What’s it like to work at Christmas?

Philip Warlow is a support worker in the community and voluntary sector. He is a UNISON representative and wrote this piece.

Another year has nearly passed and Christmas is almost upon us. As my wife and I reach a time in our lives that has seen many Christmas Days come, we feel blessed that our two children were at home and were surrounded by loved ones during the festive period. Working in the Community & Voluntary Sector as support workers for individuals with learning disabilities it is a time when there are a large number of service users that cannot and will not spend Christmas with their families.

My wife and I fall into that category, my wife has been supporting vulnerable adults for nearly 40 years, and I am a mere apprentice to her, nearly 10 years’ service to date. Christmas for us has for many years been spent in work supporting those individuals to ensure that the festive spirit is all around their homes. Both of us will be away for 1 or 2 nights over the period, I will be on duty from 10pm until 8am, my wife will work a 24 hour shift, with a 9 hour sleep splitting that long stint. I will say that it is our choice to work as our organisation for the most part gives staff the option to choose to work or not, but there are times when there are not enough volunteers so rota management rules… some are always disappointed. A great number of organisations in the sector use the rota management system without asking for volunteers first.

It is always nice to be around familiar faces at Christmas and in the Community & Voluntary Sector this is not always possible as some vulnerable adults do not get the option to go to parents or siblings at this time of year so the support staff make sure that the Christmas period is still an exciting time for the supported individuals. These familiar faces know exactly how to promote the festive spirit, with many years experience with the same individuals, knowing the likes and dislikes is second nature, where the Christmas stockings are put, how the presents are positioned around the tree, even making sure that the Big Man gets his snack when he visits, not forgetting Rudolph as he has the hardest job. Christmas Eve will see me putting out the snacks for the visitors, carrot for Rudolph and a mince pie and glass of milk for Santa, every year it delights the individuals when Christmas morning arrives to see a half eaten carrot and the crumbs of the mince pie.

Like most staff working in the Community & Voluntary Sector we feel there is a duty to provide the consistency of support so in a great deal of cases many support workers in all the organisations step forward at Christmas. There are many staff members far younger than my wife and I who have young children so is it not fair to offer them the same delight of being at home on Christmas Day to enjoy the best years of their children’s lives. Working at Christmas is not the best choice staff can make, but when you sign up to become that lynch pin in care and support it is one condition that you cannot absolve any responsibility. Perhaps we are fortunate that the organisation that we work for do pay premium rates for the Christmas period, but a great majority pay the basic rate for the days, in most cases the National Living Wage 7.20 p/hour and that does not come even close to the loss of your time with the family on one of the main days in a calendar year.