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How to prevent support worker burnout

Workforce shortages are a major obstacle, yet support workers leave the sector every day because of burnout. Lisa and Natarsha explore what providers can do to maintain a happy and healthy workforce.

By Lisa Duffy and Natarsha Warren

Updated 15 Apr 20248 Nov 2022

Burnout in disability support workers (DSWs) is a critical issue for everyone in the sector.

In this article, we examine DSW burnout, how it can contribute to staff turnover, and what we can all do to address its causes.

So, how big an issue are we dealing with here? The NDIS needs to attract around 83,000 net additional workers by 2024 (a 31% increase in workforce size) to be able to respond to the existing and future support needs of NDIS participants. However, workforce turnover is high. If it remains at its current rate, the NDIS will lose around 213,000 workers by 2024.

What is causing the high levels of burnout leading to staff turnover?

There is a high turnover rate of employees within the non-professional disability service workforce and it is suggested that staff leave the disability sector because of stress and burnout, for financial reasons, or because there are limited career pathways. (Harries et al., 2015; Kozak et al., 2013; Productivity Commission, 2011).

An early description of burnout (Maslach, 1982) highlights its multiple signs as

a combination of emotional exhaustion (feeling drained and worn out without the resources to “reload”), depersonalisation (having a detached and negatively-tinged response to clients), and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment (feelings of inadequacy and the thought they are no longer achieving anything meaningful in the workplace).

What does burnout look like in the DSW workforce?

Burnout can have many different manifestations, but here are a few to look out for:

  • Avoiding work, such as increasing sick leave or reducing work hours.
  • Disengaging.
  • Asking to be removed from certain shifts or participants.
  • Declining work performance.
  • Losing enthusiasm for work.
  • Decreased empathy and “compassion fatigue”.
  • Falling behind in administrative tasks.
  • Being over-stretched.
  • Reacting to situations with heightened emotions and showing less tolerance.

What are the causes of burnout in the DSW workforce?

Research tells us that DSW burnout happens when the rewarding and uplifting parts of the role (which drew DSWs to the sector in the first place) are being heavily affected by negative impacts such as:

  • Reduced power to make decisions, which makes DSWs feel as if they are on the bottom rung of a ladder. This may include DSWs feeling like they have limited voice, power to make decisions, or influence over the vision of an organisation.
  • Conflict in priorities between DSWs and supervisors or managers.
  • Lack of complete information about participant support needs.
  • Increased workplace demands, including heavy administrative burdens that take time and focus away from face-to-face support.
  • Lack of clarity over role, responsibilities, and expectations.
  • Limited or no opportunity for regular check-ins or debriefs following traumatic events.
  • Feedback on performance that fails to guide and develop support worker practices and does not provide career development opportunities.
  • Rapid and extensive change. The transition to the NDIS has meant the DSW role has changed significantly – and not all DSWs were supported through that change.
  • Employment uncertainty due to a casualised workforce and the many options DSWs have to move around.
  • Lack of meaningful training opportunities. Training that focuses solely on compliance and leaves little room for more diverse guidance, such as the development of skills and confidence, can increase rates of burnout.

Whose responsibility is it to address the causes and risks of burnout?

Managing the causes and risks of burnout is a shared responsibility between employers, people training and culture teams, and individual DSWs.

For example, an employer must provide:

  • Adequate management support and clear instructions at orientation and onboarding.
  • Access to relevant training and learning opportunities.
  • Clear information around role definitions and boundaries.
  • Opportunities to debrief and reflect.
  • Safe and supportive working environments with adequate staffing.
  • On the other hand, individual DSWs must:
  • Take responsibility to understand and adhere to their role boundaries.
  • Assess and manage their own signs of stress and the need to plan breaks and scheduled leave.
  • Ask questions and raise concerns.
  • Use time management and assess personal knowledge gaps and training needs.

Where to from here?

How can we be responsive to the needs of DSWs to ensure they stay in the game? And how can we support the growing number of participants entering the Scheme?

  1. Review the administrative load. There are often several departments in an organisation that have slowly but surely increased the administrative requirements of DSWs. Often, this occurs without anyone realising the cumulative load. We need to be clear about who is asking what of DSWs.
  2. Role clarification. DSWs must be supported in being clear about where their roles begin and end.
  3. Access to breaks. These are especially important for traumatic or stressful situations, but breaks should never be a luxury – they are a minimum that must be met!
  4. Supervision, both informal and formal, with opportunities for debriefing and mentoring.
  5. Formalised stress management strategies and wellbeing programs.

At the end of the day, we are all human beings. Disability support workers, like all workers, want clarity. They want to feel supported and respected for the critically important work they do.

But the stats are clear – we need every single DSW to stay in the game. We cannot delay our response. The time to act is now!


Lisa Duffy
Natarsha Warren

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