be careful you don't change all the spellings to American spellings! Remember, it's 'colour', not 'color'
What Do I Need To Include In A CV?
There are lots of different ways of writing CVs but for a simple CV, make sure you have your job history, professional skills, schools and education and, finally, references.
Also, remember to look for the particular words they use. There will definitely be a 'person specification' that tells you the kind of worker they are looking for.
Using the same words as those included in the specification (like 'self-motivated', 'flexible', 'sensitive' and 'caring') will help them understand you're a great choice for the job.
Previous Job Experience
For job experience, we work backwards. Start with your current or most recent job and then the ones before.
Make sure you include employer name, start and end dates, and a short explanation of what you had to do. Don't go into lots of detail here; keep it short and sweet so it's easy for them to read.
These should be your last employer, college lecturer, school teacher, or a reliable member of the community that knows you, like your doctor or vicar.
Make sure you ask these people first about using them as a reference. After all, it's only polite and saves any embarrassment. It wouldn't look good if, for whatever reason, they didn't respond to a request for a reference!
Writing A Cover Letter
Once your CV or application form is complete, you need to write a cover letter to go with it.
The cover letter isn't just a summary of what you have already written. Instead, it's another chance to persuade them that you are worth interviewing.
For a great cover letter, follow this paragraph structure:
Why Do You Want The Job?
A good way to start a cover letter (after the “I am writing to apply for......” part) is to explain why you want this job.
It may be because of the type of service user they work with, or because it involves increased responsibility.
Write a couple of sentences explaining this and tell them how enthusiastic you are.
Here, you need to write about how your experiences make you a good choice. It may be that you're a carer for a family friend so you have lots of practical experience, or can use sign language. You may have taken an NVQ at college so you have lots of understanding about how to do the job, or that you volunteered at a day centre and knew you wanted to follow a career in support work.
Whatever it is that shows you know about this area, tell them about it.
There'll be a reason you want this job, and there'll be something that you can gain from it. Explain how you think you'll benefit as a worker in their organisation and how this excites you.
Maybe you look forward to doing your NVQ on the job, or undertaking the training that will make you better in a specific area.
Be careful not to sound demanding or selfish here. It's not that you are meant to talk about all the things you want, but to instead give them an idea of your professional ambitions.
Also, be careful not to say anything that will make you sound unreliable.
Finally, the last couple of sentences are a chance to talk about why you're a nice person to work with.
Don't go over the top here, but do allow yourself to shine through. Think of some words that describe your character (like 'friendly', 'persuasive', or 'hard-working') so they will become interested in you personally.
Invite Them To Contact You
End the letter by inviting them to contact you if they have any questions, and remind them of your phone number and email address again. This makes it easy for them to get in touch with you if they need to.
I've Got An Interview!
The next steps involve getting ready and making sure you're 100% clear on everything you want to say in the interview.
Let's start with the basic preparation that everyone needs to do for interviews:
It's really important to double-check your route before you go to the interview. Even if you've made the trip a million times, don't risk it.
Double-check the transport times or, if you're driving, make sure the day before that your fuel tank is full. You never know when a rogue set of traffic works or a bus cancellation will occur, and it would be awful to find out on the day.
Check your council's website or Twitter feed, check timetables once again, and make sure your car is running happily the day before!
Check the day before that your outfit is clean, ironed, and ready to wear. Again, like transport, it's easy to ignore this one because you think, “Well, I do this everyday”. All it takes is one little coffee stain to suddenly make your morning really complicated.
If you want to get your hair cut, or nails done do it a few days beforehand. Again, just one little mistake and suddenly, you're turning up to interview with a terrible dye job that you can't fix in time.
Interviews are nerve-wracking enough without that on top!
You don't have to spend hours on this but do have a look at their website or a leaflet about them before interview. This way, you don't get surprised with any tricky questions like “What did you think of our last fund-raising event?".
If you want to dig deeper, check their last CQC inspection report. Was it positive? Did the company release a statement about what they were going to do about the less-positive parts of the report? This will be a great way of saving yourself the hassle of starting somewhere, only to find it's a terrible place to work.
Questions For Them
Ask questions that show how much the role interests you. Asking about opportunities for promotion and training will always sounds good, as will questions on team approach towards service users.
I know it's embarrassing, but it's a really good way to catch yourself out on all the silly little things that can add up to make you an unappealing worker.
