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Support Workers: Pot Luck?

Tristram presents how providers can deliver great support work and the importance of participant agency in the selection process.

By Tristram Peters

Updated 15 Apr 202431 May 2021

The NDIS’s real promise is to help people with disability live their lives as they wish to – and a big part of making that happen is support work. But given its importance and how it impacts and empowers Australians with disability, what does standout support work actually look like? And how can providers ensure they are delivering it?

This is a question we routinely explore at Clickability when participants ask us to help find them new supports. It’s a question I also answer in my own life when I’m getting new support workers onto my team. So naturally, I thought I’d explore the question for you, too. 

This is my guide to standout support work. Like my post on Support Coordination, it’s a mix of the professional and the personal, but it’s 100% focused on what you can do today to deliver the highest-quality support work to NDIS participants.  

What does Support Work involve in the NDIS?

Support work is a “core funded” support under the NDIS, because it’s at the core of most NDIS participant’s plans. Kudos where kudos is due – the NDIS marketers got it right when they named it. I, for one, need it to survive. 

If you are a provider who delivers support work, you know it comes in varying forms, from assistance with daily activities to community and social participation. Core funds can incorporate supports like cleaning and gardening, but for me, support work is the gap-fill for all the things I can’t do myself, letting me be as independent as possible.

We should also note the difference between “support work” and “carers.” You may ask whether there is a difference. Well, support work is paid support, while a carer is a loved one, family member, or friend who cares for you. Refer to your staff as support workers, not carers.

What qualifications do support workers need?

Each state used to do things differently, but that’s about to change. The NDIA is starting a “nationally consistent framework,” which is called – drum roll – the NDIS Worker Screening Check. Simply put, the Screening Check assesses whether people can work in certain roles with people with disability. But how does it work?

If you are an NDIS-registered provider, someone wanting to work with you will need to apply for screening in their state or territory. However, if you’re an unregistered provider or self-managing participant, this screening is optional for you.

But beyond this check for registered providers, support workers typically don’t need any formal qualifications. A recent series we conducted with NDIS participants revealed that many of them simply wanted support workers with common sense (more on that below, in a poor attempt at foreshadowing). 

As a provider, some of you might make it an internal requirement for potential workers to hold qualifications, including a CERT IV in Disability or a degree in a related field, like social work, nursing, or human services. This can be a good starting point, particularly if you support them through this professional development.

However, if the Screening Check is mandatory only for registered providers and qualifications are optional for all, how do we determine the right fit for participants? Well, that’s it. The participant is the key here, and matching support workers with participants without input from participants or their representatives is foolhardy. 

What’s a “good” support worker?

Through Clickability, we’ve worked with thousands of support work agencies and support workers – and published reviews about them too (I’ve even written a couple myself!). We see what participants say and what matters most to them.

1. Listen 

This might seem obvious, but so often participants tell us that their support workers don’t listen. I even had a support worker once tell me, “I did it this way with another client, I’ll do the same with you.” Hopefully, while reading that quote, you can tell why this is so problematic. Quality support workers do the opposite – they listen. They treat their participants as individuals. This starts with listening.

But how do you operationalise this? That’s the question. One of the most important things is to build in a feedback loop, where participants can regularly and easily say if they need any adjustments to their supports. This could include automated email check-ins or regular phone calls, asking if they feel heard by their workers. Alternatively, an anonymised survey requesting feedback can help participants provide honest responses. 

2. Be flexible 

One of the most frustrating things is adjusting your life to suit someone else. Could you imagine not showering or eating when you wanted to because the person who was going to assist you isn’t free? Prior to my current provider, I often had to fit in with a support worker’s “schedule.” This is a difficult thing to do when I have my own appointments to keep. Clickability participants share similar frustrations. At the end of the day, we want support workers to fit in with our schedules, not the other way around.

This means that your own internal systems and processes need to be flexible. For instance, if a participant asks a worker to stay an extra hour and the worker can, does your system make this alteration easy? Whom does the worker inform about this change to get it approved? Similarly, can a participant contact you or a worker in emergencies? A good CRM and easy system for participants to contact you can make a big difference. 

3. Use your common sense 

In a recent Information Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC) project we ran, we spoke to participants about what matters most to them when it comes to their care. Many said that “common sense” is one of the most important traits they look for in their support workers. If you’ve seen TheIntouchables or Fundamentals of Care, you’ll know what I mean. We want support workers who treat us with care and dignity, who don’t assume what we want or need, and who apply their common sense to every situation. 

The easiest way to gauge a support worker’s common sense is in the recruitment process. When hiring for your business, ask candidates about real-world scenarios and how they might react. Numerous platforms also support candidates apply their common sense and learn in different scenarios. Check out Enabler Interactive as an example. 

4. Develop disability-specific knowledge 

In the same project, we heard that people suffer disability fatigue when they always have to educate their support workers about their disability. The same is true if they’re Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse, or LGBTIQ+. They want their support worker to have experience with their disability – or at least put in the hard yards to research it. Although everyone is unique, it’s reassuring when a support worker is already familiar with a disability or goes to these extra lengths to learn. 

As a provider, you can offer your workers training with specific disabilities and cohort groups. For instance, if your workers are in the home of someone with an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI), they could complete one of these modules. Training is important, but it’s important to keep in mind that, even within one type of disability, everyone’s needs are different. Training can serve as a good foundation, but workers will need to apply their common sense. 

5. Match with the participant. 

Like any relationship, we all get along best with certain types of people. That might be because of a hobby, shared history, or something more mysterious. But to force a relationship is wrong and compromises our individuality. So why do we do it with support work? We shouldn’t. My provider is letting me sit in on interviews to talk to potential support workers and get to know them as people. If they’re going to be with me 40+ hours a week, I want to feel comfortable in their company. It’s strange to say this out loud, but it’s something that needs to be said. 

What’s next?

The NDIS has recognised they need a national framework for screening workers, but as has traditionally been the case, the onus falls on providers to ensure it’s the right match between support worker and participant. With the rise of matching platforms like HireUp and Mable, this has never been truer. So, beyond police checks and worker screenings, talk to your participants and have them present when you’re interviewing applicants. You’d do this in any other sector. 


Tristram Peters

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