Although the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has paled into a distant and somewhat surreal memory for many of us, the reality for those working in the aged care sector has been quite different.
After three-and-a-half years of donning masks to protect the wellbeing of those in their care, aged care workers were only permitted to take their masks off in recent months.
“Where everybody else is talking about a post-pandemic environment, our teams have still been in the middle of a pandemic environment,” Regis Aged Care Managing Director and CEO Linda Mellors tells The CEO Magazine.
“We’re only just coming out of the masks in a normal operating environment, noting that workers will use personal protective equipment in the event of an outbreak.”
The pandemic hasn’t been the only ordeal Mellors has encountered during her time at Regis Aged Care. When she first joined the company in 2019, The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was ongoing. Although she thought she was coming in just as it was drawing to a close, the reality was that two extensions followed.
Not only that, but financial difficulties had also beset the sector, with returns taking a tumble and growth plans put on ice right across the sector. “So over that period of time where we haven’t been building and expanding, we’ve looked more inward in terms of improving our own business,” she explains.
“We’ve invested in IT. That’s been a key area of investment – bringing all of our systems up to standard, making sure that they’re all scalable for expansion in the future.”
Clinical and corporate governance has been another major area of focus. “We’ve also worked very hard on staff safety,” Mellors notes.
As part of this, Regis implemented a new program called Circle of Care, to encourage its employees to consider their work as carers in the workplace and how care goes beyond just the company.
“It’s getting them to think about themselves, their colleagues and their residents, but also their families at home,” she says, adding that residents also picked up on the positive change in culture.
“We’ve also been able to drop our injuries substantially along with our work cover claims and lost-time injuries. So that’s been really significant.”
Safe Work Australia’s Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR) metrics measure the number of lost-time injuries per million hours worked during a single financial year. Regis Aged Care’s industry cluster has an LTIFR of 24, whereas the company itself achieved a score of just six by the end of the 2022–23 financial year.
“I’m particularly pleased with that,” Mellors confirms.
Advocating for Regis Aged Care’s workforce of around 9,000 people forms another key part of Mellors’ role – and it’s one she feels incredibly passionate about.
“We’ve worked really hard on stabilizing the workforce. The aged care workforce was just so horribly demonized during the Royal Commission and the early stages of the pandemic, and I found it really unfair. It’s one of the reasons I came into aged care,” she reveals.
“I just thought the way the workforce was treated was appalling, particularly as they are doing such important work. So I’ve advocated very strongly for the workforce.”
As she explains, the majority of residents in aged care are women, with most of the workforce consisting of women, too – and a high proportion of them are from migrant backgrounds.
“I felt a really strong obligation to advocate for all of the women in care or working in the sector, because it’s long been the case that care workers have not been properly recognized by the community,” she says.
As part of this, Mellors advocated strongly for the Work Value Case, which improved minimum wages for aged care nurses and carers. Through that process, the Fair Work Commission handed down an interim decision that acknowledged the work’s value had been underrated, subsequently pushing through a 15 percent award increase to a range of direct care workers.
Mellors sees this as a fantastic win.
Engagement is another area of focus, with Regis Aged Car’s engagement score rising even through this difficult period. Although Mellors admits she was pleasantly surprised by this uptick, she sees it as a testament to Regis’ efforts in this area.
“We’re really working to recognize the work that people do, and that it’s hard physical and emotional work, but it’s also the most rewarding type of work and very purposeful,” she points out. “That’s been a key area – just trying to get the message out there that this is an industry full of purpose.”
The formation of a new peak body was also part of this process, with Mellors heavily involved in the establishment of the Aged and Community Care Providers Association, which she describes as a creating a single voice for the sector.
“The sector’s voice was quite fragmented when I first joined – there were multiple peak bodies,” she recalls. “I was the chair of one of them and we wound that one up, and then a number of us got behind having a single peak body, and I’m a director of that now.”
Business resilience and emergency planning in the aftermath of such a range of major events has also been prioritized within the organization, currently in the third year of its three-year strategic plan.
“During the Queensland floods, for example, we had to evacuate one of our homes because the car park was flooded and it took out our switchboard, generator and the gas,” she recalls.
“One of the things with climate change, of course, is that we all need to be really well prepared from a business resilience standpoint.”
On the financial front, Mellors ensured Regis worked to pay down its debts as it prepared for better times ahead.
“When I came in, we had over A$300 million [US$195 million] of debt and as of 30 June, we had net debt of just A$6 million [US$3.91 million], so we’ve had really substantial gains there,” she says. “We’ve done really well.”
Now, Regis is moving into a future that Mellors can finally feel excited about. The many improvements the company made during recent times are starting to deliver amid today’s improved operating conditions.
Among its IT investments were a number of hardware and software upgrades, which enhanced the company’s data capabilities.
“We’ve done a stack of work on our cyber maturity. We’ve replaced or introduced key clinical systems, which are really important for quality and safety,” she explains.
Regis has also recently completed the rollout of enterprise-grade wi-fi throughout its homes. “That gives us enormous capacity for future clever technology that will help us with care and service,” Mellors says.
But more than that, it provides high-speed wi-fi access to each of its residents. “One thing I love is that when the statistics came through as to what residents were using the wi-fi for the most, it was YouTube. It surprises so many people,” she says.
