Health & Social Care
Career insights: Become a Support Worker
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Support Worker explained
Are you a kind and compassionate person who enjoys helping people struggling with ailments? Do you have patience and empathy for the elderly and the more than 11 million people across the country who are dealing with disability, long-term illness, or some other form of impairment?[i]
If so, you might enjoy a rewarding career working as a support worker. Support workers help people overcome the obstacles in their day-to-day lives, helping them to live fulfilling and dignified lives. Being a support worker is a rewarding and challenging career – is it the right path for you?
Before you begin working towards a career as a support worker, here is some key information to consider
What is a support worker, and what do they do?
What exactly does a support worker do for a living?[ii] Support workers help people who need varying degrees of help to live independent lives. While that’s a straightforward definition, there is a lot more to the role! Support workers provide the patient-centred care and assistance that people require, allowing them to live rich and fulfilled lives.
As a support worker, you will need to take an individualised approach and think about the following:
- How does each person prefer to be communicated with?
- How do they want to be addressed?
- How do they prefer to be supported?
- What do they want to achieve in the short, medium, and long-term?
- What motivates them?
- What do they like and dislike?
- Do they prefer a casual approach, or would they prefer you use more formal language and salutations?
By carefully considering their preferences about the above points, you give your clients the autonomy and respect that they deserve. While this method of working with people is time-consuming and takes patience, the rewards are priceless. As a support worker, you’ll truly be helping someone (or many people) live a better life.
You will find support workers in all different areas of social and health care. While you will benefit from formal education and qualifications, they aren’t strictly necessary.[iii] In fact, it’s possible to gain employment as a support worker with no previous experience at all.
Support workers are required to work odd hours and long shifts in order to meet the needs of their clients. You might be needed to work overnight, on weekends, on holidays, and take on split shifts. In some contract positions, you might be asked to be ‘on-call’ and respond to emergencies.
While many support workers are employed on full-time contracts, there is a lot of opportunity for part-time work. This allows you to work around your children’s school schedule, other work obligations, and your own healthcare needs. There is such a high demand for support workers that you will likely be able to find a role close to home.
Just remember – this can be a challenging career, and it requires patience, a good sense of humour, and the ability to let ‘water roll off your back.’ While some days can be more complicated than others, you’ll find that your overall experience is one of joy and fulfilment.
Support worker salary
Your salary as a support worker will depend on your experience, education level, and the specific contract that you negotiate. According to Total Jobs, the average salary for a full-time support worker in the UK is £19,000 per annum.[iv] Part-time or contract support worker salaries will vary based on the number of hours worked.
Roles and responsibilities
Your roles and responsibilities will vary depending on the specific support worker role you have been hired to take on. In all cases, you’ll be charged with supporting people and helping them to live rich and full independent lives. Your assistance can be the difference between a person languishing in despair and bouncing back to experience happiness and confidence.
Depending on your experience, education, and contract, you could work with adults who have physical disabilities, learning disabilities, substance abuse problems, or mental health issues. In many cases, these issues can overlap, creating complex compound problems often managed by a team of expert and professionals. In your role, you’ll work alongside these teams to develop, implement, manage, and adjust clients’ care plans.
Your clients will have varying degrees of mobility, and may require additional physical support. You’ll help them carry out their physical activities, social obligations, shopping and meal planning/prepping, personal care tasks (including showering and dressing), and other duties required of them.
They might need help with admin and budgeting tasks or need you to assist them in befriending schemes and social engagements. In many cases, you will be required to escort them to GP and specialist appointments, as well as organise or even administer medications
If your client is particularly vulnerable, you may be asked to stay with them in their home, or even invite them into your home for a period of time (depending on your contract).
How to become a support worker
You’ll need a mix of accredited qualifications, practical skills, and personal qualities to become a support worker.
