Keynote speaker Elizabeth Causton and health care assistant Anna Morris at the Saanich Fairground, where the conference was held. (Hugo Wong/News staff)

Helping health care workers care for themselves

Health care assistants, the people who bathe, wash, and assist the elderly with their daily lives, have the highest rate of accepted time-loss injury claims of any occupation in the province, and a recent conference at the Saanich Fairground was an effort to bring those numbers down.

The Hearts & Hands Conference for 2017 had two main themes: communicating with patients with dementia and their families, and self-care, which is a hot topic among first responders and social workers. One workshop explored how laughter in the workplace can be a method of self-care.

Stephen Symon, a manager at WorkSafeBC specializing in health care and social services, said that while there are occupations that are more hazardous, like manual tree fallers, health care assistants frequently have musculoskeletal injuries while moving and lifting clients. They can also be injured by violent residents. As a result, WorkSafeBC counted over 16,000 accepted time-loss claims in the last five years, meaning workers are unable to return to work the next day.

“I think for most of them, it starts with team and community in their workplace,” said Symon, which includes positive relationships between HCAs and management, families, and residents.

Symon said that while some conference attendees were managers, it is aimed squarely at workers. WorkSafeBC believes that if health care workers are healthy themselves, they can provide better, safer care to residents.

Elizabeth Causton, the keynote speaker and a former clinical counsellor, agrees.

“The tendency of health care workers is to make their own health their last priority. To give everything until there’s nothing left to give, and to think that’s somehow honourable. I don’t think that is going to necessarily change just by hoping that health care workers understand how detrimental that is. I think health authorities have to start encouraging people to value themselves.”

Causton said that there were around 150 attendees in Victoria and 250 in Vancouver, with long waiting lists, so “the people who do this work are hungry for education and eager to do the learning.”

Causton wanted to emphasize the importance of setting boundaries as a frontline worker. Often times, she said, front-line workers become a surrogate family member, because they see the same patient and their family for years. They also blur the line between life and work, checking in on residents on their days off instead of replenishing and renewing in their own life.

Anna Morris, who currently works at Oak Bay Lodge, has been a health care assistant for 19 years. She attended the conference last year and was eager to return.

“I just took away so much information. I thought it was phenomenal, and right away I wanted to come back.”

She works the day shift, so she reads a morning report from the two prior shifts for updates, and she personally prepares six to nine residents for breakfast. She helps them bathe, shave, comb their hair, put on their clothes, and walk to the dining rooms. She also delivers laundry, prepares residents for lunch, and places them back in bed for naps.

With time restrictions, Morris said that workers often try and “play the hero” by attempting moves by themselves “when in reality you’re putting yourself at huge risk.” Repetitive stress injuries and sprains are common. Morris herself has also been kicked in the back and had her wrist injured by a resident while on the job.

“I’m taking care of 60 people all day long, but I still have to go home and take care of me,” said Morris.

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