Supporting workforce development

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The demands on the care workforce have changed in recent years and qualifications play an important role in professional development.

In this article, Dr Philippa Waterhouse, Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at The Open University, shares three ways managers can support their employees studying social care qualifications.

The role of the care worker has significantly changed in the last two decades. Sector reforms and population change have transformed ways of working and intensified demand for social care. Pressures continue to evolve in the face of increasingly complex support needs, unforeseen operational changes arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, and digital and technological advancements. Despite the need for an adaptable and flexible workforce, social care in England has historically played, and continues to play, second fiddle to the NHS in terms of investment into training and career development opportunities.

In this context, recruiting, training, and retaining workers with essential and desired attributes and skills is one of the most substantial challenges facing social care employers. The Open University report ‘The Path Forward for Social Care’, based on research with 500 adult social care and social work leaders in England, found that only 56% of respondents said they had sufficient workforce skills and experience to operate efficiently and effectively. Skills gaps were identified in the areas of digital capabilities, leadership and management, and technical and specialist knowledge. The Covid-19 pandemic also shone a light on the longstanding issues of high staff turnover and chronic vacancies in the sector. Employers investing in the training and career development of their workers can not only bring benefits in terms of enhanced quality and safety of service delivery, but can also result in employees feeling more valued and supported, contributing to their sense of wellbeing. Analysis of data from 8,000 organisations and 650,000 adult social care workers by Skills for Care found that establishments with higher proportions of employees undertaking learning and development are more likely to receive higher Care Quality Commission scores and have higher levels of staff retention.

Formal qualifications are one way in which employers can support their workforce’s personal development. The diversity of roles and opportunities in the social care sector is reflected by an increased variety of qualifications on offer. These range from awards and certificates which are shorter in length to diplomas and honours degrees which involve longer periods of study.

Supporting employees to identify and begin a qualification that is suited to their own goals and fits within the area of need for their organisation is only the start of the journey. As Covid-19 has exacerbated demands on the workforce, increasing attention is being directed to the work-life balance of care workers. Consideration of how we can support the balance of work-family-study for those engaged in qualifications is equally important.

Researching the distance education student experience

How do students with multiple commitments manage the combination of their work, family, and student roles during formal study? Are students with multiple commitments satisfied with the support available, and is there anything else we can do? These are some of the questions that led me and colleagues at The Open University (OU) to research the experiences of students combining their formal studies with paid employment and/or family responsibilities such as parenthood. Whilst extensive research has been conducted in the work-family field and a body of recommendations or guidance exist for governments, employers, and employees, comparatively the evidence base on the work-family and study interface remains sparse.

Using an online survey, we collected information from 348 students enrolled in Level 3/final year undergraduate health, social care, education or sports modules at the OU. The OU is the UK’s largest distance education provider. Flexibility is often cited by students registering for distance education as a main factor for influencing their choice for this mode of study, as well as allowing them to manage their pre-existing family and work commitments. Whilst there is no typical OU student, approximately 70% work full- or part-time during their studies. In our survey we asked students about:

  • Their employment status and their family responsibilities and roles.
  • Their experience of combining work and/or family with their studies.
  • Strategies they used to manage their multiple responsibilities.
  • Suggestions of how support for students with multiple responsibilities could be improved.
  • Their mental wellbeing (using an established measure – The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale).
  • Their satisfaction with their studies at The Open University.

This study found that for some, juggling employment, family and study commitments can be a source of conflict that can have an impact on their mental wellbeing. However, our results also suggest that the experience of studying whilst working can be a positive one that can have immediate benefits for employees and employers including enhanced individual self-esteem and improved knowledge that can be applied to workplace situations.

The next phase of my work was focused on developing an open and freely available interactive resource that will encourage users to consider different strategies to manage work and family alongside studying and will signpost to sources of support (due to be released winter 2022/23). This work is part of the Office for Students funded Positive Digital Practice project (2021-2023) that aims to embed and sustain digital practices that support mental wellbeing for part-time, commuter and distance learning students. The resource is being informed by the findings of the online survey described above, as well as additional focus groups and other research.

Three ways managers can support employees studying

Our findings suggest employers can play a critical role in helping students manage the balance between their work and study roles. Below are three suggested ways that managers can help their employees along their study journeys. Quotes from our survey with over 300 OU students are used for illustrative purposes.

