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Why culture is the key business driver in disability

8 September 2021 at 6:25 pm
Fran Connelley
A provider’s ability to attract great people relies on the strength of their workplace culture, writes Fran Connelley, author of new book Workplace Culture and the NDIS, a guide for leaders in the Australian disability sector.

Fran Connelley | 8 September 2021 at 6:25 pm


Why culture is the key business driver in disability
8 September 2021 at 6:25 pm

A provider’s ability to attract great people relies on the strength of their workplace culture, writes Fran Connelley, author of new book Workplace Culture and the NDIS, a guide for leaders in the Australian disability sector.

Last month, the federal government launched its new A Life Changing Life multi-media campaign aimed at attracting “at least another 130,000 to 150,000 workers over the next few years” into the care sector (aged care, veterans and disability). Attracting more people into the disability sector requires more than improved entry pathways, development programs and a “feel good” $13.3 million national TV campaign aimed at changing perceptions.

With pay conditions constrained by artificial price caps, a provider’s ability to attract great people relies on the strength of their workplace culture. In fact, culture has now become the key business driver in the disability sector.

Culture and the disability workforce 

It is fair to say that the immense pressures on workplace culture in the disability sector began long before this pandemic. An accelerating “perfect storm” of external pressures had been gathering over many years. The constantly shifting goalposts of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (five different ministers in eight years), a royal commission and a new Quality and Safeguards Commission were swiftly followed by bushfires, floods – and a pandemic. 

Early in 2020, disability support workers (DSWs) were not granted essential worker status. Providers scrambled to adequately protect staff and clients as they were told to source their own PPE. The frontline of disability was left physically and financially at risk as shifts were cancelled and rosters upended. The evidence points to increasing workforce fragility.

  • In April 2020, a study of 2,341 DSWs found, “there are widespread perceptions that the disability workforce is dangerously overlooked. Staff are extremely anxious… additional workloads have made it difficult to respond to heightened health and safety needs.” 
  • In July 2020, a study of 357 DSWs found that, “20 per cent of respondents could not pay a bill, their mortgage or rent or actually went without meals.”
  • In June 2021, a study found that 45 per cent of workers said they were aware of harms affecting clients in the last 12 months.

A breakdown in trust on many levels has reduced the capacity of an already stretched frontline.

Workplace culture is the key determinant of success

There are a few reasons why culture has become the key business driver in this sector:

  1. The workforce shortfall. 

There are now more than 466,000 NDIS participants. Providers need to attract approximately 83,000 more support workers in the next three years and, at the same time, address staff turnover rates of 17 to 25 per cent. Offering a supportive team environment for new recruits is needed now more than ever.

  1. The customer or “participant”.

The disability customer is not looking for a transaction. They are looking for someone they can trust. What the employee feels, the customer will feel. So if your support worker feels valued and supported, so will your customer. The NDIS has imposed a transactional business model onto a service model that relies on trusted relationships. Relationships cannot be “commoditised” into a unit cost model. This inherent disconnect is creating more stress on frontline staff. If not addressed, great people will continue to leave. 

  1. The new key relationship.

Under the NDIS, the new key relationship for financial sustainability is the one between the frontline support worker and the participant. Every other layer in the organisation exists to ensure the quality of that relationship. Teamwork and clear, consistent internal communications are a prerequisite for effective service delivery.

  1. Quality.

Ramping up the volume of daily documentation does not ensure or enable quality customer service. Quality service is contingent upon a culture embedded in lived values. Frontline culture is the key to safety outcomes and quality service delivery. 

  1. Shorter Shifts.

Because of the new funding model and the fluctuations in client demand, support workers now face the dilemma of unstable rostered hours. Many support workers are now juggling shorter shifts across multiple employers just to earn a living. This issue goes to the heart of culture, undermining both service quality and mission integrity.

Culture must take a higher priority

It’s time we elevated the role of culture beyond the HR function, staff engagement surveys and employee value propositions. It requires an intentional, whole-of-organisation strategy that embeds values into the daily decision making of every part of the business. 

It’s also time for rational thinking around the flow on effects of the NDIA’s artificial price caps on this sector. With insufficient funds available to provide critical on-the-job training and support, it becomes increasingly difficult for providers to retain new workers let alone deliver quality services, build a values driven workplace culture – or remain solvent. 

We need to do more than simply change perceptions of the sector. We need to change a few realities.


Fran Connelley’s latest book, Workplace Culture & the NDIS, is available from Amazon, Booktopia or direct 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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