Support worker qualifications
As mentioned above, some support worker positions do not require any previous experience or education - every job listing is different. However, most job adverts mention some of the following qualifications.[v]
- NVQs in Care – Entry-level roles might require an NVQ2 in care, while more senior positions will demand an NVQ3. Employers might not require that you have the qualification when you apply, but you must demonstrate that you are working towards the certification. Many people earn NVQs while on the job – it usually takes about a year. While you can work towards your NVQs in a classroom setting, you’ll miss out on the practical training and ‘on-the-job’ skills.
- A Diploma in Care – If you want the skills and education to apply for a wide array of support workers and have your pick of the best roles, you should consider getting a Diploma in care. Start with a Level 3 Diploma in Health and Social Care, and then you can move on to a Level 4 Diploma in Health and Social Care Management. To gain entry to the level 3 course, you will need 4 or 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) (or equivalent). For the level 4 course, you will need 1 or 2 A levels, or the level 3 Diploma (or other relevant experience).
- Care Certificate – Many people go into the support worker field without any experience or prior training. If this is the case, you’ll receive on the job training, and be provided with resources to complete the Care Certificate.[vi] This is a set of 15 standards that demonstrates the conduct, knowledge, and skills required of support workers in the social and health care fields.
- GCSEs and A-levels – While most job adverts don’t specifically mention GCSEs and A-levels, they will undoubtedly help you on your career path as a support worker. In particular, you’ll benefit most from biology, maths, and other science courses. You can also gain some of the necessary skills and learn about concepts by taking online health courses. They allow you to take your learning at your own pace, and access courseware when and where is best for you.
- An Apprenticeship – Take part in an apprenticeship to gain the hands-on experience and education needed to become a support worker. To gain entry into a lead adult care worker advanced apprenticeship, you’ll need 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) (or their equivalent), including maths and English. The apprenticeship programme typically takes 18 months to complete. At the end, you will understand the Duty of Care, how to write and follow a care plan, statutory Standards and Codes of Practice, and how to work professionally and safely
Support worker skills
Support workers need to possess a wide variety of skills and personal qualities to be successful in their role. These include:
- Compassion and empathy
You’ll need to have a deep sense of empathy to emotionally support an individual and their family, and compassion for what they are going through.
- The ability to set firm limits
You need to feel confident about setting boundaries with demanding clients and work within financial, mental, and physical limitations. They may try to ‘push your limits’ and convince you to bend the rules – you’ll need to be firm.
- Physical fitness
You will need a base level of physical fitness in order to help your clients in their homes and assist them with personal care tasks. In some cases, you may need to physically lift or help support the weight of your client.
- Socially savvy
- It’s vital that you understand and are sensitive to social cues, body language, and subtle hints. Many support workers describe the need to ‘read between the lines’ when a client is speaking about sensitive subjects, or has trouble communicating effectively.
- Excellent organisation
You’ll need to juggle the scheduling concerns and healthcare needs of a roster of clients, arriving on time for every appointment. Punctuality is of vital importance, as your clients will depend on you to fulfil their needs.
- A sense of humour
A good sense of humour will always help you, especially when you encounter difficult clients or have a tough day! The ability to have fun and enjoy your work, even in the face of setbacks, is key.
