Nicola King and Katia Fernandes of Youniversal Care tell Emily Moore how team work and offering support to care staff is paying dividends in a sector facing many challenges
‘AS no one else can know how we perceive, we are the best experts on ourselves.’
Spoken by American psychologist Carl Rogers, who is renowned as being one of the founders of the psychotherapy research, these words resonate strongly with Islander Nicola King.
Indeed, inspired both by Carl’s work and by the need she perceived for person-centred care – which focused on the wellbeing of both carers and service users – she decided to set up her own agency, Youniversal Care, a year ago.
While supporting some older Islanders, the majority of the home-care agency’s clients are younger adults with learning disabilities and conditions such as autism or Down’s syndrome.
Whatever the client’s care needs, though, Nicola’s ethos remains the same.
‘None of these individuals are any different from any of us; they just need some extra support to reach their goals and live their life as they wish to. And that support needs to be the best,’ she said. ‘That means putting the individual at the forefront of what you do and building care with them, not for them. While they need our support, we can’t do our job without them. It’s a partnership between the carers and the clients.’
Perhaps inspired to work in care after growing up alongside her cousin, who has ‘additional needs’, Nicola admits that launching a business in a ‘sector in crisis’ was not without its challenges. But, in a demonstration of the drive and determination which comes across throughout the conversation, she says that, in many ways, it was those challenges which prompted her to act.
‘Without a doubt, the care sector is in crisis, but what do we do? The population is ageing and there are more and more young people with disabilities and medical needs coming up through the adult services,’ she said. ‘At the same time, we are seeing bed-blocking in the Hospital because we as agencies don’t have the capacity to take on any more clients and we see individuals who would love to live more independently but can’t because the support isn’t available.’
Underlying this ‘crisis’ is recruitment, a problem which Nicola says is exacerbated, in many cases, by an unattractive market, which often includes low salaries and long hours.
‘As a society, we put so much responsibility on carers and yet sometimes they are earning less money than people working in other sectors such as hospitality,’ she said.
‘That is not in any way a criticism of the hospitality industry, but it is indicative of the challenges facing our sector.’
Despite the challenges hampering recruitment and the sector in general, though, Nicola is determined to show carers that ‘there is an alternative’.
‘During my career in the sector, I have seen many carers working across the services burnt out by the long hours that they are often expected to work,’ she explained. ‘When I set up Youniversal, I looked at what individuals were missing in their employment, and one of the main things which often seemed to be lacking, and which can easily be provided, was support.
‘We all face challenges in life and, whether those challenges arise in our personal or professional lives, they affect our work because they impact our overall wellbeing.
‘Caring for a service user is tremendously rewarding but it can also be incredibly demanding. Although you are supporting that individual, you are often working on your own, which can feel quite isolating. Combine that with long shifts and relentless hours, and it can be easy to get down.
‘That’s why we really focus on helping our team members to achieve a good work-life balance and it’s also why our managers spend a lot of time checking in on our team members and making sure they have the support they need, whether that’s internal or external. If any of our carers need to reach out, whether they’re on shift or not, they know that we are always there to help them.’
That sense of teamwork and collective responsibility is also important, Nicola says, as she admits that, despite trying to maintain professional boundaries, it is easy to become emotionally attached to the people the team supports.
‘It’s only natural,’ she acknowledged. ‘We work in care because we are compassionate, caring people and it is easy for carers to see the individual they are supporting as their own client. Our message is that, yes, you support them, but they are Youniversal Care’s service user.
‘While you are responsible to them, you are not responsible for them. It’s a shared responsibility, and that comes back to being part of team and having that support network around you so that you don’t feel isolated and solely responsible. This is one of the reasons that we offer all our team members resilience training, as this is critical to building their strength.’
Supporting Nicola is registered manager Katia Fernandes. With a background in childcare, Katia first started working in care when her children were young.
‘I was a stay-at-home mum for five years before I went into care, working nights for an agency at first, where I met Nicola, before working full-time for a care home,’ she said.
