Fighting for Australia’s silent heroes
30 August 2021 at 4:45 pm
As the CEO of Carers Australia, Liz Callaghan is fighting to give a voice to the millions of unpaid carers across the country. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Creating purpose and meaningful change has always been the guiding light of Liz Callaghan’s career in the NFP space, and it was this that motivated her to take on the role as the the head of Carers Australia.
Years of working across the health sector in roles such as a director in the Aged Care Royal Commission Taskforce, the CEO of Palliative Care Australia, and Catholic Health Australia, has shown her that unpaid caring is an unexamined policy area and often an afterthought to the policy makers in charge of creating change.
And the issues that unpaid carers face have only gotten worse during the pandemic. Many carers face extreme isolation and mental and financial stress as they not only try to keep their own heads above water, but the person they are also caring for.
Carers Australia was launched as the industry’s peak body in 1993. It’s main goal is to advocate for carers, running programs and sharing resources that support carers, including a podcast series, a mindfulness workshop and personal wellbeing assessment tool to help carers who are experiencing poorer mental health outcomes as a result of the pandemic.
In this week’s Changemaker, Callaghan discusses her journey to Carers Australia, the things that inspire her leadership, and the learnings throughout her career.
Why were you attracted to working in the NFP sector?
I love the not-for-profit sector so much because you’re so much more connected to the people on the ground and feel like you can achieve real change. Working as a policy entrepreneur rather than a bureaucrat really means you can achieve change and you’re not so constrained in your role.
What drew you to the position at Carers Australia specifically?
I saw coming to Carers Australia as a challenge that would try and illuminate, highlight, shine a light on unpaid carers across the country. There are 2.7 million of them and give them a voice and it’s important to have them at the table to be considered when you’re developing policy.
The unpaid carer sector is one of the last unexamined policy areas in health and social services. Unpaid carers are often seen or viewed as “other”, because they’re not integral to health and social service policy development per se, despite facing many challenges at the interface of all of those service sectors. So [for example] you have health, social service, disability, aged care, end of life care, mental health – all of these spaces serve the client or the consumer or the patient, [but] the carer, and the care that they provide, is often discounted.
What are some of the major learnings that you’ve had during your career that have influenced your leadership today?
Understanding how public policy is developed has really influenced where I’ve chosen to work, because I want to make sure that the work I’m doing changes things for the better. Throughout my career I’ve been very involved in the social determinants of health and looking at things from a structural point of view in terms of inequality.
My experience working as a nurse and training in social work have over time helped me understand how to make change happen, but also how to bring everyone along. It’s really important to collaborate. So that’s one of my big learnings, you have to cooperate and collaborate, and you have to be prepared to have some wins and losses.
You really have to understand who your stakeholders are and what value they bring. If you don’t have that understanding, it makes your job hard, and makes achieving change hard. I’ve also learned that sometimes change can take a really long time, and it’s important to build trust with stakeholders and particularly the government. You have to be a trusted voice, and that means you have to really have good evidence, you have to build those relationships and listen.
And what are some of the things that you draw inspiration from in your leadership?
I am very inspired by people I’ve known over my life who I admire, and the way they have led teams or the way they have managed organisations. I also come from a very strong, ethical and values driven place. I make sure that our team understands and knows that values are key to our organisation. We actually review our values every week at our team meeting, and talk about how we’ve lived a particular value in the last week.
Doing that is very important, because I think all the rest can fall into place if you provide leadership that’s values driven, authentic and open to listening to innovation and new ideas. I also think you need to be vulnerable, open to changing your mind, and compassionate.
What are some of the things that have been keeping you sane during lockdown?
I’m actually really lucky. I have a big backyard, two dogs that need to be walked twice a day, two children in their early 20’s and a partner. We’re actually having great fun in lockdown, playing things like Texas Hold’em Poker at night. We’ve also all got our own space to be able to work in or study in which is important.
I do need to emphasise though, that in Canberra it’s early days for us. I think that something that’s been really important for me is putting in a boundary between work and non-work to keep me sane.