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Confessions of a burnt-out Support Coordinator

The prevalence of burnout amongst Support Coordinators is no secret, what's going on out there?

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Updated 15 Apr 202414 Jul 2022
Female character under pressure from unfinished tasks

Burnout. It’s one of those words in the disability sector that can feel overused. And yet, perhaps its frequent use is a reflection of the sheer number of people impacted by it.  

Below is my story, and it is simply the story of one, one Support Coordinator who found themselves in a state of burnout towards the end of 2021. The story ends well – I am still here, deep into my second decade of work in the disability sector (and not going anywhere).

There are some clear factors that led to my experience last year. It is only fair – and, to be honest, my responsibility – to share them with you so that you too can learn.

Ok. Let’s go deep.

What even is burnout?

When you Google burnout, the first definition that comes up is “the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion”. This definition relates to physics, but I think it is a wonderful way to think about it – that an object has run out of fuel. I prefer it to the third definition that pops up: “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. While I didn’t personally experience physical or mental collapse, both my physical and mental health were certainly impacted.

Why is burnout happening in Support Coordination?

Gosh – there are so many answers to this question. And I think that if we can understand more about why burnout happens, it can give us some clues about preventing it.

Here are some drivers of burnout from my own experience:

  1. Non-stop complexity. An NDIS participant will only get Support Coordination funded if they are in a situation of relative complexity. I have been working as a case worker or Support Coordinator in the disability sector for almost two decades. I have never, nor will I ever, take for granted the privilege of trust from fellow humans. I don’t take this responsibility lightly. And yet, some days the realities of complex situations impact you more than others. There can be a slow build toward burnout, without your acute awareness. One day your caseload causes no impact on you or your wellbeing, and the next day it hits you hard. Be careful of the slow build.
  2. Too much “yes”. I do this one a lot. In a world of staffing issues and unmet referrals, it can be very hard to say “no” to a support request, but saying “yes” to too many things and people eventually leads you to doing less than ideal work for all. Your “yes-ness” becomes diluted. Your capacity is stretched across too many people and situations. The people who were initially so happy that you agreed to support them can’t even get an email response from you for two weeks, unless of course you work nights and weekends… which I also did. Have you ever heard the statement “saying yes to one thing is saying no to another”?
  3. Loss of community. When I was a brand-new, wide-eyed disability case worker many years ago, I worked in a building with about 40 case workers. If I had a difficult phone call, a complex home visit, or even a tricky question, I could turn around and have the support of 10 other excellent people in a matter of seconds. We were face to face. Hugs, a shoulder to cry on, someone to go and buy chocolate with me and debrief were accessible – immediately. Back then, the concept of “working from home” was not something that we knew was possible. Back then it wasn’t; we sent FAXES to service providers, and no one owned a laptop! These days, there are many Support Coordinators who work from home or without a co-working base. For me, this flexibility has also led to a loss of community. Now, after I come off a difficult phone call or an NDIS review meeting videocall, I am alone. Physically alone, to be sure, but also sometimes emotionally alone. There are people that I can, and do, call. But, for me, nothing beats spinning around in my chair and getting instant empathy and hugs from other people who get it.
  4. Recruitment and Caseload. It is quite well known on the ground that there are extensive waiting lists for Support Coordination services. Some services have closed their books. Recruitment in some areas is tricky. Some positions remain open, unable to be filled. As a result, Support Coordination caseloads are spread out across fewer Support Coordinators. High caseloads are real, people! I’m not going to tell you what a safe or correct caseload is, but I will say this: do the maths. If the funded Support Coordination hours in your caseload are higher than the time you are employed to work this year, that’s a recipe for burnout. The situation you are in is literally impossible.
  5. Impact of non-work-related stress. Support Coordinators are regular people who have their own complexities. Non-work-related stress can absolutely contribute to your capacity to do your work as a Support Coordinator. It can be impossible to compartmentalise our personal and work lives, and they can often impact each other. Being aware of this risk is the first step.
  6. Lack of planning. I was a calendar filler. Whenever there was a space in my work calendar, I would fill it with a participant meeting or check-in or Zoom call. No joke, I left no spaces. So, when the hell am I supposed to do the actual follow-up from those meetings? The emails? The referrals? The case notes? The NDIS Access Request Forms, Internal Review Forms, Change in Situation Forms? I did them at night and on weekends. Space in your calendar does not mean you are lazy and not busy. It means you have allowed yourself the time you need for the parts of your role that aren’t face to face. This work is critical. Speaking of calendars, I would often skip planning things like breaks and annual leave –– a couple more red flags for you. 
  7. Lack of clinical supervision. I am fortunate to have many buddies in the sector whom I can empathise and debrief with following tricky situations in my role. What I miss, though, is the formal, regular, and structured clinical supervision that I had access to as a junior disability case worker. These were constructive, reflective, and safe check-ins where my wins were celebrated. My professional and emotional support needs were flagged and addressed. My supervisor identified red flags that related to burnout, which we caught before they grew. This kept me in the sector those first 10 years. I am still such a fan of clinical supervision that I now self-fund it via private counselling. I would love to see its inclusion in each Support Coordination team as a minimum standard for all.  
  8. Competing priorities. Many Support Coordinators are employed in roles that are mixed, such as a Team Leader who also happens to have a caseload or a Support Coordinator who also manages the intake and admin side of referrals to the service. It can be difficult to manage a balance between the proactive and reactive work that often compete when roles are mixed. This often leads to feeling overwhelmed and the sense that you are filling neither role well.
  9. Burnout does not just happen to new Support Coordinators. I have spoken to newer Support Coordinators who believe experienced Support Coordinators don’t get burnt out, as we know what we are doing. Nope, and here’s Exhibit A: me. Years in the sector can contribute to burnout. We experience long-term stress, high caseloads, and, vicariously, the heartbreak of manypeople who are feeling vulnerable within the NDIS. This is a world-leading Scheme that has changed and will continue to change lives. But the Scheme also presents barriers and complexities that limit the potential of people to get as much as they can out of it. 

Where to from here?

I hope it is clear from my story that burnout is not a personal failure. There are many factors at play, some of which are not within our control. I feel strongly that Support Coordinators can take personal responsibility to reduce burnout. We cannot avoid burnout simply by having lovely caseload numbers.

We need to be clear about the factors that are in our control and start there. This can mean confronting andasking yourself tough questions. Are you saying yes too much? Are you spreading yourself too thin? Are you taking on cases that require some additional training or support? Are you good at asking for help? Do you need to find a community of practice, so that you feel connected while working remotely? Do you need support to manage the impact of your role? Does your workplace have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? What are you saying no to, if you say yes again at work (for example, boundaries, rest, self-care, your personal relationships)?

Stay passionate but stay safe. Ask for help when you need it. Do the training if you need it. Talk to people. Find a community. Don’t overstuff your calendar. Raise concerns with your manager. Take responsibility for the things that are in your control. And please, stick around. This is a wonderful sector, and it needs the staying power of committed and passionate individuals.

Anyway, friends, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got some annual leave to book in 😊.

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