‘My cousin has Down’s syndrome and I had always helped with his care. Having been around someone with disabilities throughout my childhood means that I don’t see people with disabilities as being different; they are just individuals who need a little bit of extra help.’
And with every individual needing different help, Nicola and Katia spend a lot of time considering those care needs before taking on any new service users.
‘Our main goal is to promote every individual’s autonomy, encouraging and supporting them to do as much as they can for themselves and then filling in the gaps for them,’ said Nicola. ‘Critical to that partnership approach is finding the right match between a carer and a user of our service. To do this, not only do we go through a pathways referral to get the core information about the person who requires care but we spend time getting to know the individual, their needs and their beliefs to see how those views may impact the care we should provide.
‘Katia and I then go through the information and see whether we have a team member who we think will be a “match” for that individual. We then introduce them to a potential carer to see how they get on and, if both parties are happy, we continue.
‘Critically, both the carer and the client have to be happy. If, as a carer, you do not gel with the person you are looking after, the support you give will be impacted. That’s why it is so important that we empower our carers enough that they feel able to speak out if they are not happy.’
While admitting that the job has its challenges, both Nicola and Katia agree that the rewards more than make up for those darker moments.
‘As soon as we talk about caring for our clients, we just smile,’ said Nicola. ‘It’s so hard to put into words the feeling that it gives you. I just love it and I particularly love working with the learning-disability community.
‘While those individuals may not be able to do things in the stereotypical way, when you find an alternative method which brings the same result, it is so rewarding. The other day, I watched a client use a tin opener without support for the first time ever and I felt like I’d won the lottery. They were so proud of that achievement as well and it was a really special moment, and just shows how, as carers, we can be that all-important prop in our service users’ lives.’
Another special moment, albeit one which stemmed from sad times, came when the team provided support to a local food bank, which was running out of supplies.
‘While the agency’s main focus is on supporting its clients and staff, we are also committed to helping the community,’ said Nicola. ‘I saw a news article about the food bank at St Thomas’ Church having nothing to give to these vulnerable people who were trying to access support.
‘I immediately phoned the church and asked what they needed. They gave me a huge list of basic toiletries, medical supplies and food items and we went out, getting everything on the list and more. When we dropped everything off, many of the people who needed those items were there, helping us to unpack and although it was incredibly sad that this support was needed, being able to give that help was very special.’
Youniversal has also made The Youth Inclusion Project, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2024, its charity partner for the year.
‘They support lots of people in the learning-disabilities community and are hoping to help them raise £20,000 to mark their 20th year so we will definitely be organising some activities to support that, hopefully involving some of our clients who access their services,’ said Nicola.
Testimonials for Youniversal Care
From staff members:
‘I have worked in care for over 30 years and have never felt that my wellbeing mattered as much as that of my clients until I started working for Youniversal Care.
‘It is amazing to have management who are approachable, understanding and go the extra mile to ensure their staff are happy.
‘Happy staff, happy client.’
‘My voice is heard within the team and I feel like a valued employee involved in a supportive network. Youniversal Care not only cares about its clients but also about us, as staff.’
‘I feel more at home, more comfortable, more in control and more supported than I ever have before. This employer genuinely cares for you consistently.’
From the family of a service user:
‘My son, Ryan, who is 31 and has Down’s syndrome, has been using Youniversal Care for overnight respite for the last eight months and we are both absolutely delighted with the service they have provided. Everything they do is based not just on Ryan’s needs but also on what helps me the most and, to date, any date and time I have asked for, even if it is at short notice, has been honoured.
‘It is testament to Nicola, Katia and their team that Ryan always looks forward to his overnight respite with them and there is also the benefit that while he is with them, that he is taught lots of life skills, which is of enormous benefit to Ryan going forward.
‘I have benefited from overnight respite for Ryan for the last 18 years and, without doubt, the service provided by Youniversal Care is the best by far, and their flexibility in arranging the hours that suits mine and Ryan’s needs the best, is a huge bonus.
‘I have had no hesitation in recommending the service Youniversal Care provides to several friends who are in the same position as me, which is testament to how happy we are with them’ – Mark Jones.