Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

Burlington’s Right at Home fights to keep staff caring for elderly, sick patients

Vital Stats
Right at Home Canada
1100 Walker's Line, Burlington, Ont.
Core customers:
Senior citizens, terminally ill patients, disabled adults

Dani DePetrillo has high hopes for Right at Home Canada, the one year-old Canadian branch of an international in-home healthcare service provider franchise.

The Burlington, Ont.-based operation delivers health services enabling seniors and the ill or infirm to stay out of hospitals and in their own homes. DePetrillo, Right at Home Canada’s vice-president of healthcare services, says the organization is aiming to grow into a nationwide network of about 8,000 employees in the next five years.

But there’s a human resources hurdle they have to overcome first. With 25 caregivers spread across Halton, Peel and Wentworth regions, the workers are simply too far apart to make it into the business’s central office. Staff check in using a telephone-based time clock, but the nature of the work means they’re always in the field, isolated from colleagues. As a result, DePetrillo is concerned about keeping the team motivated, engaged and fit.

“Our caregivers need to be healthy, both emotionally and physically, in order to even knock on the door of a client,” she says. “The type of work they do is very challenging.”

It’s also in-demand. DePetrillo declined to give a specific number of clients served by her company — she says patient numbers fluctuate constantly — but she believes there’s a huge and growing need for the personal care, nursing and companionship services Right at Home provides. This is backed up by demographics; according to Human Resource Development Canada, one in seven Canadians is older than 65, a number that will increase to one in four within 25 years.

In a conventional office environment, employees are in constant contact with supervisors and have access to their guidance and counsel. But Right at Home’s dispersed caregivers have a hard time connecting with teammates to get the support they need to cope, which is especially important in such a difficult industry.

Some clients actively resist care, and mentally ill patients or those suffering from dementia occasionally have physical or emotional outbursts. Plus, there’s the grief factor — many workers become closely attached to patients and their families, and in this line of work, clients eventually die.

“There’s typically a high [staff] turnover in this industry,” DePetrillo says, noting that several of Right at Home’s competitors are actually staffing agencies. “We’re really trying to avoid that scenario where we’re just finding a body to fill a shift.”

DePetrillo says she hasn’t yet had anyone quit due to stress, and wants to keep it that way.

“The reality is there’s no water cooler, there’s no lunchroom, there’s no ability to have that face-to-face team-building interaction that a lot of offices benefit from,” says DePetrillo, adding that “this is going to be more of challenge for us as we scale.”

Lynn Brown, managing director of Brown Consulting Group, says Right at Home should make every effort to host in-person meetings.

“Even if it’s not the whole team, even if they could do it in small or regional teams,” she says. “It gives people that connection to reach out to others if they’re having difficulty.”

The company launched in January 2012, and DePetrillo says she and the executive team spent the early days researching the Canadian market, interviewing prospective clients to determine their needs and wants, and developing programs based on the information they gleaned.

DePetrillo took pains to ensure she hired the right caregivers — employees who have the necessary qualifications and the proper personality for such delicate work. Jobs require dealing with a client’s personal care needs, from showering, dressing, and eating, to coping with incontinence; difficult tasks that can be compounded by patients who are non-verbal, aggressive, terminally ill or disabled.

“You have to be a very caring person with a lot of patience, you have to have your heart in the right place,” she explains.

DePetrillo is satisfied she’s assembled a top-notch team, and is actively working to overcome the geographic challenges. She holds virtual team meetings for staff to discuss concerns regarding cases. She also organizes the occasional employee event, sending a group of care workers out for dinner in an effort to build morale. But even this can be difficult to coordinate, given the physical distance between the staffers and their busy schedules, which revolve around a variety of clients who may require occasional, overnight or round-the-clock care.

“It’s not like the day ends at 5:30 and everyone gathers after work,” she says.

The situation is made somewhat more challenging, she acknowledges, by the fact that salaries for caregiver positions vary widely, with some employees not exactly making a handsome sum. Personal support workers, on average, only earn between $12 and $15 an hour, although registered nurses, who the company also employs, can make up to $42 an hour.

DePetrillo is eager to find solutions to these staffing issues so Right at Home Canada can move forward with its plans for national expansion

“We’re looking at the future,” she says, “and wondering, what are we going to do about this when we’re dealing with a much larger organization?”


As Interviewed by: Tom Henheffer

To attract top quality staff that delivers the best possible care, Right at Home needs to build a strong brand. By understanding what their ideal staff want and comparing this with the competition, they can create enticing employment opportunities. This will help establish them as a leading employer, but they’ll also have to work on attraction, retention and engagement. Absenteeism is linked to financial stress. They may want to consider including a program like RBC Bank at Work in their employee benefits package to deliver financial wellness in the workplace. The company could foster regional teams, or develop a buddy system so staff can lean on each other for advice. I’d recommend they set up team meetings in person, through conference calls, or using free video conferencing and collaboration software, such as Google+ Hangouts. Rewarding staff will also be key. This doesn’t require a huge monetary investment — it can be as simple as branded mugs, trips to the spa or half-days off. Dealing with the elderly and the ill is challenging work and small tokens of recognition with thanks goes a long way to help employees stay engaged.

by Mike Feaver - RBC

This marketplace is just going to keep growing, so if Right at Home can nip their problems in the bud there’s a great potential for growth. But it’s such a tough job that their issues really are significant, especially when staff are so isolated. Luckily, when you have a highly mobile workforce, technology can make all the difference. The first thing I’d do is look into creating a private social network where staff can post their concerns and engage with one another on a near-constant basis. There are lots of businesses out there that can build such a platform, and some out of the box options as well that are relatively inexpensive. Tablets and smartphones will also be a worthwhile investment. Not only do they enable staff to log onto a company network from anywhere, they also go beyond voice and make videoconferencing possible, which adds a level of intimacy that wasn’t possible in the past. Giving employees the chance to engage face-to-face, even across large distances, can make all the difference in terms of morale and retention, and those issues will be critical for the company’s success.

by Tisha Rattos - Rogers

When hiring, DePetrillo should emphasize the advantages of not having a central office — candidates don't have to commute and can work on a flexible schedule — and also be clear about the challenges. Not everyone is suited for remote working, so it's important to manage expectations upfront. To counter feelings of isolation, DePetrillo should ensure that her team can connect at any time. One effective method is creating a company intranet where staff can chat and access health and wellness resources. Another is creating an Employee Assistance Program that workers can call 24-hours a day support. I'd also recommend she schedule occasional face-to-face check-ins with managers and "all hands" conference calls to keep everyone on track and in the loop. Subsidizing benefits, such as gym memberships or Yoga classes, can help keep staff healthy, but DePetrillo doesn't have to come up with all the answers herself. She should have the conversation with the staff —maybe even send out a survey for feedback and ideas on engagement initiatives. This will generate solutions from the bottom up, and help her craft a strategy that holistically meets employee needs.

by Tara Talbot - Workopolis