“Burned out” workers in Wales say they're facing debt, exhaustion and low morale, in jobs they feel are undervalued and under-rewarded.

People working in different industries across the country told The National their pay was not meeting their needs, with staff shortages and insecure contracts meaning they struggled to maintain a work-life balance.

Siân Stockham, 66, from Abergavenny, has worked in adult social care since the early 1980s.

A branch rep for Unison, she currently splits her time between caring for adults with learning disabilities at a Supported Living House and caring for older residents at a Rehab and Respite Centre.

“There were staff shortages before Covid, and there’ll be staff shortages after Covid,” Siân told The National.

Partly because the job just doesn’t pay well. There’s always unpaid overtime.

“I think too, because people’s perceptions of us can be quite offensive – that all we’re doing is wiping somebody’s bottom, that we haven’t got the intelligence to get a decent job.

The National Wales: More carers in Wales are women between the ages of 30-60More carers in Wales are women between the ages of 30-60

“At the end of the day, we're the person that's looking after other people's family members, to give them a quality of life that maybe they couldn't have without us being there.”

Some months are financially harder than others, Siân says. She makes the minimum wage rate of £8.91 per hour, but usually has a boost from overnight shifts.

If she misses those overnights – say, for sick leave or holidays – she feels the pinch.

“I was into my overdraft quite a lot at one time,” Siân said.

According to pay rate aggregator Payscale, the median wage for a care worker in Cardiff is just £8.40 an hour.

Things have been tougher for Siân lately - she’s had to get builders in to fix problems with damp and an unstable back wall in her house, and she’s in a dispute with her energy company over a £400 bill.

“I still have my mortgage, so I always make sure that’s paid,” she said.

“But there’s absolutely no wiggle room.

“There's nothing in the coffers now - any emergency pops up; I just haven't got it there.”

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Siân’s glad she works for the council – she’s heard “horror stories” about agency care work, and says she once worked with an agency carer who would finish night shifts only to go straight to a shift somewhere else.

“That’s impossible, but the agencies don't see it that way.

“The girl was telling me that if she said no, they’d stop phoning her for shifts, and she couldn’t afford it.

“That’s when you get burned out. That’s how mistakes get made.”

Care homes are around three times more likely to employ agency staff than other workplaces, according to ONS workforce data, and in Wales, just over a third of home-visit care assistants, and 10% of the total social care workforce, are casual staff.

Staff shortages are so commonplace that Siân finds she’s often called on her days off and asked if she can come in anyway.

“The best one was actually when my daughter bought me a holiday in Malta, to say thank you for helping her through uni.

“I had a phone call – ‘Siân, can you come into work?’

“I said - as long as you're willing to fly me back!”

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During a year with heavy snow, she found herself staying at the Supported Living Home for around four days, because there were too few people able to come in to cover.

Despite the long hours, the hard work and the low pay, Siân loves her job.

“That's how they’ve got us because we love our jobs, they know we won’t walk away from them.

“Although a number of my colleagues where I am now have said, ‘enough’s enough’ – and they've been there a lot longer than I have.”

"I just feel like I'm in a fishbowl that's going around and around.”

Kath Brookes, 41, from the Rhondda, works as a supply teaching assistant through an agency.

Like Siân, she enjoys her job but feels people don’t appreciate how hard the work can be.

“I love my job – absolutely love it,” she said.

“Recently I’ve had longer-term placements - so I get to know the teachers, the children, and I know where I’m going every day.

“It is quite a stressful job though – you’re impacting little lives and supporting teachers, there’s a lot there, especially if you're in like, a special needs school or one-to-one with an autistic child.

“You've got to be switched on, you've got to be on the ball - They are your absolute priority all day, every day.

“Sometimes that can be draining physically or mentally, and I think the salary sometimes doesn't reflect that.”

When lockdown hit last March, Kath had been working at Rhigos Primary School in Aberdare for around six months.

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As an agency worker, she doesn’t get paid sick leave or holidays, and she says she’s had minimal support during the pandemic.

“Initially they said they’d be shut for a couple of weeks and then they’d have me back,” Kath said.

“In the end, they paid me up until the beginning of May, but then they said they couldn’t do it anymore.

“I went to my agency and they furloughed me – but it was based on the amount of work I’d done the same month a year previously, so I was getting about £90 per week.”

When “hub” schools were later set up to cater for the children of key workers, Kath was unable to pick up shifts because as a single mother she had nobody to look after her own children - three boys, aged 6, 10 and 14.

Instead, she relied heavily on credit cards and loans, building up thousands in debt.

“It’s escalating now, all the interest is building up and I’m trying to make the minimum payments – my loan is £250 a month, Barclaycard is close to £200, Virgin is close to £200,” she said.

Kath’s mother tries to help where she can, but with her children’s birthdays coming up, and Christmas just around the corner, the strain is taking a toll.

She said: “There’s anxiety, I’m not sleeping because I’m worrying about this.

“It's just really stressful.”

She says that while she’d like the stability of a permanent job, she feels tied to agency work because caring for her children requires flexibility that she’s not confident she could find elsewhere.

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“I can’t change my job right now,” she said.

“I’ve got three children in three different schools

“My youngest is six - I can manage the work if I can get into Breakfast Club for ten-past eight, and I can put him in after school clubs and that until four.

“I’m restricted – I’ve got to stay working in the schools because nothing else is going to give me the time to pick up my kids.

“It's a vicious circle. I just feel like I'm in a fishbowl that's going around and around.”

“Some people are barely surviving"

Tom, 27, who did not want to be identified, started his working life at eighteen, as an apprentice at a bakery manufacturer earning £5.36 an hour.

Now a production manager at a factory in the northeast, he doesn’t look back on his early career fondly.

“I was well respected by my colleagues, but I wasn't treated particularly well by the company at times.

“In one seven-day period, I worked about 96 hours.

“I came home after a 14-hour shift - my mum turned around when I came through the door and said, ‘oh my God, why’re you crying?’

“I touched my face and realised I was in floods of tears – I was so tired, like, I was crying, there was just so much stress and fatigue.”

When he spoke to the company’s directors, he says they encouraged him to “power through”, and he decided to leave soon after.

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Tom’s in a better position at his current workplace. He says he managed to negotiate paid overtime and enjoys more flexibility than he’s experienced before.

But Tom says that isn’t the case for many of his colleagues.

“Some people are barely surviving.

“There are staff off with severe depression. One person, we agreed it was best for him to leave the company because he could claim more in benefits.

“He’d exhausted his company sick pay. I wanted to make him redundant, so we could give him a pay-out, but the company said no.

“But if he’s able to get a part-time job in a pub, and claim benefits, he’d be better off doing that.

“I told him if anything ever improves, he can always give me a call to come back.”

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