Workplace stress, burnout and coping: A qualitative study of the experiences of Australian disability support workers
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Disability support workers (DSWs) are the backbone of contemporary disability support services and the interface through which disability philosophies and policies are translated into practical action. DSWs often experience workplace stress and burnout, resulting in a high turnover rate of employees within the non-professional disability service workforce. The full implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia is set to intensify the current challenges of attracting and retaining DSWs, as the role becomes characterised by greater demands, ambiguity and conflict. The aim of this study was to explore DSWs' perceptions of enjoyable and challenging aspects of disability support work, sources of stress and burnout and the strategies they use to cope when these issues arise. Twelve DSWs workers providing support for adults living with intellectual and physical disabilities were interviewed. Thematic analysis revealed a superordinate theme of 'Balance' comprising three sub-themes: 'Balancing Negatives and Positives', 'Periods of Imbalance', and 'Strategies to Reclaim Balance'. Participants spoke of the rewarding and uplifting times in their job such as watching a client learn new skills and being shown appreciation. These moments were contrasted by emotionally and physically draining aspects of their work, including challenging client behaviour, earning a low income, and having limited power to make decisions. Participants described periods of imbalance, wherein the negatives of their job outweighed the positives, resulting in stress and sometimes burnout. Participants often had to actively seek support and tended to rely on their own strategies to manage stress. Findings suggest that organisational support together with workplace interventions that support DSWs to perceive the positive aspects of their work, such as acceptance and mindfulness-based approaches, may help to limit experiences of stress and burnout. The further development and evaluation of emotion-focused workplace therapies, and interventions that consider organisational (macro) factors is suggested.
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