Direct support professionals (DSPs) have faced increased stress in their roles serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) during the coronavirus pandemic. While DSPs are always dedicated to keeping the people they serve safe, they also must protect their own physical and mental health amid the added pressures brought on by COVID-19. Promoting resilience is a key tool in helping DSPs stay healthy and engaged during these difficult times.
Just like other front-line workers, DSPs are putting themselves and their families at increased risk of contracting the virus by going to work. They may have difficult choices to make with school-age children learning from home. While some DSPs have chosen to leave their jobs and recruitment has continued to be a challenge, others have had to work extensive overtime hours.
To comply with local restrictions related to COVID-19, organizations serving people with IDD have been required to halt or reduce some services. These include transportation services, community participation supports, and employment services supports. In response, clients and families dealing with restricted activities and limited services may express frustration.
Of course, DSPs are dealing with their own fears and frustrations at the same time.
In more usual times, the work of DSPs is both meaningful and demanding. The everyday challenges contribute to high rates of burnout and turnover. With COVID-19 added to the mix, leaders in IDD organizations have even more reason to foster DSPs’ resilience. It benefits all involved if DSPs can maintain their wellness and stay engaged in their job roles.
Dealing With the Effects of Turnover
In 2019, the annual turnover rate for direct support roles was about 44%, according the 2020 annual report, The Case for Inclusion. High turnover contributes to problems you’re likely all too familiar with, such as lengthening waitlists for IDD services. In 2019, direct support roles had full-time vacancy rates of 8% and part-time rates of 17%.
Even if persons with IDD are off the waitlist and receiving services, turnover among their supports disrupts their community relationships and their goals. As stated in the report, DSPs “are the bridge between people with diverse abilities and the communities where they live, work, and play.” Even the safety of people with IDD is compromised by support staff turnover.
Acknowledging Stress and Addressing Burnout
Although inadequate pay (often determined by Medicaid) is the primary factor motivating turnover, other variables, such as high levels of stress and even trauma, contribute to the problem. Some DSPs may have traumatic experiences in their past. Naturally, the possibility of being cursed at, enduring insults, and being hit by the persons they serve can be distressing.
Organizational approaches that foster resilience, like training and supportive supervision, can help ease stress and reduce turnover.
Examining Complex Contributing Factors
Implementing these approaches is critical during the pandemic, which is exacerbating DSPs’ workplace challenges. That’s the main finding of research conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals in April and May 2020.
The research found that 34% of DSPs are working increased hours during the pandemic. And 64% of those they serve cannot see any family or friends. This isolation has led to boredom and depression among people with IDD, which DSPs report affects their own emotional health.
Promoting Healthy Coping Strategies
The good news is that resilience allows DSPs to stay anchored in their strength and professional values, even amid the stress of hard times like these. Further, you have the power to foster resilience in DSPs through trauma-informed frameworks that are deeply rooted in the field.
The field of direct support arose in response to activism by persons with IDD who demanded to be fully integrated into community life and decisions about their care. This goal of full participation in public and private life remains the core measure of success for those you serve.
Yet reaching this goal requires support from others — namely direct support professionals. Resilience is often defined simply as the “ability to bounce back” from life’s stresses. Disability activism reminds us that we rarely find resilience alone, although caring for ourselves is especially important during the pandemic.
The framework of interdependence has newfound relevance in the age of COVID-19, when our connection to each other constitutes both a critical risk and vital lifeline.
Learning From the Disability Justice Movement
The disability justice movement affirms that we do all depend on each other, which is not a sign of weakness but a way to foster strength. Resilience is not a trait, but “an active practice” that anyone can engage in. And, as Maren Gibson, a DSP trainer writes, “resilience is best created through relationships that provide unconditional love, honest feedback, an opportunity to fail and grow, and a group of people with whom you can share your experiences.”
DSPs can find resilience in the disability rights communities they belong to: self-advocates with IDD, colleagues, and supervisors.
Fostering Mutual Support
Looking for bright spots, the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals refers to the influx of people looking for work in the field as the “silver lining” of the pandemic. You can use the principles of mutual support and disability justice to onboard new staff and support experienced employees:
Employ thorough and engaging training that not only discusses disability justice, but applies it. The University of Minnesota study found that 27% of DSPs hired during the pandemic are not receiving the typical training. In these unusual times, you can still find ways to enhance training. The National Association of Direct Support Professionals encourages using role-plays and supervised direct engagement rather than reading policy manuals.
Use supervision to clearly define the scope of the work. Role confusion is a primary source of stress for DSPs. Support DSPs in clarifying their role and setting healthy boundaries.
Have robust training for supervisors. Such nuanced and relational supervision requires an organizational emphasis on training supervisors.
In training DSPs, make it clear that they are there to support, not constrain, those they serve. Relying on participants to determine their own goals and activities empowers people with IDD. It also reduces conflict and relieves an undue burden on DSPs.
Empower people with IDD to help determine their own COVID-19 guidelines. Educate them on risks and let them make their own decisions to alleviate painful emotional impacts of the pandemic.
By taking a concerted approach to resilience in your IDD organization, you can communicate and supervise DSPs with understanding. Such mutual support builds confidence among your staff and the persons they serve. Together they can bounce back effectively from their experiences in 2020.