Workforce issues across the family relationship services sector: Models, responses and strategies

AFRC Issues No. 5 – December 2009

1. Background

Family relationship services refer to those that aim to support children, young people and adults to develop and sustain nurturing family relationships, and to minimise the social and economic costs associated with disrupted family relationships. The sector consists of a group of services with three interlinked sets of aims:

  • early intervention to prevent family relationship problems from arising (services such as parenting education and skills training);
  • providing support to stabilise families where problems have arisen (services such as family counselling); and
  • helping families to manage their relationships during any period of family breakdown, including post-separation, and to resolve disputes themselves without going to court (services such as family dispute resolution and children's contact services).

The core of the sector in Australia consists of over 100 community organisations that receive funding under the Australian Government's Family Relationships Services Program (FRSP)1 - although services may also receive funds from other government programs or from religious agencies, charities, or user contributions. The FRSP is jointly funded by the Attorney-General's Department (AGD) and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

Why the family relationship services workforce matters

In order to fulfil their goals and achieve social and personal outcomes, family relationship services must be staffed in appropriate and sustainable ways.

The health of the workforce within the family relationship services sector has recently become a priority, with the FRSP Senior Executive Forum (representing FRSP-funded services) reiterating the need for accurate data about the workforce and reaffirming its commitment to identifying strategies to address workforce challenges through its Working Group on Workforce Development (FaHCSIA, 2008). The reasons for doing so are compelling. Remuneration in this sector is low compared with similar industries, and there is evidence of emerging challenges in recruiting, retaining and training practitioners, and in establishing career paths within the service system, particularly in rural and remote locations (FaHCSIA, 2008).

Because these services are labour intensive, the ways in which family relationship services are staffed and how staff capacity is sustained have significance for children and families, managers and practitioners, policy-makers, and the wider community. Like many other human services, family relationship services have enabling effects, in that the benefits of service provision extend beyond those individuals who directly use the services. Such services require a great deal of time and care, as they offer to build the capacity of people to meet their own social and emotional needs and better meet the needs of others. As well as improving clients' lives, the effective provision of these kinds of services has significant flow-on effects throughout the economy and society, further emphasising the need for a stable and sustainable workforce (England, Budig, & Folbre, 2002).

At an organisational level, unstable or inappropriate staffing arrangements incur additional direct and indirect costs that compromise service quality, efficiency and sustainability. Direct costs include those that arise from unnecessarily having to select, orient and train new staff, and indirect costs include loss of organisational knowledge, experience and expertise, and reduction in staff morale. Operating with too few staff overall (understaffing) or with under-qualified staff makes it difficult for agencies to run programs that meet clients' needs, and compromises the organisation's capacity to complete the administrative requirements of funding agencies, thereby jeopardising program continuity (Flaxman, Muir, & Oprea, 2009).

In service delivery, unstable staffing depletes capacity, reducing prospects for the strong relationship formation between staff and clients that is considered so essential for service quality and successful outcomes (Colton & Roberts, 2007). High staff turnover and caseloads may limit opportunities for clients and staff to get to know each other, and may also affect the quality and timeliness of decision-making, which is particularly problematic where child safety and wellbeing may be involved (DePanfilis & Zlotnik, 2008). A further problem is homogeneous staffing, which may impede the capacity for organisations to build relationships with and meet the needs of diverse populations (including Indigenous Australians, culturally and linguistically diverse populations or people with a disability). Inconsistencies in staffing arrangements may also compromise equity of access, with some services not being consistently available in some areas such as remote locations.

Workforce research and family relationship services

Workforce issues are complex, multi-faceted, interlinked and dynamic, and manifest in various ways in different community services sub-sectors and in different organisational, cultural and geographic contexts. Research is only beginning to unpack the context-specific nature of these challenges, and to explore the different models and strategies required to respond to these challenges in various community services contexts.

The services offered in the family relationship services sector are diverse and often require staff to work closely with a range of other services. Thus, the workforce - and potential workforce - consists of a pool of personnel with disparate professional identities and educational backgrounds who have skill sets that are shared and transferable across other family services and in other areas of community services. Family relationship services are thus likely to be affected by workforce issues and challenges in other areas of child and family services, many of which may be shaped by broader trends in community services.

