Personal support worker organizing medication for a home care patient

Inside the Role: What to Expect as a Personal Support Worker

Personal support workers (PSWs) in Canada play a crucial role for older adults, disabled individuals, and other people in need, with care provided in their homes, long-term care facilities, or other healthcare settings.

Before committing to a career in this field, it’s crucial that you understand the expectations and responsibilities involved. Our in-depth guide offers valuable insights into the role of a PSW, including duties, working hours, compensation, essential skills, career advancement opportunities, and challenges, to help you make an informed decision.

Getting Certified as a Personal Support Worker

To become a PSW in Ontario, you must complete a personal support worker certificate program through a public college or licensed private institution accredited by the National Association of Career Colleges (NACC). These programs usually last one year, but you can complete an accelerated program in about six months.

NACC PSW certificate programs include 700 hours of learning, with 200 hours of clinical placement and 100 hours of facility placement. Topics covered range from safety and infection control to end-of-life care, focusing on practical skills such as assisting with personal hygiene and managing medications.

After completing the personal support worker program, you must pass the NACC PSW certification exam to earn your PSW certificate. This exam evaluates your readiness for the role by testing your knowledge of patient care, ethical considerations, safety protocols, and communication skills.

Currently, PSWs in Ontario are unregulated[1]. Individual employers are responsible for verifying the credentials of their employees. However, proposed regulations under the Health and Supportive Care Providers Oversight Authority Act 2021 aim to strengthen oversight.

Clients and Care: A Day in the Life of a PSW

As a personal support worker, I guarantee your days will be filled with unique challenges and plenty of opportunities to make a meaningful difference in your clients’ lives. Let’s take a detailed look at the typical duties and types of care you’ll provide for your clients to gain a better understanding of what to expect as a PSW.

Assisting With Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)

Assisting with ADLs is at the core of a PSW’s responsibilities. According to the National Library of Medicine, ADLs are fundamental tasks required to care for oneself independently[2]. For a PSW, these tasks include helping clients with essential day-to-day activities, such as bathing, dressing, grooming, and toileting.

They can also include incidental ADLs like assisting with meal preparation to ensure proper nutrition and light housekeeping to help clients maintain a clean living environment.

By assisting with daily routines, PSWs help clients maintain their independence and dignity. It can also be a great opportunity to bond with your client. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with clients occurred while I was sitting with them during or after a meal or helping them dress.

Providing Personal Care and Hygiene Assistance

Personal care and hygiene are a primary part of ADLs and require PSWs to offer compassionate and respectful assistance to help clients maintain their dignity and overall health. Sensitivity and professionalism are particularly essential when assisting with intimate care activities, such as bathing a client or changing adult diapers.

PSWs must also monitor and address skin integrity issues, which can occur as skin ages[3]. Poor nutrition and dehydration can also affect an older adult’s skin health. Pressure sores or bed sores are an especially prevalent issue for bedridden clients.

Any skin injury that impacts integrity puts clients at higher risk for infections. PSWs should be familiar with commonly used pressure injury risk assessment tools, like the Braden Scale for Predicting Pressure Sore Risk, Norton Scale, and Waterlow Score.

Supporting Clients With Mobility and Transfers

Another vital aspect of ADLs is safely assisting clients with mobility aids, such as walkers and wheelchairs, which allow them to move independently around their homes or public spaces. A significant part of mobility assistance is implementing proper techniques for transferring clients between chairs or beds to mobility devices to prevent injuries to both yourself and the client.

By promoting safe mobility, you help reduce the risk of falls and enhance your client’s quality of life. According to the Government of Canada, fall-related hospitalizations among Canadian adults aged 65 or older reached 78 076 in 2022, representing nearly 89% of all injury-related hospitalizations for this age group[4].

Furthermore, a reported 200 825 fall-related emergency department visits among Canadian adults aged 65 or older occurred in Ontario and Alberta alone in 2022. Knowing how to lift and transfer patients properly also helps you avoid injuring yourself. Remember, always let your legs do the lifting.

Keep your knees bent, with your weight balanced evenly on both feet and your back in a neutral position. Use your arms to support the person, but lift with your legs.

Offering Companionship and Emotional Support

As a PSW, companionship and emotional support are essential to ensure clients don’t feel isolated, especially if they have limited interaction with friends or family. I’ve worked with clients who never have visitors, so remember, you may be the only person who spends one-on-one time with them.

Always engage in meaningful conversations and actively listen to your client’s concerns, experiences, and stories to enhance their emotional well-being. Your companionship can also help alleviate feelings of loneliness that can lead to depression.

According to the Canadian Coalition for Seniors Mental Health, up to 20% of older adults have symptoms of depression[5]. However, this number can be as high as 40% for those in hospitals or long-term care homes.

Handling Clients With Diverse Needs and Conditions

I’ve assisted clients with dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and developmental disabilities, and each group has its unique challenges. You must have the skills to accommodate clients with various physical, cognitive, or emotional needs and collaborate with interdisciplinary teams to ensure holistic care and support for your client.

