9 Skills You Need to Become a Personal Support Worker

Personal Support Worker students pose for a class photo at Herzing College in Ottawa (2019)

Updated January 2023

Looking for a health care career that doesn't require years of training, but allows you to make a huge difference in people's lives? Becoming a personal support worker (PSW) could be your ideal choice.

You can earn a PSW diploma in just nine months. By the time you graduate, you'll have all the skills needed to get hired at a hospital, long-term care facility, or home-care company.

You'll be helping patients stay healthy, safe, and happy by assisting with things like:

  • Nutrition and meal planning
  • Hygiene and grooming
  • Medication reminders
  • Therapeutic exercises
  • Travelling to appointments and social events
  • Companionship and emotional support

While most PSWs work with elderly people, some also support children and young adults with special needs. In every situation, the goals are the same: to help your patient achieve the best possible quality of life, with dignity and compassion.

Doing this job well takes a special combination of skills, talent, and dedication. Wondering if you're a good fit?

Take a look at nine skills you'll need to get hired as a PSW, and see if this career is your true calling.


1. Sensitive and caring

If you're considering becoming a personal support worker, chances are you're a naturally compassionate and caring person. These are core requirements for this job.

Imagine, you'll be working with patients from all walks of life, including diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. And each patient will have their own story, hopes, fears, and needs.

Employers want to hire PSWs who can relate to patients, build trust, and show genuine sensitivity to their differences and needs.

You have to really care about helping people, and truly want to make a positive difference in their lives. That's what being a PSW is all about.


2. Excellent communication skills

Communication is extremely important for PSWs for several reasons. For instance, you must be able to communicate professionally with your employer and other members of the health care team.

This includes updating patient records, reporting on progress, documenting health changes, and participating in team meetings.

And then there's patient communication, which is obviously a key part of this job. Personal support workers must be able to connect with patients at different levels. Some may be hearing impaired, or have limited speech ability, and others may suffer from brain injuries that impact their verbal abilities.

Employers look for PSWs who know how to listen closely and make a connection, even under challenging circumstances. In general, you'll need good spoken and written English to get hired in this role.


3. Calm under pressure

It's quite common for PSWs to have patients who get upset or angry or won't cooperate. Imagine you're supporting an Alzheimer's patient who feels confused and afraid, and won't respond to you.

Or your patient has just received a frightening diagnosis. They may lash out or totally withdraw from all communication. In cases of emergency, you may have to administer CPR or First Aid (you'll learn both in personal support worker training).

There are so many situations where PSWs must remain cool under pressure. This takes emotional maturity and discipline: two things every employer looks for in a PSW.


4. Resilient in the face of death and loss

Death and loss are an inevitable part of your job as a PSW. If you work with elderly or terminally ill people, you will sometimes lose a patient—which can be really challenging for PSWs, who often form close bonds with patients and families.

Personal support workers need good coping skills, so they can process the loss, and continue their work with compassion and strength.

They understand that they've done their very best for the patient, and made those final moments as comfortable as possible.

Becoming a personal support worker means coming to terms with grief and focusing on the positivity you bring during those difficult times.

You'll get detailed instruction in this area during PSW training, including how to care for a dying patient, support the family, and deal with loss.


5. Good at following procedures

No matter where you work as a PSW, there will be special procedures and rules you'll be expected to follow. Homecare companies, hospitals, nursing homes—they all follow strict protocols when caring for patients.

For example, you'll need to understand and follow a care plan. Care plans outline the specific needs for each patient—special requirements, or areas where a certain kind of support is needed (mobility, nutrition, therapeutic exercises, psychological issues, etc.).

There will also be specific routines to follow when you start each shift, move patients, submit reports, or visit patients in their homes.

These procedures are all about protecting patient health and delivering a high standard of care. It's a normal part of working in health care.

Personal support worker programs teach students all about care plans and workplace procedures. Plus, your training will include an internship in a long-term care facility.

By the time you graduate, you'll have hundreds of hours of real work experience, and total confidence in your PSW skills.


6. trustworthy, mature, and honest

Elderly patients, people with debilitating illness, children with special needs—these are all very vulnerable groups in society.

We trust PSWs to treat these patients with respect and the highest level of care. As a personal support worker, you hold your patient's life in your hands!

You go into their homes, drive them to appointments, listen to their hopes and fears, and help them with highly personal tasks. Employers look for PSWs they can trust completely to never abuse that power—and always treat patients with dignity and respect.

To get hired (and stay hired) as a PSW, you must prove that you are honest, mature, and reliable.

Related: Pros & Cons of Becoming a Personal Support Worker: Should You Go For It?


7. Flexible and adaptive

It's really common for personal support workers to get last-minute calls for a shift. And you might have to work weekends and nights. Most companies offer a choice of shifts, but when you're just starting out, you may need to be flexible.

Flexibility is also really important when it comes to supporting patients. Every day will bring new challenges. PSWs must be ready to learn, adapt, and keep improving their skills.

Willingness to continue learning is considered a major asset by many employers.


8. attention to detail

This is an essential skill for personal support workers. A big part of your job is noticing and reporting changes in patient health and behavior. Because they work so closely with patients, PSWs are often the first to notice when something is wrong.

Also, when following care plans, it's crucial for PSWs to notice every single detail and ensure the patient gets the care they require.

From moving a patient with special equipment to recognizing signs of elder abuse or other health risks—personal support workers play a key role in keeping patients safe and healthy.

You must stay focused and have excellent observation skills to do this job well.


9. physical fitness

Working as a PSW usually requires a fair bit of physical exercise. For example, to succeed in this career, you should be able to:

  • Lift up to 25 pounds
  • Stay on your feet for four hours at a time
  • Bend and kneel frequently
  • Climb stairs

This is definitely an active job. Some of your patients will need a lot of support to move around, or change positions. And you'll be on your feet helping with routine tasks like bathing, dressing, meal preparation, and going to and from appointments.

Bottom line: You need a decent level of fitness to become a personal support worker.


Want to learn more about becoming a personal support worker?

Personal support workers are in demand all across Ontario. If you're interested in training, and think you'd make a great PSW, we'd love to hear from you.

Reach out to an admissions advisor to learn more about:

  • Application requirements for the PSW program
  • Courses and careers
  • Class schedules
  • When you can start
  • Tuition and financial aid options
  • Booking a campus tour or class visit

Click below to get started. Explore Herzing's Personal Support Worker Diploma, request free info, and chat live with an advisor. We're here to help!

Explore the Personal Support Worker Program in Ottawa

Explore the Personal Support Worker Program in Toronto

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