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How disability workers are feeling about their work

Discontent about the NDIS was still evident amongst the workforce however anxiety and uncertainty were reducing.

  • Workers were asked two key questions to quantify their feelings about their work.

    First, they were asked how they had been feeling about their work, on average, during the three months preceding the survey. Workers were less likely to report feeling positive about their work during the three months preceding the 2020 survey than they were in previous years of the survey (45% in 2020 compared to 49% in 2019 and 53% in 2018), likely as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place to respond to the second wave of infections in Victoria (primarily metropolitan Melbourne).

    Workers were also asked how they felt about the future. In 2020, participants were feeling more positive about the future than in previous years. Positively, respondents in 2020 were significantly more likely to believe that their work will get better in the next 12 months (28%) compared to 2018 and 2019 results (20% each).

    Worry about the future has subsided amongst workers across the life of the study. In previous years, job security was a major concern raised in both the qualitative and quantitative research findings. However, in 2020 only 37% agreed that the NDIS limited their job security (compared to 56% in 2018). This positive shift in perceptions regarding job security appeared to be mainly driven by a growing appreciation that the NDIS has meant an increased demand for disability staff across the workforce. Perceptions about what this growing demand means for workers appears to vary substantially by setting and by tenure within the industry; for example, participants in management or administrative roles often felt more secure, while direct support workers were significantly more likely to be worried about the future of their jobs.

    “I think if you are good they will keep you, but I’ve had to learn the computers, our work is direct support, we don’t have a lot to do with computers, we are not given opportunity to be shown them, when they (jobs) come up they are hiring business people, they don’t respect or value that DSWs have got."
    “I’m not very good at admin, but if I could get more training in finance and admin, (I’d) be able to step up. I (could) access information and make decisions when the supervisor’s not there”
  • Unlike previous years, 2020 saw an increase in positive perceptions about the NDIS and how this impacts clients, the workforce and disability services more broadly. The proportion of the workforce who are positive about parts of the NDIS and its ability to create new opportunities for workers and improve disability services in the long term has steadily increased over the life of the study.

    Qualitative research findings show that workers were observing huge demand for their services given the rapidly growing workforce under the NDIS. Additionally, those who worked in more specialised settings such as support coordination and allied health were observing an increasing range of career opportunities.

    The research also suggests that staff with a greater level of involvement with the NDIS and an increased ability to see professional opportunities within it will view the NDIS as a positive change. For instance, those who agreed that the NDIS has a large impact on their work were significantly more likely to believe that the NDIS creates new opportunities for them (47%).

    While there were still some frustrations regarding the NDIS, an increasing proportion of participants believed that the NDIS is a positive change for the workforce, their clients, and the disability sector.

    “With NDIS, it gives people more human rights and opportunities to be included and opportunities to be out and about. When I worked in [location], you never saw people with disability out and about. They were all tucked away behind closed doors.”

    Workers who participated in the qualitative research cited examples of clients whose lives had been improved by the NDIS with greater frequency and enthusiasm than in previous years. Being able to witness the vision of the NDIS become reality increased worker satisfaction, as this was inherently tied to seeing the people they support achieve their goals.

    “People we’re supporting have better funding and it works better for them. Things seem to be moving a lot quicker. It’s easier to get equipment”
    “For some [of] our clients it meant they got some funding to do some one on one things, like going swimming, which is great.”

    Improvements in the turnaround times in planning approvals; more stability of staff in key roles such as support coordinators, Local Area Coordinators (LACs) and NDIS planners; better access to information, improved knowledge of the disability sector among NDIS Planners, shorter wait times on the NDIS helpline, and clearer and more helpful responses to questions, were mentioned as some of the main improvements that have positively impacted the workforce’s understanding and familiarity with the NDIS.

    “I think the communication with the NDIS is improving massively. People are asking for reviews and they’re getting their reviews done super quick. I think the participant experience with the NDIS, with COVID and everything they made a huge effort to make things easier for participants.”
    “We had had a little bit of changeover of support coordinators for the guys, but in the last 6 – 12 months they’ve been stable, this is good because it takes support coordinators time to get across [participant’s] needs. They are improving their working ways”
  • The workforce understanding of the scheme has improved in the last year, which may be due to an increased exposure to the NDIS compared to previous years.