Throughout each day, demonstrating professionalism, empathy, and attentiveness is essential. Always strive to enhance the quality of life for every client under your care. Flexibility, adaptability, and a genuine commitment to person-centred care are crucial qualities that enable you to thrive in this demanding yet rewarding profession.

Typical Working Hours and Expectations

Personal support workers often enjoy flexible working hours, accommodating both their clients’ needs and their own schedules. Shifts can vary from part-time to full-time. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that 61% of PSWs working in Alberta worked part-time in 2022, though more than 40% said they worked more than 37 hours per week[6].

PSWs also have the flexibility to work days, evenings, overnight, weekdays, or weekends, allowing you to balance your professional career with your personal commitments effectively.

Managing multiple clients and responsibilities is a common aspect of your personal support worker role. You must prioritize tasks efficiently to ensure all clients receive the necessary care and support. Excellent time management skills are essential to maintain productivity and meet the diverse needs of each individual.

Punctuality and reliability are paramount in healthcare, but even more so for PSWs. Your clients rely on you for assistance with their daily activities. Some of them can’t get their day started without you, so you must arrive promptly for your scheduled shifts. Being dependable fosters trust and confidence between you and your clients and contributes to a positive caregiving relationship.

While you often work independently, you also must collaborate with healthcare professionals and other team members. Effective communication and teamwork enhance the quality of care provided to clients, ensuring holistic support and coordinated efforts to meet their needs.

By working independently and as part of a team, PSWs contribute to a cohesive and efficient healthcare environment, ultimately improving client outcomes.

Pay Rate and Compensation

Numerous factors can impact PSW salary expectations. Like most jobs, experience can significantly influence how much you earn as a PSW. With experience often comes a specialization. Specializing in dementia, pediatric, or palliative care can improve your compensation.

Location is often a significant factor in pay rates. Per the Government of Canada Job Bank, the average hourly rate for PSWs in Canada was $19.02 in January 2023[7]. However, rates vary by location. During this period, Nunavut had the highest median wage at $34.52, followed by the Yukon Territory at $30 per hour.

Conversely, PSWs in Manitoba and New Brunswick earned well below the national average at $15.50 per hour. However, according to self-reported salaries on Indeed, Vancouver, BC, had the highest annual salary in March 2024, at $72,734[8].

Individual employers can also influence pay rates, as some pay more than others. Employers may also offer various benefits and perks to attract desirable candidates to their roles. Many employers offer standard benefits such as health insurance, pension plans, and paid time off.

Essential Skills and Traits for Success

While you begin learning the necessary skills to become a PSW during your educational program, you hone these skills in the field. Let’s explore the essential skills and traits needed to deliver holistic support and succeed as a PSW. 

Communication Skills and Active Listening

Effective communication is vital for building rapport with your clients and understanding their needs. I always make sure I provide clear and concise communication so my clients feel heard and valued. It also fosters trust and cooperation, which are vital to your success.

Active listening allows you to empathize with clients, identify their concerns, and provide the appropriate support. Tasks related to this skill include communicating care plans with clients, collaborating with other healthcare professionals, and addressing clients’ preferences and concerns.

Empathy, Compassion, and Patience

Without empathy, you can’t connect with your clients or understand their emotions and experiences. Compassion is also essential to deliver quality care with kindness and understanding and drives you to promote respect for your clients and protect their sense of dignity.

Patience is necessary when assisting clients with tasks that may require extra time or repetition, such as dressing. Some tasks related to all these traits include comforting clients during distressing situations, providing emotional support, and maintaining a calm demeanour in challenging circumstances, such as when clients become uncooperative due to their unique emotional or mental challenges.

Problem-Solving Abilities and Adaptability

You’ll encounter diverse situations that require quick thinking and adaptability to adjust based on changing circumstances or client preferences, especially when supporting multiple clients. Strong problem-solving skills enable you to address unexpected challenges effectively and find practical solutions to meet your clients’ needs.

Adaptability and problem-solving are especially vital when modifying care routines to accommodate client preferences, troubleshooting equipment issues, and responding appropriately to emergencies or unexpected changes in a client’s condition.

Physical Stamina and Emotional Resilience

Personal support workers have physically demanding jobs requiring prolonged standing, lifting, and assisting clients with mobility. You must have the physical stamina to perform these tasks safely and effectively.

According to a report from the Department of Kinesiology and Health Services at the University of Waterloo, PSWs working in Canada often experience work-related injuries due to the physical demands of critical tasks[9].

The most physically demanding tasks identified included bathing, dressing, and transferring or repositioning clients, with a client’s weight or mobility limitations increasing physical demands even further. Emotional resilience is another must-have trait that enables you to cope with the emotional toll of losing a client or caring for clients facing severe illness or end-of-life issues.

The emotional aspects of the job can be the most challenging to cope with, but I always remind myself that my clients will be experiencing this whether I’m there or not. Since I’m there, I strive to make as much of a difference in their lives as I can.

Emotional resilience also helps you maintain a positive attitude and consistently support your clients during difficult times.