As yet, there is no definitive academic research that focuses on the family relationship services workforce in Australia, and other research about the sector has tended to overlook or only touch on workforce matters.2 In outlining the context shaping Australian relationship education and the challenges affecting these services, Halford and Simons (2005) emphasised the need to build evidence-based approaches and expand program access, but their arguments focused on aspects of program design, such as timing, reach, targeting and tailoring. They did not consider issues of workforce quality and capacity, thus underestimating the challenge of arranging human resources in order to effectively implement programs and achieve the organisation's aims.

Indicators of workforce quality and capacity are not routinely monitored in family relationship services, perhaps reflecting the low profile of human resource issues in community services research and management generally. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (HRSC on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, 1998) conducted a national survey of providers of marriage education in Australia that counted numbers of courses and participants, but not numbers of workers, or any other worker characteristics. It is therefore no surprise that key players in the family services sector have voiced concerns about the lack of information about challenges affecting not-for-profit agencies, including workforce challenges (Families Australia, 2007).

Although there has been a lack of academic research and routine monitoring, several program evaluations and other studies of the sector have highlighted workforce issues and challenges. Issues raised include recruitment and retention difficulties, poor remuneration, high proportions of part-time work, and an ageing workforce (Family Relationships Services Australia [FRSA], 2008a; Morgan Disney & Associates, 2004; Urbis Keys Young, 2004).

In associated areas of community services, there is a burgeoning interest in workforce issues, especially in the area of child welfare (including both child protection and family support). The proliferation of studies in the United States has caused some to call for the coordination of research designs and methods, and standardisation of definitions of concepts like "retention" and "turnover" to ensure comparability (DePanfilis & Zlotnik, 2008).

In Australia, a number of workforce studies have been conducted in child and family welfare over the last decade, as service systems have come under strain. Research has included interviews with stakeholders about recruitment, retention and workforce management strategies (e.g., Hodgkin, 2002), with some using comparative methodology to explore the views of employers, policy-makers and researchers as to the factors contributing to the turnover of professional child welfare staff in different national welfare contexts (Healy, Meagher, & Cullin, 2009; Meagher, Cortis, & Healy, 2009). Other research has focused on specific occupations in other contexts, rather than on community services sectors, such as a longitudinal study of Australian rural social workers (Lonne & Cheers, 2004), and Healy and Meagher's (2007) study (using survey data and interviews) of the educational preparedness of social workers for child welfare work. Surveys have been conducted across community services, including the largest national sample survey of social and community services workers in Australia, conducted by the Australian Services Union (ASU, 2007). A broader statistical resource comes from Meagher and Healy's (2005, 2006) analysis of the characteristics of workers in community services occupations from the Australian Census.

Despite these studies, evidence of the specific issues affecting the workforce in the family relationship services sector remains scant. This is problematic because, although it is relatively small compared to other community sub-sectors (FRSA, 2008a), the sector's capacity and sustainability is strategically important to family wellbeing, especially for the most fragile or vulnerable families. While these studies together capture issues that are also likely to be found in family relationship services, research needs to more systematically unpack the specific issues and challenges in this (and other) community services subsectors and contexts.

Approach and scope

In the remainder of this paper, we review and analyse literature relating to workforce issues, models,  challenges and strategies in the family relationship services sector specifically and where such information is not available, in community services more broadly.

Due to the disparate backgrounds and skills of the family relationship services workforce, the review incorporates information about workers employed in a range of programs that aim to support and nurture children and families, not just those funded under FRSP. Relevant articles, policy documentation and submissions were identified through an extensive search of academic databases, and the websites of the state, territory and Commonwealth governments, and of non-government organisations and peak bodies. Articles were surveyed primarily to source specific information about the family relationship services workforce, and secondly, to source information about those community service subsectors that could be expected to work with family relationship services. Australian and international literature was included, with efforts made to review overseas literature that had most relevance to Australia.

Articles were analysed using the categories of workforce composition and characteristics; working conditions; workforce dynamics; workforce strategies; and background and contextual issues to provide the framework for discussion in this paper.

We explore the origins of the family relationship services workforce, and some of its key characteristics, before assessing the workforce challenges evident in the sector, including recruitment and retention, and the factors affecting these. Finally, we assess the range of workforce strategies that are, or could be, adopted in family relationship services and related sectors, appraising their strengths and appropriateness for addressing key challenges.

Endnotes

1. The FRSP was incorporated into the new Family Support Program in February 2009. For more information, go to: <www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/families-and-children/programs-services/family-support-program>.

2. It is hoped that the workforce mapping project for the FRSP, being developed by FaHCSIA’s Working Group on Workforce Development, will assist with addressing this problem.