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Ask DSC: Stopping support coordinators jumping ship

In our new advice column, Annika explores how to support people who are burned out in what was once their dream job.

By Annika Stagekat

Updated 15 Apr 20242 Nov 2022

“Dear DSC

I lead a super lovely team of support coordinators. Honestly, they are the most wonderful people you will ever meet! Only problem is, lately they are all leaving the sector! I get it, they are burned out and that is super valid. But what am I supposed to do when all my best people are leaving? I think we are a supportive work environment, but support coordination is a tough gig. So help! What can I do to keep my lovely team?

 

First, a big thank you for your question and your honesty. I know from personal experience and talking to many business owners that you are far from alone. An increasing number of talented people are leaving the sector, and due to the complex human nature of the work we do, it takes time to replace and upskill new entries.

At times, it feels like the words “support coordination” and “burnout” go hand in hand. Why is that? And what can we do about it? Most of us remember our days as new, innocent, and super passionate support coordinators. You look at the job description and think, “I am going to love that”. You start working with awesome people and build meaningful relationships, but before you know it, NDIA comes sneaking in with policy changes and confusing pricing arrangements and limits. Next minute one of your customers has been discharged into homelessness, NDIA refuses to fund a $500 talking microwave for your vision-impaired customer, and it’s impossible to find a proper behaviour support practitioner for the customer who has caused $50,000 worth of property damage over the last month. On top of that, you drizzle billables.

The good news: we can do a lot of work to create a healthy distance between the terms support coordination and burnout.

First, we need to identify exactly what it is that is causing your team to suffer from burnout and wanting to leave the sector. It’s important to remember that it’s often not one particular thing or incident, but the accumulation of tasks, issues and worries that ends up making it all too much. We’ll run through a number of common factors and suggest improvements that you can implement in your business/workflow.

Your employees might be telling you “Working in a billable model is stressful and I often feel a constant pressure hanging over my head.”

You want to create an environment where your support coordinators are aware that billable hours are a necessary evil, but they needn’t become the sole purpose of their existence (or the thing that keeps them awake at night). Where possible, you should create an environment in which billable hours reflect positive traits such as accountability, transparency, and productivity.

Questions you could consider:

  1. Do you have sufficient systems in place to enable your support coordinators to spend the minimum amount of time capturing information about billable work completed? Can they log time directly from their email system? How do they time how long they spend on a task?
  2. How flexible are you in letting your support coordinators reach their billable targets over time? Do they have a daily target, a weekly target or a fortnightly target? Are your support coordinators allowed to be under their target one day/week/fortnight if they are over target the following day/week/fortnight? 
  3. What support do you put in place for your support coordinators when you know they are working very hard but struggling to capture all that effort as billable work? Are all your support coordinators aware of your expectations of them in relation to billable hours? How do you manage it when one of your support coordinators is underperforming?
  4. Have you provided your support coordinators with caseloads that enable them to identify billable work without constantly chasing and searching? You don’t want to overload your support coordinators with unrealistic caseloads, but it is a lot easier to identify what to do next when you have a healthy number of emails or tasks waiting to be completed. 

Another reason might be along the lines of “I feel a lot of pressure from participants, families, and other providers to be doing things that are outside of what I believe to be the scope of support coordination.”

A common piece of feedback from support coordinators is that they find it hard to identify the scope of their role. This is often made worse a poor understanding among other services and providers around what a support coordinator ought to be doing. We often end up with support coordinators becoming the all-rounder who does a bit of everything because “nobody else is going to do it”. Now this is obviously a very slippery slope, and as a business you want to ensure that you create an environment where your support coordinators feel a sense of certainty, security and supportiveness.

Questions you could consider:

  1. Have we (as a business) made it abundantly clear what we expect from our support coordinators in terms of the scope of their role? (If you cannot define the scope, how do you expect them to do so?) Can I provide practical examples of the expectations?
  2. Do I provide clear guidance and support to my support coordinators when they feel unsure about the scope of their role? For example, what guidance do I provide to support coordinators if a customer asks them to approve invoices? Or if the occupational therapist requests that the support coordinators spend a Thursday afternoon going to Kmart to purchase sensory tools for a customer?
  3. How do I help my support coordinators respond to customers, families, or providers who are criticising them for not completing tasks that are outside the scope of their role? if they have unrealistic expectations around timeframes or outcomes? How do I stand up for my support coordinators when they need it?

I often hear the following as an increasingly important factor in support coordinators leaving the sector: “I feel like the majority of my time is spent acting as a personal assistant, putting out fires or fighting with the NDIA.”

Support coordination is not always be about creating super cool outcomes. This can be a disappointing realisation for the support coordinator who probably got into the job to create supercool outcomes. Sometimes support coordination means calling 10 different providers with only 4  return your calls, supporting people to complete referral forms that are 13 pages long or submitting a person’s 5th review of a Reviewable Decision Form. We need to be very careful about how we design support coordination services and make sure that we keep adapting. Support coordination is not a cookie cutter exercise – it’s more like a huge watercolour painting that keeps evolving. You want to create an environment where your support coordinators are creative artists with the freedom to create beautiful paintings.

Questions to consider:

  1. Have we designed a support coordination approach that focuses on capacity building or dependency? How do we measure and report on our progress with the participants we work with? Are we okay with working ourselves out of a job?
  2. Are we clear enough with our customers in explaining that support coordination is capacity building – it is not a personal assistant?
  3. Do we encourage our support coordinators to focus on capacity building? What tools and resources do we have internally to help participants and families develop their own capacity?
  4. If a support coordinator is feeling stagnant or stuck with a participant, can we consider linking them to another support coordinator (internally or externally) to provide a fresh pair of eyes?
  5. Do we have a strong framework in place for requesting adequate support coordination funding in plans to ensure that we can focus on proactive capacity building work? 

Now to the bad news … there is no quick fix (and quickies are rarely the besties…). Improving retention is a long and complex battle but something well worth investing in – for yourself, your employees and for the Scheme that we all try to sustain.

Authors

Annika Stagekat

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