Cultural Sensitivity and Respect for Diversity

I’ve worked with clients from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems. Having cultural sensitivity allows me to respect and value these differences and recognize the importance of cultural practices and beliefs in shaping my clients’ care preferences.

You must respect diversity and ensure all your clients receive culturally competent and inclusive care. To help you achieve these tasks, learn about your clients’ cultural backgrounds and preferences, adapt care practices to align with their cultural beliefs, and advocate for culturally appropriate care within the healthcare setting.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Personal support workers in Canada have various avenues for career advancement and professional growth. Consider these opportunities to expand your knowledge base and improve your career advancement opportunities. 

Continuing Education and Specialized Training

Continuing education allows you to expand your skill set and stay updated on industry best practices. For example, St. Lawrence College offers Dementia Studies, and the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association offers Palliative Care Education for Personal Support Workers. These programs provide specialized training in dementia care, palliative care, and mental health support to enhance your knowledge and expertise.

Advancement into Supervisory or Managerial Roles

With experience and additional training, PSWs can progress into supervisory or managerial positions. Courses such as Health Care Leadership – Canadian Context offered by Sault College provide essential skills for leadership roles. You can also pursue diplomas or certificates in healthcare management or administration to prepare for managerial responsibilities.

Opportunities for Specialization in Specific Areas of Care

Specializing in care areas allows PSWs to focus on areas of interest and expertise. For example, if you’re interested in working with seniors, pursue the Geriatric Care Certificate the Canadian Association of Retired Persons offers. Similarly, organizations like the Alzheimer Society of Canada offer training programs tailored to support clients with Alzheimer’s and other dementia types.

Professional Development and Networking Resources

Engaging in professional development activities and networking opportunities is essential for career advancement. Joining professional associations like the Ontario Personal Support Worker Association gives you access to valuable resources, workshops, and networking events.

Additionally, online platforms such as LinkedIn provide avenues for connecting with peers, accessing industry insights, and exploring career opportunities. By taking advantage of these career advancement resources, PSWs can enhance their skills, expand their career prospects, and make a greater impact in the healthcare sector. 

Challenges and Rewards of Being a PSW

As a personal support worker, you’ll face both challenges and rewards in this multifaceted role. While the job demands physical and emotional resilience, it also offers opportunities for meaningful connections and fulfillment. Here’s a closer look at the key aspects that will likely impact you during your career. 

Physical and Emotional Demands of the Job

PSWs often face physically demanding tasks such as lifting and transferring clients, potentially leading to muscle strain and fatigue. Additionally, providing emotional support to clients facing severe illness or end-of-life situations can take a toll on your mental well-being.

PSWs must prioritize self-care and seek support when needed to mitigate the impact of these challenges. As hard as it may be, I try to leave work at work, though, admittedly, this is not always possible. At the end of a particularly trying shift, I often like to take my dog for a long walk to let off some steam and get some fresh air.

Building Meaningful Relationships with Clients

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being a PSW is building meaningful relationships with your clients. Developing rapport and trust with clients allows you to provide personalized care and support tailored to their individual needs.

These connections not only enhance the quality of care but also contribute to a sense of fulfillment and purpose in the role. I once cared for a woman in her 90s who told me tales of travelling to Paris in her younger years. I loved listening to her stories, and I think it meant a lot for her to share them with me. Ultimately, our connection made the experience more fulfilling for both of us.

Coping Strategies for Managing Stress and Burnout

You must manage stress and prevent burnout to maintain your overall well-being in this demanding healthcare field. PSWs can employ various coping strategies, such as practicing self-care activities like exercise and mindfulness, seeking support from colleagues or supervisors, and setting boundaries to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Additionally, access to resources such as employee assistance programs and 24/7 counselling services can provide valuable support for PSWs facing challenging situations. Never underestimate the toll this kind of work can have on you, especially if you’re working with clients with progressive diseases or who are in palliative care.

Frequent exposure to these heavy emotional situations can affect your well-being, so taking care of yourself is essential.

Fulfillment Derived from Making a Positive Impact

Despite the challenges, many PSWs find fulfillment in knowing that their work makes a positive difference in the lives of others. Helping clients maintain their independence, dignity, and quality of life brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Knowing that your efforts contribute to improving the well-being of clients and their families reinforces the value of your work. By acknowledging and addressing the challenges while embracing the rewards, you can navigate your role with resilience, compassion, and a commitment to providing high-quality care to those you serve.

Consider a Personal Support Worker Career

Throughout this article, we’ve explored the essential responsibilities, skills, and opportunities for advancement in the PSW field. From providing compassionate care to building meaningful relationships with clients, PSWs play a vital role in enhancing the well-being of their clients.

If you value empathy, resilience, and the opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of others, consider embarking on a PSW career. Your dedication and commitment to serving others can truly make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities across Canada.











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Jennifer Trimbee, RN
Jennifer Trimbee, RN

Jennifer Trimbee is a registered nurse with over 15 years of experience in various healthcare settings. She has cared for multiple patient populations, from neonates to seniors, and has worked in ICUs, transitional care facilities, and home care. In 2015, Jennifer combined her English degree and nursing expertise and started freelance writing.

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