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The second NDIS shock absorber: The disability workforce

11 February 2020 at 8:05 am
Fran Connelley
The NDIS has fundamentally changed the nature of work in this sector, and the reality is that the current funding model is failing to attract and retain a qualified, motivated and suitably compensated workforce, writes Fran Connelley.

Fran Connelley | 11 February 2020 at 8:05 am


The second NDIS shock absorber: The disability workforce
11 February 2020 at 8:05 am

The NDIS has fundamentally changed the nature of work in this sector, and the reality is that the current funding model is failing to attract and retain a qualified, motivated and suitably compensated workforce, writes Fran Connelley.

There are now approximately 65 separate reports, focused on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, written since 2013 and relating to problems presented by this reform and providing recommendations to solve those problems.

Understandably, the focus of most of these reports is on the issues affecting people with disabilities. A recent, must-read white paper from the University of Western Australia, Six Years and Counting: The NDIS and the Australian Disability Services System rightly refers to people with disabilities as “the shock absorbers for any volatility caused by poor policy and practice.” 

From first-hand experience, I believe there is a second “shock absorber” in this sector – and in many places it is at a critical breaking point. It is the disability workforce itself. 

The NDIS has fundamentally changed the nature of work in this sector. As a result of the new funding model, disability organisations are expected to deliver a quality customer experience within the framework of a transactional business model geared towards fast delivery. 

The reality is that the disability customer or NDIS participant is not looking for a transaction. The NDIS is not Medicare. They are simply looking for someone they can trust to deliver a quality, personal service. However, the new funding model is, in effect, “pauperising” the people and service providers it relies on to deliver that promised service.

As Michael Chester, head of service operations at UnitingCareWest, remarked in his interview for my book, Workplace Culture and the NDIS:

“I believe that we have an obligation to keep the issue of the working poor on the radar for everybody… for politicians, the NDIA and every provider in the sector. If the current trend continues, we have the possibility of a new working poor emerging in the ranks of disability providers around the country.”

Disability support workers need rosters that offer continuity of work so they can earn a decent wage, raise a family and set aside some savings.

The shift from the traditional block funding in advance model to individualised funding, coupled with the NDIA’s “unit prices”, has created irregular income for frontline staff and wiped out the funding for training, supervision, mentoring and professional development so critical for a quality outcome.

In practice, the NDIS business model is fundamentally at odds with the nature of the support service its customers were promised: a high quality, individualised support service that offers choice and control. Trying to extract a consistently high quality human experience from a transactional, high volume, low touch business model is almost impossible. 

A report released last September from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, Precarity and Job Instability on the Frontlines of NDIS Support Work, found significant stress, instability and lack of support for frontline workers:

“A disability services program that organises support in the same manner as digital platforms organise fast food delivery or taxi services, is not likely to achieve the high standards of respectful, individualised support that the NDIS’s architects hoped for.”

It’s not just frontline workers.

In the course of my own research for the book, I found on a number of occasions that dedicated frontline team leaders and service managers would actually breakdown when asked the question, “What’s the greatest personal challenge in your work on a daily basis?”

To expect a consistent, high quality customer experience within this business model is not only unrealistic, it’s also unfair to the hundreds of passionate support workers who genuinely want to make a meaningful difference in their work.

Regular hours, a reliable income, access to the necessary skills training and quality on the job support should be an easy business case. Particularly when you consider two compelling facts:

  • The sector needs to attract another 90,000 full-time employees in order to meet the increased demand generated by the NDIS. 71 per cent of these are expected to be support workers.
  • The Royal Commission into Violence, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is already underway. 

However, the NDIS pricing model actively works against attracting new, high calibre talent into the sector and delivering a quality service. 

The Australia Institute’s report concluded: “It is unrealistic to expect that agencies can provide the critical infrastructure essential to the development and maintenance of a high quality workforce, on the basis of tiny ‘margins’ built into NDIS unit prices.”

The reality of the NDIS is that the current funding model does not make any provision for adequate skills training, professional development or on the job mentoring. This is not simply because of the NDIA’s price guide. It is exacerbated by the fact that disability organisations are spending unpaid time helping anxious families and individuals navigate a bureaucratic transactional model implemented by people who very often lack sufficient training or first-hand disability experience.

All this in a sector where the financial stability of providers is extremely fragile. Only 49 per cent of organisations reported making a profit of only 3 per cent or more in 2019.

In the Australian disability sector the frontline is at breaking point and it is people with disabilities, their families and their support workers who are suffering the consequences. 

