Could self-management work in care homes?

This blog is co-authored by Helen Sanderson, founder of Wellbeing Teams and Alex Fox, CEO of Shared Lives Plus.

Social care’s inspectors, CQC, consistently find that smaller care homes are, on average, better than big care homes. John Kennedy’s JRF research into older people living in care homes found, unsurprisingly, that relationships are key: people want where they live to feel like a real home.

The number of small care homes is reducing, however, because the economics of running a small care home are increasingly difficult. Care home businesses are consolidating as the pressure increases. This shouldn’t inevitably mean that each individual service gets larger, but care homes for older people with 100 beds are commonplace. This may create economies of scale for those businesses, but it may equally create dis-economies of scale, as the markers of great value in care can become harder to achieve in services which reach institutional scale: feeling connected and human both inside the service and with the wider community. Where those businesses are hierarchical, it can also be harder to foster the trust in workers, personal sense of responsibility and autonomy that create transformational support relationships in social care. Some of the largest businesses have financing and ownership models which feel a long way from the idea of ‘community’ or ‘social’ care, and appear to have been used partly as vehicles for risky property speculation. We have seen some huge care provider bankruptcies affecting thousands of older people and there may be more on the way.

So, given that half a million people live in care homes is there a way to create the high value and quality of small care homes, with the economies of scale on things like training and registration which larger businesses can enjoy, but without the added costs of large management infrastructures and profit-hungry big business models?

One approach is the household model, where a care home is divided into small, self-contained households with a focus on creating a family like atmosphere. Dementia Care Matters supports care homes to use this approach and become Butterfly Care Homes. One Butterfly Care Home in Nottinghamshire reports a 43% reduced incidence of falls and 1.7% reduction in staff sickness.

Belong villages have a similar household model. Each Belong household is grouped into an ‘extended family’ sized community for around 12 people, with bedrooms that lead into an open-plan shared communal space, and a kitchen.

In both Butterfly Care Homes and Belong Villages team members often have greater autonomy than traditional care homes. Could self-management take this further?

One of the most promising and widely-talked about ways of organising care and support teams is the Buurtzorg community care model from the Netherlands: recruiting people who are able to work as part of small self-managing teams, supported by coaches rather than a traditional line management structure, with use of tech and data to track activity, payments and outcomes. This model can create better-paid, more fulfilling and autonomous roles, in which people have the time to build consistent relationships, and get better outcomes, at lower overall cost where people can move to independence, because of the better outcomes and vastly reduced need for management infrastructure.

A new briefing paper from the RSA boldly suggests that self-management could save social care. The paper describes five case studies from the UK. One of these case studies is Cornerstone in Scotland, who have drawn inspiration from it to completely reimagine what a large support business looks like around a self-managing rather than hierarchical management structure. The Wellbeing Teams model, which provides integrated, holistic community care on Buurtzorg-like principles, has already been awarded ‘outstanding’ by inspectors, CQC, as has a Buurtzorg UK team. Building-based care services have been slower to experiment with the self-managing model, perhaps because people who are attracted to a devolved, relationship-based way of working have tended to have more affinity for community-based care, but the model’s benefits are arguably most needed in the part of our sector which is most at risk of institutionalisation.

A fully scalable self-managing approach to care homes would perhaps look something like this:

  • Small, ‘home-sized’ care homes or using a household model, with teams recruited who had the skills and aptitude to self-manage, sharing responsibility rather than leaning on a traditional management structure.
  • Those small, largely autonomous businesses networked within a franchise-like structure, with a centrally-developed IT and finance system to track activity, outcomes and payments.
  • Coaches supporting each team and communities of practice for teams to share their challenges, innovations and learning.

Self-management wouldn’t be a panacea for the care home industry: self-managing teams in care homes would also need to adopt the most personalised and empowering cultures and approaches. The best care homes have strong links with their local communities. Few people want to volunteer for a large, faceless company, but where a care home feels genuinely like part of the community, there is huge scope for added value through volunteering, forming Community Circles and the invaluable benefits to health and wellbeing of feeling part of a community, not removed from it. This would fit particularly well with a mutual model of ownership, in which residents, families and perhaps even the wider community had a stake, as well as workers.

Often when we talk about reforming and personalising social care, we focus on models which are the most community-embedded, or, like Shared Lives, seen as the most innovative. But we need to gains of personalisation to reach the whole of social care: they can’t be reserved for the lucky few. There may be models of self-management in the care homes industry which we haven’t included here, so we would be grateful to hear of any examples we have missed. And if you are in the industry and just hearing about or starting to consider this radical transformation, we would love to hear from you. We will be happy to add links to this blog, but most of all we would love to start a new conversation.

2 thoughts on “Could self-management work in care homes?

  1. Freddie Brockwell November 20, 2019 / 11:11 am

    Do you envisage that these new type of structures would continue with existing registration processes. If so, would this not inhibit the personalised relationship way of working, due to existing codes of practice.

    • Alex Fox December 19, 2019 / 1:39 pm

      Hi Freddie – there is a tension between these ways of working and some approaches to regulation, but organisations which have tried them have tended to find the regulators can adapt their processes as long as they are reassured on accountability and safety. Rigid commissioning and procurement processes seem to be a bigger barrier though….

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