  1. Initiate conversations with your employee about their studies

A survey respondent studying a qualification in the field of health and social care said:

“Lots of students I have spoken with feel nervous about discussing large case loads which can impact on our personal time when we should be studying. Many members of staff within my [workplace sponsor] have no idea how much study time is required of us, tutorial commitments, number of assignments.”

There can be misconceptions about the demands of part-time or distance education. Whilst both these options can help students fit their studies around other commitments, they do not always completely eradicate the challenges of time and potential conflict. Not all students feel comfortable discussing their studies with their employers. Managers showing a proactive interest can make employees feel their studies are important and valued by their workplace and create a more approachable and open environment for discussion. Initiating conversations can also help you find out if there any ways you can help support your employee’s studies, for example in planning their time, finding a suitable study space or capitalising on work networks (see below).

  1. Supporting your employee to plan ahead

Our research showed planning ahead to be a main strategy of students in combining their work commitments with their studies alongside any other additional responsibilities that they have. Students gave us numerous examples of planning ahead, for example:

“I plan ahead as the…academic calendar is known when I enroll [sic] on the course, I book leave around [assignment]/exam dates. I book onto tutorials and plan work and home/life around them where possible. I do this in combination with my daughter’s timetable – she is doing A levels.”

I have recently been asked to do a lot of overtime at work but thankfully have been given plenty of time to prepare and organise my study time around the extra hours at work.”

The OU has a number of freely available planning tools, including an online time planner and priority setting grid. Managers initiating conversations, developing a greater understanding of study demands and facilitating student planning can have benefits for the workplace. Anticipating and being forewarned of potential periods of conflict (for example, exam dates or assignment deadlines) and supporting students in managing these can reduce issues such as unexpected requests for leave and sickness. The strategies described by students to manage their work and study commitments suggests different ways managers can help them in their planning, such as:

  • Exploring the possibility of flexible working patterns: for example, condensing full time hours to do longer days can provide individuals with a dedicated day to spend on their studies.
  • Booking of annual leave in advance around assignment deadlines and exams dates.
  • Scheduling of shifts around tutorials and classes.
  1. Helping with study spaces and places

Not all students’ home environments allow for productive studying. Some survey respondents said the workplace provided a more suitable environment for study.

“Staying late in the school that I work in allows me to spend time studying in ‘work mode’ rather than being tired when I get home.”

 “I stay at work to study so I am less distracted by my family obligations.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the way that people study – what is important is that students can find a place or space to study that suits them. Some students might struggle to access the right space for them to study. If your workplace has quiet spaces or office computers available, it might be that offering access to these in break times or after work will help students find time or focus to study. However, for some students, having clearer boundaries between their work and study is important. Lots of universities are part of the SCONUL Access scheme which gives students access to study spaces at many libraries belonging to the scheme. Information about how students can apply for SCONUL access can be found at https://www.sconul.ac.uk/sconul-access.

Being able to draw on the informal and formal in the workplace can also assist students in their studies.

“I use my colleagues as sounding boards when an assessment is coming up. Having to explain things to them helps me to understand them better myself.”

As well as physical spaces to study, workplaces can encourage a culture of learning through considering whether there are mechanisms that will encourage cross-team discussion and support having wider benefits for workplaces through the dissemination of knowledge. This might include mentoring or peer-buddying schemes where individuals can be matched if they want to other employees who have previously studied or are currently studying similar qualifications. Optional monthly discussion or development groups can provide opportunities for staff to learn from each other.

To find out more about how The Open University can help employers upskill and reskill staff, please visit open.ac.uk/business


Dr Philippa Waterhouse is a Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at The Open University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her current work on student wellbeing seeks to understand how students who have work and/or family commitments in addition to their student roles manage their multiple responsibilities and the consequences for students’ outcomes. Philippa was the Principal Investigator for an OU funded project ‘Wellbeing of Level 3 Distance Education Students: The Importance of Work and Family Factors’. Currently, she is involved in an Office for Students funded project ‘Positive Digital Practices’ (in collaboration with the University of Warwick, University of Warwick, StudentMinds and JISC) which aims to embed positive practices in learning to support wellbeing for part-time, distance learning and commuter students.

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