    The 2020 study saw workers beginning to grow more at ease with the NDIS system and processes, becoming more adept at operating within the scheme as it moved through the transition phase. Additionally, many observed that NDIS processes and the broader disability landscape had become more standardised across the sector, allowing the workforce to work more effectively under the NDIS.

    “Some things have exceeded my expectations, like having more flexible funding, that makes a difference at what you can do for someone, they generally seem to have got the act together with reviewing plans sooner, very good during COVID with the amount of unscheduled reviews happening, people getting one on one support. It’s still a battle – you have to justify every single little thing, but then, maybe I’ve matured too, maybe I’ve learnt to work with it better”
    “The 1800 number, I never used to ring – I had a shortcut [had the number of a contact within the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA)], but now I think, it’s a process that’s supposed to work, I’ll go through it and I always get to where I need to”

    Workers were significantly more likely to state that they had a thorough understanding of the NDIS when compared with 2018 (30% in 2020 vs 18% in 2018). Managers had the highest levels of self-reported understanding, suggesting an opportunity for greater knowledge transfer through organisations.

    A majority of workers also felt they had access to the information they need about the NDIS (55% vs. 46% in 2018). Likewise, those in management or administrative roles were more likely to report this than those in direct support roles. This is consistent with the qualitative finding in previous years that direct support workers often felt that management were failing to disseminate their knowledge about the NDIS throughout their organisation, leading to a lack of knowledge on the front lines.

  • The study has found that some of the main concerns across all settings were feelings of exclusion and devaluation, a perceived reduction in training opportunities, barriers for career progression and limitations for professional development, among others.

    Although the study also found the scheme impacts workers differently depending on their work settings. The 2020 iteration focused on four settings and explored the challenges and opportunities each of them face under the NDIS:

    Setting Opportunities Challenges
    Direct support workers Some see growing opportunities under the NDIS, and a high value placed on experience.

    Continue to feel devalued and excluded by a number of mechanisms, including weakening of their advocacy role, lack of access to plans/planning process, increase in unskilled workforce, lack of training.

    Those wanting to progress into other roles such as allied health or management see the need for university qualifications as a barrier.
    Support coordinators

    Greater understanding of the NDIS

    Better access to information and support

    Clients often fail to understand their role and see them as case managers or NDIS problem solvers.

    Working unpaid hours to support clients is common, and related burnout.

    A need for greater articulation of their role, a capability framework or accreditation pathway, and recognition of specialised roles within the support coordination field was identified.
    Manager and administration Some feel they have plenty of training to offer staff. However, others are struggling to fund training under the NDIS.

    Limited opportunities in management – the focus is on growing the support workforce.

    Upskilling staff for online training and shifting to online management a challenge under COVID-19.
    Allied Health

    Mixed awareness of the existence of Allied Health Assistant (AHAs)

    Those familiar with the AHA see them as a great way to reduce workload and support clients with more basic tasks

    A potential opportunity for direct support workers to progress or shift roles.

    The NDIS structure lacks funding for allied health workers to provide on-the job training to AHAs.

    Some worry that AHA shouldn’t be viewed as replacing specialised allied health supports, particularly for clients with complex needs.

  • In 2020, the vast majority of longitudinal participants were still working in the disability sector and an increasing number see themselves working in the disability sector in the future.

    In 2020, close to 74% of longitudinal participants were working in the same job as last year within the sector, while 18% had moved to a new job in the disability sector. A minority of surveyed workers had left the sector; they had either moved to a new job in another sector (2%) or left the workforce altogether (5%).

    The proportion of those who were unsure about working in the disability sector in five years’ time has steadily decreased over time. In 2020, those who were unsure about working in the disability sector in five years’ time were significantly more likely to say that this was motivated by a reduction or change in work hours (20%), which was likely to be attributable at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic where workers were limited to working at only one site.

    Conversely, a growing proportion of workers reported that they will continue working in the disability sector in the future - this was particularly true amongst younger participants aged 18 to 44 years (60% vs 48% of those aged 45 years and over).

  • An increasing proportion of workers believed that they were paid fairly for the things they do in their job in 2020 compared with previous years (51% in 2020 compared to 41% in 2019 and 43% in 2018). Perceptions around fair pay differed across settings. For instance, those who identified as working in direct support roles (49%) were less likely to believe that they were paid fairly compared to those working in allied health and support coordination roles (74% and 67% respectively).

Reviewed 02 September 2021

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