The Australia Institute’s report said: “It is impossible to envision the delivery of high-quality, respectful, and responsive disability services, if the people employed to deliver those services are treated merely as disposable productive ‘inputs’. And the promise of dignity and individual program design that was so central to the rationale for the NDIS will be betrayed, without urgent and systematic investments in the quality, skills, and stability of disability services work.”

I could go on and attempt to list every report (of the 65) that have cited inadequacies in attracting and retaining a qualified, motivated and suitably compensated workforce. But there is by now sufficient evidence to justify a re-think of this transactional business model.

How many more reports do we need before action is taken? 


About the author: Fran Connelley is a strategic marketer, author and speaker with over 20 years’ experience in the Australian non-profit sector including ten years working with disability providers. Her new book ‘Workplace Culture and the NDIS’  was released in November 2019 and is available from

Fran Connelley  |  @ProBonoNews

Fran Connelley is a culture and communications specialist with over 20 year’s experience in the not-for-profit sector. She is CEO of Fran Connelley Culture & Communications, which helps organisations improve internal communications and build a more supportive workplace.

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  • Lyn Duffton says:

    As a young 61 year old support worker…this new model has kicked me out of the work force

  • Tenille says:

    I have been working in Disabilities for over 10 years and must say as soon as the ndis came out my employment become unstable and very over worked and under paid

  • Sultana Dhedhy says:

    I would like to your attention at work place discrimination especially in nonprofit organization.
    This is nothing new this is the old white elephant in the room.
    These organizations only employs white people,leaving migrants and muslim migrants.
    Job seekers eligible for the position with qualification and experience rejected.
    My question is how many generations have to go through and suffer un necessary stress
    Australia seems to have educated people on higher position.
    Don’t they have any responsibility and accountability to bring the change there is a double standard in the workplaces
    For this reasons people are suffering from mental illness, domestic violence etc.
    Place take action on this matter not only talk.

  • Denise says:

    Fran, thank you for this article it articulates everything I am witnessing as an NDIS Support Coordinator. As someone used to professional supervision, debriefing, reflective practice, professional development and access to EAP I am so concerned about the welfare of frontline NDIS support workers. I regularly find myself providing debriefing and supervision in an informal capacity for workers supporting participants in my caseload. Some of them work for large providers but they still lack access to this support. I’m working as a sub contractor now myself so I no longer have access to supervision either. I predict many workers will experience burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Worse still they will be exposed to critical incidents and huge safety risks. As a matter of urgency the NDIS needs to provide access to 24/7 telephone EAP like support.

  • Krishan qaisrani says:

    Ndis is the best scheme and has actualy helped people to get quality service they always needed at affordable price.
    The compitition has increased so there is no room for greedy people in this sector anymore

  • Pamela says:

    As a previous LAC, we were worked to the bone. It was about keeping the contract. We had a huge workload of around 90 participants per LAC. Some offices had 140 plus. How is anyone supposed to provide any level of care and support? We were only allowed 10 hours per person. This did not take into account phone calls, emails, meetings, training. Many LACs were encouraged to take Mental Health days. Why? There is no support for LAC’s. Only the union. LAC’s are the backbone of the NDIS partners. But they are treated with contempt. Overworked, stressed, constantly sick. Lack of consistency with management and rules. Many LAC’s do an amazing job but it’s not possible to keep up with the ever-increasing workload. The remuneration doesn’t change. I loved my job but moved into support coordination. Now I can actually help people. However, there are a lack of hours for support coordinators in plans. The NDIS has helped many people. But, the staffing and remuneration is a problem.

  • Chris Troon says:

    I worked in the sector for 11 years it was a fantastic job before the NDIS was introduced and when I was working for the NSW government the service and training opportunities and professionalism and development was great. However once we got transferred to the Non Government sector the training immediately stopped and over the past 2 years and 6 months Management above the houses squeezed every last dollar from the Group Homes to ensure profits were maintained. Especially since September 2019 the same Management screwed over long standing permanent staff from being able to earn extra above the 120 hour lines they were on I used to be able to work between 140 to 150 hours a month regularly. From September 2019 Management went about filling the remaining hours with 80 hour lines for casual so due to this Scrooge approach I have chosen to pursue a career change were I am valued and shown dignity and respect in my workplace. Disappointed that both staff and customers have seen a decline in the service they receive now they pay 100% for the service but probably only really receive a 60; percent service due to the Profit mind set of the non government service providers.


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