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Homecare personal support worker experiences working during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative study

What’s the challenge?

The COVID-19 global pandemic has affected all facets of our society and in particular, the healthcare sector. While all healthcare workers are at an increased risk of infection during this pandemic, providing care to clients in the homecare sector can be particularly stressful.

Personal Support Workers (PSWs) are the “backbone of homecare” and care for people who are ill, elderly and in need of help with activities of daily living including showering and bathing. These essential workers care for some of the most vulnerable in our communities. Their work is high-touch and intimate and therefore cannot be done remotely. The PSW profession is also unregulated, and highly precarious due to low wages and unstable and unpredictable working conditions. Additionally, the PSW workforce is highly marginalized – made up of primarily women who are racialized and are often newcomers to Canada. 

The experiences of PSWs working in home care during the COVID-19 pandemic are not well understood. We believe it is important that we understand more about the experiences of PSWs working during the COVID-19 pandemic so that we can better support them in their role. 

What are we doing?

Given the important role of PSWs in homecare and the fact that they make up the majority of the workforce in this sector, it is imperative that we understand more about their experiences in working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data are also needed given the limited available evidence in this field from a Canadian perspective. This information is important for supporting PSWs in their role and for planning for future crises, including future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the employer perspective, understanding barriers and enablers that PSWs face is critical for employee retention given the current staff shortages and for the development of targeted strategies. 

The purpose of this study is to better understand the experiences of PSWs working in homecare during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we want to understand their attitudes, motivations, and challenges to working during this time as well as perceptions of organizational support.

What have we found?

19 PSWs participated in interviews. All shared a strong belief in the duty to work during a health crisis and responsibility to support their vulnerable clients despite feeling vulnerable themselves to transmission and exposure to the virus; the weight of pandemic anxiety was felt daily for most. PSWs described existing system challenges and working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic that tested the limits of their motivations to work, emotional wellbeing and perception of organizational support.

Our findings echo emerging evidence surrounding the negative repercussions the COVID-19 pandemic has had on healthcare workers across sectors and around the globe. From the narratives shared in this study, it is evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to increased occupational stress among the PSW workforce. Longstanding system-level issues coupled with increased emotional labour has positioned this workforce at- risk for burnout suggesting that health human resource issues may persist if unaddressed. Homecare organizations have an opportunity to implement strategies that promote and protect the emotional wellbeing of PSWs and other homecare providers, while strongly lobbying for system changes such as higher wages and better labour protections.

What is next?

To implement effective strategies that promote and protect the emotional wellbeing of homecare providers, we would like to better understand their perspectives on their emotional support needs, current and preferred sources of support, and barriers to accessing resources. Read more about this work here: Who Meets Home Care Providers’ Emotional Support Needs? Study

Project partners

Project Funders

Project Contact

Sonia Nizzer RSW., MSW
Clinical Research Coordinator II
VHA Home HealthCare
snizzer@vha.ca