“It has also been fantastic for communication for residents with families. They can FaceTime, WhatsApp, do whatever they need to do, because so many of our residents come in with a smartphone or an iPad, and they are using the technology.”
Carefully selected and nurtured partnerships have also played a critical role in readying Regis Aged Care for a brighter future.
“Our suppliers know us and our business really well,” Mellors says. “They understand our operating context. They understand the response times that we require.”
These include clinical management system provider AutumnCare, which works collaboratively with the Regis Aged Care team on an effective electronic clinical and care software solution that is integrated with its clinical workflows.
Another is long-standing partner Jasol, which helps the company to maintain safety standards and “superior hygiene outcomes” with its hygiene solutions, according to Mellors.
Healthcare equipment is provided by Innovate Care, with its solutions and expertise positively impacting the lives of Regis’ residents. Meanwhile, it works with Bridgford on improving its asset management and life cycle planning for its properties, plant and equipment.
“This in turn provides better, more reliable, cost-effective and sustainable homes for our residents and employees to enjoy,” Mellors says.
The companies it works with also have a similar desire to make a difference, such as O’Neill Architecture.
“Every person at Regis is motivated by achieving great outcomes for their residents,” says Meaghan Morice, Architect and Partner at the firm. “The care they demonstrate and the drive for continuous improvement are qualities we share as businesses.”
Regis is also working closely with other partners such as Provincial Produce Australia to enhance its offerings in a responsible way.
“Since commencing supply, we’ve worked closely with its procurement team to help provide a greater selection of seasonal produce for residents and reduce their carbon footprint by limiting packaging waste on-site,” explains Provincial Produce Australia Head of Operations Joshua Esposito.
Now that the pandemic’s impact is waning, expansion is once again on the cards. Regis currently has 63 residential aged care homes around the country, in addition to its home care services and retirement villages.
While minor capital works are constant, thanks to the company’s emphasis on maintenance, major capital works have been minimal. But Regis Aged Care now has a new residential aged care home under construction in Camberwell, in Melbourne’s inner east, and a pipeline of projects in the making.
“We’ve been buying land with a view to building new residential aged care homes,” Mellors reveals. “We have two pieces of land in Sydney, one in Belrose and the other in Carlingford. And we have one in Toowong in south-east Queensland.
“It’s good to have that pipeline and hopefully we can accelerate that over the coming years.”
However, this is not the only expansion strategy that Mellors is putting into action. She is on the lookout for potential acquisitions that could lift the company to the next level, particularly in light of its strengthened financial position.
“I have been focused on reviewing passive assets and actually looking to divest some of our passive assets and reinvest that money back into higher-returning core business activities,” she explains.
“We had a very large parcel of land in Nedlands in Western Australia. Most of it was vacant land, but it also included the Hollywood Retirement Village. So we sold that at the end of the financial year. We plan to get involved in mergers and acquisitions activity over the next few years.”
With the aged care sector highly fragmented, providers will seek to expand their footprints over the coming years, Mellors predicts. This is where she sees Regis making some solid headway.
“The largest of providers holds only about four percent of the market,” she says. “I expect the mergers and acquisitions activity over the next few years will be really strong, and that’s certainly an area that we want to be involved in.”
Much of the advances the company has made within the past few years has been preparing for this moment, building scalable systems and boosting internal capability, which places the company in the perfect position to acquire other businesses.
As part of this new phase for both Regis and the aged care sector as a whole, it must rebuild trust – something that is still very much lacking when it comes to perceptions of aged care, according to Mellors.
“When I worked in the hospital sector, hospital workers were always really well respected,” she says, recalling her time working with organizations including Mercy Health Australia, Western Health and St Vincent’s Health.
“Coming into aged care as a CEO, people see you differently. There’s a lot of work that’s been needed and continues to be needed to rebuild the trust of the community in aged care. I don’t think I fully appreciated that before I got here.”
It’s a complex undertaking, but crucial so that the people who power the sector can once again shine. After all, for Mellors, they are the inspiring highlight of her role.
“There are so many great people working in aged care,” she says. “Every time I go out to an aged care home, I see thousands of beautiful exchanges between residents and carers.”
Mellors describes it as a caring environment, underpinned by evidence-based practice. But she sees the potential to evolve the aged care sector into something even more meaningful.
“My absolute favorite thing to do is to actually go out to the front line and have a look at what people are doing and sit down with the residents who are endlessly fascinating,” she reflects.
“This is a gross generalization, but Australia hasn’t been good at valuing our elders, yet they have so much to offer. So I think that’s one of the next things for us as a community – how can we value older people, with all their wisdom?”
It’s this convergence of head and heart that influences her own leadership approach on a daily basis, and it’s a combination she is trying to instill throughout Regis Aged Care.
“Because we’re working with an older population, there’s a lot of heart that’s needed here, but then you also need to have the business head and also the head for clinical services and making sure that you have excellence in service provision,” Mellors says.
“I’ve come from a strong analytic background and one of the pleasures of working in care businesses, and I would say this about hospitals and aged care, is you can really use your brain, but you can bring your whole heart to it as well. That’s really important. These are services that absolutely must be delivered with kindness and compassion.
“So actually, it’s a lovely combination of hard-headed business decisions with a whole lot of heart.”