Types of support workers
There are many different types of support workers who cater to the unique needs of vulnerable groups of people.[vii]
Learning disability support workers
Support workers build personal relationships with help people with learning disabilities and help them to live full lives. If you work in this role, you might support one individual, or several people who live in a group home or other supported environment. Your specific role will depend on the capabilities and needs of the individual. Some of your responsibilities will be to:
- Promote their independence and wellbeing
- Help them get the most out of their lives
- Help them shop, cook, and clean their home
- Assist and advise with personal care tasks
- Offer your opinions, but allow the individual to make up their own mind about their own care, diet, and lifestyle decisions
- Drop them off at social outings, or help them host guests in their own home
Mental health support workers
Mental health support workers help people with substance abuse issues, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia. You might also hear this role called a “Support, Time and Recovery Worker” (STR Worker).[viii] Your goal is to support an individual as they recover from or manage their mental illness or addiction. Some of your responsibilities will be to:
- Promote their independent living
- Escort them to substance abuse meetings
- Help them with goal-setting and future plans
- Work on a care plan alongside a community mental health team, social worker, GP, and/or psychiatrist
- Give them practical support in their day to day lives
- Provide companionship and social interaction
Disability Support Workers
Disability Support Workers (often referred to as personal support workers) offer assistance to people who have developmental, physical, or cognitive disabilities. Your job as a disability support worker will be to help your clients live better lives and give them the assistance they need to thrive. Some of your responsibilities will be to:
- Help them with personal hygiene tasks
- Assist them with cooking, cleaning, and shopping
- Help them get to and from doctor’s appointments
- Administer medicine
- Clean their living space, or assist with housekeeping
- Observe their behaviour and report to a team of other professionals
- Help them build their self-esteem and confidence
- Encourage their independence
Elderly Support Workers
Do you enjoy working with and spending time with the elderly? If so, a career as an elderly support worker might be right for you.[ix] Senior citizens have specific needs that a trained support worker can help them with on a daily or weekly basis. You’ll help them maintain their independence while they live out their golden years. Some of your responsibilities will be to:
- Provide emotional and physical support to clients
- Share a laugh and have a cup of tea
- Assist with personal care needs and hygiene
- Help with shopping, meal planning, cooking, and housework
- Implement care plans and write your own
- Fill out patient medication records
- Report back to their medical team with updates
- Speak with families and keep them up to date on their loved one’s care
Different Support Workers Settings
The above classifications are based on who you help as a support worker. However, you might do any of these jobs in one of three different settings: clinical settings, community settings, and domestic settings.
As a support worker in a domestic setting, you’ll enter into your clients’ homes and provide them with support and care. This allows your clients to stay in their own space, giving them a sense of independence and control over their own lives. However, it does require an extra level of empathy to enter another person’s home, as you may witness hoarding, poor hygiene, or other distressing issues.
All kinds of people may need assistance in their own homes. Young people, disabled adults, elderly people, those with mental health issues, and people with substance abuse problems can all benefit from the care of a support worker.
If you work in a domestic setting with ailing or disabled people, you may choose to gain specialised skills, such as ventilator assistance, PEG feeding, physiotherapy, and nutrition. You will need to be extremely punctual and reliable, as your clients will be relying on you and there is often no one else there to help them.
That said, it is a rewarding and fulfilling career path in which you can genuinely help someone to live a better quality of life. You can find work as a domestic support worker through agencies and the local council.
Support Worker: Clinical Setting
As a support worker (also called a nursing assistant), you’ll work in a clinical setting such as a care home, hospital, or hospice. You’ll assist a professional with occupational therapy, physiotherapy, foot care, and/or ward nursing, providing emotional support and practical help. As a result, your clients will be from all walks of life, and have all sorts of different medical, physical, and emotional needs.
Your vital assistance with basic tasks will help both your clients and the professionals in your field. You’ll be making a real difference while you earn a living.
Support worker: Community Setting
As a support worker in the community, you will go wherever you are needed to help different clients. You might provide support and care in your clients’ homes, in community centres, or on trips and outings. Your clients could be elderly, disabled, or suffering from substance abuse issues, and you will assist them with their needs.
By going where you are needed, you will be serving the community and helping people live independent and full lives.
Summary - Why become a support worker?
Everyone has their own reason for wanting to become a support worker. For some, it’s a chance to have a rich and fulfilling career without a lot of education or previous experience. Others have a driving desire to help those in need, and want to contribute to the overall health of the community. Still others are attracted by the flexible hours and ability to work on a part-time basis. Do any of these reasons sound familiar to you?
With on-the-job training, very little previous education, and the flexibility to set your own hours, becoming a support worker is the right career choice for those who love to help others.
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