Open Access Research article

The work pattern of personal care workers in two Australian nursing homes: a time-motion study

Si-Yu Qian1, Ping Yu1*, Zhen-Yu Zhang1, David M Hailey1, Pamela J Davy2 and Mark I Nelson2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Information Systems and Technology, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, 2522, Australia

2 School of Mathematics and Applied Statistics, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, 2522, Australia

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BMC Health Services Research 2012, 12:305  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-12-305

Published: 6 September 2012



The aim of the study is to describe the work pattern of personal care workers (PCWs) in nursing homes. This knowledge is important for staff performance appraisal, task allocation and scheduling. It will also support funding allocation based on activities.


A time-motion study was conducted in 2010 at two Australian nursing homes. The observation at Site 1 was between the hours of 7:00 and 14:00 or 15:00 for 14 days. One PCW was observed on each day. The observation at Site 2 was from 10:00 to 17:00 for 16 days. One PCW working on a morning shift and another one working on an afternoon shift were observed on each day. Fifty-eight work activities done by PCWs were grouped into eight categories. Activity time, frequency, duration and the switch between two consecutive activities were used as measurements to describe the work pattern.


Personal care workers spent about 70.0% of their time on four types of activities consistently at both sites: direct care (30.7%), indirect care (17.6%), infection control (6.4%) and staff break (15.2%). Oral communication was the most frequently observed activity. It could occur independently or concurrently with other activities. At Site 2, PCWs spent significantly more time than their counterparts at Site 1 on oral communication (Site 1: 47.3% vs. Site 2: 63.5%, P = 0.003), transit (Site 1: 3.4% vs. Site 2: 5.5%, P < 0.001) and others (Site 1: 0.5% vs. Site 2: 1.8%, P < 0.001). They spent less time on documentation (Site 1: 4.1% vs. Site 2: 2.3%, P < 0.001). More than two-thirds of the observed activities had a very short duration (1 minute or less). Personal care workers frequently switched within or between oral communication, direct and indirect care activities.


At both nursing homes, direct care, indirect care, infection control and staff break occupied the major part of a PCW’s work, however oral communication was the most time consuming activity. Personal care workers frequently switched between activities, suggesting that looking after the elderly in nursing homes is a busy and demanding job.