Staffing challenges for disability sector: report
9 August 2022 at 12:01 am
In some areas people with disability are waiting months for allied health services due to a shortage of staff, according to a new report.
People with disability may be at risk due to a shortage of allied health workers, a new report reveals.
The National Disability Service (NDS) Workforce Census Report, released today, found a decline in allied health workers around the country, with the permanent employment rate for those workers dropping from 83 per cent to 78 per cent.
Decreases in the permanent employment rate for allied health workers were observed in all states except Western Australia, which saw a sizeable increase from 67 per cent to 86 per cent. The state also recorded an increase in the permanent employment rate for disability support workers, from 57 per cent to 72 per cent.
The report found that difficulty accessing allied health services contributed to underutilisation of NDIS funds, particularly in remote areas. Meanwhile, wait lists for allied health services are compromising the safety and wellbeing of NDIS participants, according to Dee-Anne Kapene, CEO Coastal Residential Service.
“It is difficult to access good quality allied health professionals, and even more difficult to attract them to the regions,” she said.
“Clients are waiting three to six months, which is concerning as therapists are needed to sign off on necessary living assets such as safety rails.”
Disruption, turnover and declines
The report covers the six months from July to December 2021 and notes the “continued disruption” that the disability sector experienced as the COVID pandemic and associated restrictions continued.
It is informed by NDS’ Workforce Census survey, which included 274 responses covering a workforce of 34,469 people. The census found that even late in 2021, providers were struggling to recruit and train allied health workers in the disability sector, driving up wait times for allied health services.
According to the report, across the sector the permanent employment rate declined slightly from 61 per cent in June to 60 per cent in the survey period. However, the permanent employment rate for disability support workers remained steady, at 53 per cent.
However, Queensland and South Australia saw declines in permanent disability support workers, from 44 to 41 per cent in Queensland and 48 to 36 per cent in South Australia.
There were also fluctuations in full time, part time and casual employees across the sector and the states.
In NSW and South Australia, the number of full time disability support workers increased.
The sector turnover rate for both casual and permanent employees increased over the survey period, from 22 per cent to 26 per cent for casual employees and from 10 per cent to 12 per cent for permanent employees. The casual turnover rate for allied health workers increased from 13 per cent to 20 per cent, but by just three percent for disability support workers.
And the weekly hours of disability support workers declined by 1.8 hours, while allied health workers saw their hours reduce by 8.4 hours.
With higher levels of staff turnover and decreases in the permanent employment rate, the report suggests that providers facing higher costs may be struggling to provide the appropriate supervision and mentoring for allied health staff. Some workers also appear to prefer the flexibility that casual work offers.
Diversity in the disability workforce remains an issue. The disability workforce is staffed mostly by women, who make up 68 per cent of the workforce, while 62 per cent of NDIS participants are male.
Of the 273 respondents to the census, just 24 per cent employed three or more people with disability, down from 30 per cent at the last survey), while 49 per cent (down from 50 per cent last survey) either did not employ people with disability or did not know if they did.
More than half – 51 per cent – of respondents employed at least one person with disability in an internal role, and only four per cent employed three or more people with disability in management roles, down from 11 per cent in the last survey.
Seven per cent of respondents reported two or more people with disability in board roles, down from nine per cent in the last survey period.
According to the data, 39 per cent of survey respondents employed at least one or more staff members who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. Eighteen per cent employed three or more, 34 per cent did not employ any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander staff, and 29 per cent either did not know if they did or did not keep records on the topic.
COVID continued to provide challenges for the disability sector, with 51 per cent of respondents reported an increase in overtime.
Twenty-one per cent of respondents reported an increase in their use of agency staff, and 38 per cent reported an increase in staff turnover. However, 49 per cent reported no change on staff turnover due to the pandemic.
Variance in the numbers of allied health workers available in the sector are driving higher wait lists for services, and NDS members reported that a lack of affordable and appropriate housing in regional areas was making it difficult to hire new staff.
The report notes that the data “may point to the long-term national neglect of allied health workforce needs”, and that the “current NDIS National Workforce Plan is unlikely to effectively address these issues”.
NDS CEO Laurie Leigh said the federal government’s upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit would provide an opportunity to partner with providers to support disability workforces.
“This report also highlights the ongoing issues faced by the disability sector in recruiting the allied health workforce needed, especially to provide services in remote and very remote areas,” she added.
“The disability sector is ready and willing to work collaboratively with the federal government to update the Disability Workforce Plan, and urge the government to also consider a national Allied Health Workforce Plan to map workforce gaps and implement strategies to meet projected need for allied health supports, including under the NDIS.”
Heads of HR or finance for disability service providers are invited to participate in future surveys for the NDS Workforce Census, held twice a year. For further information on the Workforce Census or to register to participate in the next short survey please visit NDS Workforce Census.