“I Am Proud Of My Decision” – Taking A ‘Dignified Exit’ From Aged Care

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A former Aged Care nurse manager speaks of the incredible issues abounding in the sector, and why she decided to take a ‘dignified exit’.

A lot has to be said for how any industry treats its people. I want to share my story and experience with a confronting decision. Take the dignified exit, or be micromanaged until you finally break, requiring extensive performance management and eventual separation from the company anyway.

I have been working in nursing for over twenty years, closer to twenty five actually. In that time I have worked in a variety of settings; military, primary health, community nursing, palliative, oncology, paediatrics, general medical and surgical and eventually aged care. I entered aged care with a healthy aspiration to expand my skill set and steer my career towards management. After all, there is always an abundance of vacant roles in aged care management. On a daily basis I receive job alerts for aged care management roles. In my home state, this amount is in the hundreds. It is not unusual to receive phone calls from recruiters locally and across the country ‘head-hunting’ for the next best role. I have been offered roles with lucrative pay and conditions, cash bonuses, removal included, accommodation provided, car included, simply because these companies cannot source and retain suitable candidates.

So what’s the problem?

It is no secret that working in aged care is physically and emotionally demanding. The basic care staff employee on the floor earns a measly wage to look after some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Managers are under increasing extreme pressure to ensure budgets are not exceeded, meet ongoing KPI’s, deal with complaints from families, staff and other stakeholders, and that is all before 9am. As with all managers in any industry, this is not just a 9 – 5 role. We remain on-call permanently, we remain vigilant and apprehensive. We carry two mobile phones, our own and ‘the work phone’. We take home our laptops, often frantically hammering away at the keyboard until we get a nudge from our spouse ‘are you going to go bed?’

Why did I leave management? In short, it was causing me so much stress, anguish and depression. My marriage was under incredible strain, and my relationship with my children was poor. I began to drink a lot. I spoke to my husband and expressed my concerns, that while the money was good, it wasn’t everything; he gave me his blessing to leave and “find something that will make you happy”.

I was managing a large nursing home that had very deep-rooted workplace culture issues. I commenced HR and disciplinary processes against various staff members in my second week of being appointed. I was terminating staff, placing staff on performance improvement plans, first and final warnings were issued in rapid fire succession. Despite this and endless attempts to lead the team in a positive direction, the nursing home continued to have a steady flow of complaints from residents and relatives. I often felt like all I wanted to do was wipe out all the staff and start again.

Unfortunately the home suffered a failed accreditation, and this is where the story to my decision leaving management begins. Various consultants were despatched to work at the nursing home and work toward overturning the areas identified for improvement. During their time there, it was clear to me that the consultant team were looking for weaknesses in the team and steadily removing them. In the space of a few shorts weeks I watched person after person walk out the door and never to return. It was disheartening and depressing to watch the leadership team dissolving. I was steering my ship in the middle of a hurricane, I could slowly feel the edges of my sails beginning to fray. I started looking for jobs elsewhere, something; anything to get me out of the landslide that was occurring. In my panic, I couldn’t find anything outside of management that I felt was suitable, with enough income to support the family. We were locked in to a fixed term lease, and our own home was also under a fixed term. The fact was, we had to endure five months of this before we could move back in to our own home. My husband said “just try to hang in there until we can move back in to our own place”.

The following day, the Deputy CEO came in to my office.

“By the way, we get the impression you are struggling, if you want a dignified exit, just let me know,” he told me.

“Would the company be better off without me?” I replied.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

I was so shocked, I could not speak for a moment. Those final words rattled around in my head, I had absolutely no confidence that the organisation had any support or confidence in me.

I was numb, and despite receiving that crushing blow, I managed to get through the rest of that day at the office and complete various tasks that I needed to. I got home and spoke to my husband. “They want me gone, I told him. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry, wail, sulk and eventually drink too much red wine. My husband was incredibly supportive, he came up with an instant plan; he was doing the sums in his head, working out how we can survive for five months until we could move back in to our own home. I applied for ten different jobs outside of management and felt assured that with my skills, experience and background I would happily find success elsewhere.

I returned to work the next day and that is when the attack dogs pounced. The regional manager, the Deputy CEO and finally an external consultant spoke with me, in what was clearly an orchestrated plan to deliver the death blow and be told in no uncertain terms that I was not right for the facility, I was not delivering what they needed, and if I don’t resign I would be issued a letter of advice to performance manage. Certain death of my future in this role was imminent. The choice was mine: do I stay and endure weeks of torturous scrutiny and borderline bullying, or do I go? The urgency of the situation was such that I did not feel I had the novelty of time to think this through in a controlled and sensible mind space. I was backed in to a corner, I was alone in my office, staring at the wall, and as if I was on auto-pilot, I had picked up an empty photocopy paper box and just started gathering my personal items. I had texted my husband about what had transpired. He replied, “Ask them for a payout”. I spoke with the Deputy CEO, advised him I had made a decision to resign, negotiated a payout figure, and that was it. I left the office feeling angry, happy, sad and relieved, all at the same time. I drove out and never looked back.

My husband met me at the door with a hug and lots of reassurance. Immediately I felt relief. I had done the right thing and for the first time in longer than I remember, I didn’t feel the need to turn to alcohol. I felt elated that we had made the decision for me to leave management and moreover we had given ourselves the permission to not need to pursue that career path any longer.

If I had known before signing that employment contract where it would lead, I would never have signed up for it. I did not ask to be in that position and I certainly did not ever expect to be asked to resign. I don’t regret this chapter of my life though – it has reminded me to never lose sight of what is most important, it has fortified my vision for my career, and it has taught me to stop and smell the roses.

After just proofreading this article, my husband asked me “What is the purpose of this piece?” I just want to share my story. It may reach hundreds of people, it may only reach one. It may allow some insight in to the situation I encountered; let’s face it, aged care is not going to get any easier any time soon, and if it allows even one manager out there some sense of association with my experience, or allows you to make confronting decisions to stay or even permission to go, then that in itself is a great outcome.

There is no shame in taking the dignified exit, and I am grateful for having had that opportunity, to leave quietly, gracefully and with dignity. After all, business is business and if I was not successfully achieving what needed to occur at that time and in that organisation then the best thing for the company and to a lesser extent me was to move on and allow another candidate to step in and takeover. I am proud of my decision and do not lament the management role at all, even now many months after the event.

Share your nursing experiences by emailing us at nurseuncut@nswnma.asn.au

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