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Preventing Support Coordinator Burnout

Sam offers 20 tips to better support personal health and wellbeing when battling NDIS frustration and fatigue.

By Sam Paior

Updated 19 Apr 20244 Aug 2021

At The Growing Space, as with many of our peers in Support Coordination (SC), we’ve had a pretty good run in a business sense – a steady stream of participants and nominees choosing us and, on the whole, valuing the service we provide.

We’ve had a dream run at attracting and retaining outstanding disabled people and carers and training them to become professional SCs, with their lived experiences helping our team see situations from a more lived perspective.

But late last year something started to shift for us, and in the last few months we’ve seen several SCs leave or signal their intention to leave.

Staff turnover is, I hear, pretty high in the disability sector, but it’s a new experience for us to see our highly skilled and productive team members want to move on.

I say “want”, but I use that term loosely. In fact, they say they don’t want to leave the team, but that they just can’t do SC anymore. None of these folks is going to continue anywhere in an SC role. One has gone back to support work on the ground, one has set up as a solo allied health provider, and one just needs to regroup but swears she won’t go back to SC.

This change has alarmed me, though it really shouldn’t, and after much thinking and talking with my colleagues, I’ve decided that SCs on the ground probably have a lifespan of three or four years or so before burnout sets in.

The refrain is *always* the same.

I. Just. Can’t. Deal. With. NDIS. Anymore.

I hear other bits like “It’s just too demoralising not being able to find the right house/home that’s local and affordable” or “It’s so hard to find good reliable support workers”, but 99.9% of the time, my coordinators tell me they’re sick of SDA denials (or getting a shitty ratio for someone who has lived on their own for all their life), or they’re just done with calling the Agency every week to chase bathroom mods that should have been approved two years ago (30 SC hours for each of those two years would have paid for the mods twice over), or they smash their heads against a brick wall with all the misinformation shared by LACs or the Call Centre, which send clients into a tailspin or stress and causes trauma and major anxiety. Dealing with the buck passing between government agencies causes much more serious angst than just eyerolls.

We’re over it.

Anyway, I called some SC colleagues interstate and, lo and behold, they’re all feeling it too. I asked them what strategies they have to support their teams and help prevent burnout.

Here are our combined ideas (with huge thanks and credit to Jess Stubbins at Ablelink and Laura Schutz at Independence Australia).

  1. We are a remote workforce, so we need to make a real effort at connection and suggest teams use an online connection platform like Teams or Slack to help build community. Make sure there are channels dedicated to humour, positive feedback, and social and supportive chatter.
  2. Set up and stick with frequent, regular online Zoom or Teams check-ins as a group – we do ours over Friday lunch every fortnight. It may take a while to build momentum, but if you stick with it, you’ll get there!
  3. Over time, work to figure out and support each SC’s real passion or niche within disability and then develop that specialty. It might be housing, microenterprise, behaviour support, getting people out of hospital, supporting people when they leave prison, or it might be a particular stage of life – aging, early childhood or becoming an adult. The flipside is also important: understand the areas they’re really just not passionate about and avoid those.
  4. Spend time with each team member to identify their future goals and work with them to develop a plan to help them branch into leadership, training, marketing or whatever they hope their career path might lead to – if someone is approaching burnout, redirecting them into another role might refresh them and offer valuable on-the-ground experience in their new role, while your team gets to keep a fabulous person whose values align with yours!
  5. Pair up a junior and more senior SC for every participant or pair up coordinators based on interest or specialty, such as a newer SC with one with a particular skill set in housing or mental health. This sets up every participant with a “backup” coordinator, making it easier for SCs to go on a break or actually take a sick day when needed, knowing that their clients are still supported.
  6. Diarise and set an agenda for frequent 1:1 phone check-ins with each coordinator and use the diary for quality control (time since last contact with each client, a detailed look at a few clients and case notes together) and celebrating the “little wins”.
  7. Keep SC work in as tight a geographic area as possible – time on the road drags most people down after a while.
  8. Recognise those little wins – it’s hard to see someone joining the local Lions Club as a win when they’re still stuck in a nursing home, but this stuff is incredibly important and needs to be acknowledged. Share those wins with the whole team (appropriately anonymised) to inspire colleagues to help others work towards something good.
  9. Share the praise – we have a Teams channel called TGS Lovin’ where the whole team can put in messages of encouragement and comments from clients or the public about the good stuff we’re doing (and thanks to TeamDSC – I stole this idea from you guys years ago!).
  10. Our whole-team in-person meetings always take place over a shared meal, and we do “Goal kicks and Cock-ups”, in which every team member shares a win and a learning, with leadership starting off to expose their vulnerability and trust in the team. These have fallen off a little since COVID, but we’re working on getting them back up and running on a more regular basis.
  11. Help newer (and experienced) SCs to identify, name, and share their professional boundaries and set expectations so that clients know what to expect, where to turn, and when. For example, put those boundaries in your email signature: “I am available from X am to X pm workdays and will return your message within X business days”. And use VoiceMail or auto text responses – don’t answer every darn call straight away! (check out the webinar I did with DSC around boundaries here)
  12. Allow and support your body to physically release daily trauma EVERY DAY through exercise, meditation, yoga, hiking – whatever yanks your chain – but do something that uses physical energy if you can. Emily and Amelia Nagoski offer a cure for burnout in a TED talk.
  13. Have the whole team do a Mental Health First Aid Course Course (as well as a regular first aid course), preferably as a group.
  14. We often meet people for the first time when they’re in the depths of a crisis or trauma or a big life change, and we tend to wear some of that because we’re caring humans. Learn about vicarious trauma, how to manage it, and how to support others dealing with it.
  15. When a participant or nominee dies, acknowledge that fact and honour that person and their SC’s grief in your next team meeting.
  16. Have strict timelines for when case notes need to be completed (preferably in real time!) – this saves them dragging out and becoming a burden which becomes harder and harder to manage as time goes on. This unfinished business can place enormous stress on SCs.
  17. Nominate a few of the team to be the “escalators” with NDIS when things become unbearable. These escalators can develop strong relationships with people in the Agency to prioritise urgent and important needs.
  18. Let your team know that sometimes they will need to stop working with a client because they’re just not a good fit and nobody is happy. That deep obligation we often feel is sometimes quite misguided and actually leads to poorer outcomes for the participant and burnout for the SC.
  19. Offer and/or support professional supervision, along with an Employee Assistance Program.
  20. Have an NDIS memes channel (thanks DSC!) to try and have a laugh at some of the inconsistencies and misinformation – if we couldn’t laugh, we’d cry. And cry. And cry.

So, will doing all these things stop burnout?

Perhaps not, but they will likely slow it down and will definitely support your SCs’ personal health and wellbeing, which means helping them serve your clients better. When SCs can identify and see that their work is changing lives, even if slowly and minutely, their quality and quantity of work will increase, along with reducing the rotten stuff.

Remember that nobody goes into this job for the great money or prestige (you’d be sorely disappointed, eh?) but remind the team that we are humans who care about the people we serve and the work we do. We want better lives for those we serve, and for the vast majority of us, that’s what drew us into the job – our passion and compassion for our fellow humans and our shared human rights.

Sam Paior runs a fabulous independent Support Coordination business in SA, The Growing Space. Their Facebook page includes a stacks of great NDIS info like this, designed to help families demystify this disability maze. If you're looking for a blog that manages to give you a cathartic release for NDIS stress and at the same time make you feel optimistic about its future, Sam's blog is the place to be.


Sam Paior

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