There are four things you should look out for during your dry run; fidgeting, being negative, sounding uncertain, and not giving eye contact.
Find out if you do anything in these categories and then find a way to stop yourself!
Practice Your Answers
This relates to role-playing too. Whether you prepare answers before you role-play or after, when you've found all the mistakes you made, making sure you know your answers in advance of an interview will really help.
You need to be able to tell people about yourself with a few simple sentences, to be able to sum up your different jobs and courses in the same way, and have a good idea about what you want to do in the future.
They'll also want to know about previous difficult situations and how you coped with them.
A good way to organise your thoughts is the STAR method; Situation, Task, Action, Results. So, the situation may be,, 'a customer was really rude to me about something that wasn't my fault'. The task would then be, 'I needed to calm them down and make them happy'. The action, 'I wasn't able to to help them so I got my manager' and the results, 'The manager gave them a refund and they left happy'.
By writing it out in this way, it will really help you ensure you cover all the bases and sound professional when answering.
We can promise that you will be asked at least one of these kinds of questions so do yourself a favour and prepare them so you don't sound confused or hesitant on the day.
Just don't memorise each piece of information or you won't be able to cope when they ask questions you haven't prepared for. Use the information flexibly.
Interviewers will also ask about how you deal with different situations.
The whole reason service users need support is because there will be some way in which they do things that are socially frowned upon, and you will be there to support them to manage these incidents.
So, you might be asked to explain what you'd do if someone was shouting in the street, hadn't washed for a while, wouldn't take their medication, or refused to eat.
You will also be asked what certain terms mean to you. For example, 'what does equality and diversity mean to you?'.
You may also be asked about words like 'appropriate', 'confidential', 'person centred support', 'safeguarding', 'choice' or 'communication'. If you aren't sure what any of these mean, find the definition and think about what it could mean in relation to supporting people to live independently.
If you really want to stand out, have a look at recent government legislation.
Within the last few years, there's been a couple of really important reports; “Putting People First” and “Safeguarding Adults”.
Don't worry about reading the whole report if you don't want to. Generally they will have an 'executive summary' which tells you the reason for doing it and a bit about the findings.
Make Sure It's A Success
Once you've done your research, gotten ready and the big day has come, it's time to shine at interview!
If you have a genuine problem at home that means you really need to keep your phone on, tell them about it and apologise.
Do these 4 simple things and you'll stand out from the crowd!
Support work can end up taking you in all sorts of directions. Partly because people go into it for lots of different reasons, and partly because it's such a varied job.
Generally, the next step for support workers is to become a team leader or senior support worker.
If you've got a good head on your shoulders and have shown yourself to be professional, reliable and good at getting on with your colleagues, this promotion will be your next option.
After this, the next step will be assistant manager positions and then manager-level positions.
Many people find that support work leads to training in another area. Contact with social workers, therapists, nurses, and other types of support worker can all end up inspiring you to train in another area!
Once you've several years of experience under your belt, you might want to consider opening your own service. Whether this is a supported-living service, day care centre, adult education, trip provision, or something else, your time as a support worker will really help you understand what service users need to flourish in these areas.
What’s Good About Being A Support Worker?
The picture of support work I’ve painted may be a bit grim! We’ll never raise the status of support work if it continues to attract people who are not suited to it, simply because it is easy work to get.
And for those many carers who are committed to their work and sincere in their desire to help others, it is important that we do raise its status so that they are acknowledged for the skills they possess and the work they do.
A depleted, demoralised workforce is in no-one’s best interest, least of all the client’s.
It is high time that this is recognised by those who hold the purse strings.
My experience is that care work can be very rewarding. In fact, I love my work as a dementia carer, and there’s a lot I miss about the residential dementia unit I was working on until recently, when I moved into home care work.
I had some great colleagues, I loved the people I was supporting, and enjoyed getting to know their families.
I enjoyed the social and pastoral aspects of the work and many of the practical tasks.
Working with people with dementia really can be fun, and a lot of the difficult aspects of care were dealt with through humour. Making a difference to someone’s day, being able to reassure a client or relative, or just being there with them when things are tough is very rewarding.
Succeeding in communicating with, or assisting someone with dementia who is distressed or aggressive or resistant to care, can give you a real sense of achievement.
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