National survey of FaRS-funded service providers

Overview of services and service provider perspectives
Research Report – August 2018

6 Staff capacity and retention

To meet the complex needs of local communities, a combination of professional and personal qualities is needed, particularly for the provision of sustainable services. This section will describe the capacity of services (largely in terms of staffing and/or resources) to meet community and client needs and to train and retain staff.

6.1 Staff capacity

We've got a real shortage of skilled staff out there at the moment … we've had all this injection of funding but we actually don't have the staff to put in those roles. (Service provider)

Although the previous sections indicated that FaRS and SFVS survey respondents expressed relatively high levels of confidence in their quality of their service and their own professional skills, survey respondents in all geographical areas identified issues with staffing levels and capacity that negatively affected their ability to perform all core activities. In particular, survey respondents across both FaRS and SFVS indicated that their service did not always have the resources or staffing levels needed to undertake follow-up work with clients or to identify and respond to changing community needs (see Table 6.1). This echoes the earlier reported finding (see section 3.3) that survey respondents spend a relatively small amount of time on such activities, in comparison to service delivery and intake. Survey respondents from SFVS, in particular, indicated that they struggled with sufficient staff capacity to meet general service user needs.

Table 6.1: Service capacity of FaRS and SFVS over last 12 months
  Score out of 5 (average of responses) Responses agree/strongly agree (%)
  SFVS FaRS SFVS FaRS
Our service has enough staff to meet service user demands 2.4 2.9 16 36
Our service has enough staff to adequately intake and assess clients, including their safety 3.2 3.3 48 60
Our service has enough staff to identify and respond to changing needs in our community 2.6 2.9 13 35
Our service has the capacity to follow up clients 2.8 3.1 29 47
Our service has the capacity to provide prevention and early intervention services 3.0 3.2 41 56

Note: Totals based on scale 1-5 with 1 = Strongly disagree and 5 = Strongly agree

Service capacity was reported as an issue by survey respondents across all geographic areas. Although survey respondents in outer regional and remote areas were slightly more positive about their service's staffing capacity (while still indicating capacity issues), the small number of survey respondents from these areas means that this finding should be interpreted with caution.

Table 6.2: Service capacity by location
  Score out of 5
(average of responses)
Responses agree/
strongly agree (%)
  Metro Inner region Outer region/remote Metro Inner region Outer region/remote
Our service has enough staff to meet service user demands 2.71 2.45 2.94 30 19 40
Our service has enough staff to adequately intake and assess clients, including their safety 3.37 3.07 3.36 58 50 60
Our service has enough staff to identify and respond to changing needs in our community 2.8 2.64 2.98 27 19 40
Our service has the capacity to follow up clients (e.g. around referral outcomes) 2.85 3 3.22 34 45 48
Our service has the capacity to provide prevention and early intervention services 3.01 3.2 3.36 41 43 54

Note: Totals based on scale 1-5 with 1= Strongly disagree and 5 = Strongly agree.

The qualitative interviews similarly indicated that service capacity was an issue for FaRS and SFVS services. Interviewees indicated that although services worked hard to meet community needs, they could struggle to manage service demand. This often involved juggling current client demands with emerging community needs.

I think the thing to say is … it used to be full of people who would want help with their relationship, under that general umbrella heading. Now as time has gone on, because we're working with a more disadvantaged population, the group has got loads of mental health, suicide, financial troubles, high conflict, abuse, depression … it's a lot more complex than, you know, 10 years ago. (Service provider)

We've had so many families wanting help with young people and suicide, and we've had so many families wanting help with older people … ageing issues and family violence stuff is an ageing issue in families … so we haven't looked for them. Usually we're looking for how we can be more relevant to ones we know we're not reaching, but they're the two - the other two are ones that are just jumping out at us without us needing to look, and it is really - you know, how we resource that when we know it's a need, but without taking away from the demand that's already there. (Service provider)

Another interviewee noted the ripple effect that the provision of training could generate. For example, in addition to dealing with the costs of ensuring staff received appropriate training, when services with already stretched resources had staff away to attend training, the service's capacity to meet client needs was further challenged.

As noted earlier in the discussion on waiting times, when services could not see clients within a reasonable time they were often able to refer them to other services. However, demands on service time and resources could also mean that services' capacity to offer new services - or even to undertake intake or referral activities - to emerging client groups was limited. One participant in the qualitative interviews stated that at times, the demands on her service meant that every two or three weeks they had to stop accepting new clients for a couple of days. In such instances, the service would sometimes have to request clients call back the following Monday or leave a telephone number for the service to follow up.

Participants in the interviews also indicated that a service's capacity and capability did not only rest on the professional qualifications or technical skills of its staff, or on overall staffing levels, but on the staff's personal characteristics and the kinds of staff the service could employ. For example, one participant in the interviews noted that male community members are more likely to engage with a male counsellor. This participant described how her male counsellor generally worked with male clients and ran specific parenting programs for men, for which uptake from male clients was consistently high. She rated this worker highly for his professional skill but also for his life experience as a parent and grandfather. However, because the service only had one other male counsellor to help deliver the program, they were only able to run it twice a year.

6.2 Staff development and retention

Staff recruitment and retention issues were described as further affecting the service capacity issues identified above. In particular, participants in the qualitative interviews indicated that the recruitment and retention of staff was challenging for services. In particular, recruitment and retention of young people and people from CALD and Indigenous communities was described as an ongoing issue for FaRS and SFVS services, as was obtaining and keeping staff in outer regional or remote areas.

If you've not grown up in that kind of environment [outer regional area], it's very difficult to get people there … we've done it many times. We've recruited people from cities and they've gone out just with an idyllic dream of what it's like living out there … and they don't last. On paper they're great because they've got the qualifications and skills but they don't have the life experience. (Service provider)

Participants in the qualitative interviews described recruitment processes where they would have to choose between applications from well-qualified individuals with little on-the-ground experience or individuals with intricate knowledge, expertise and experience with local community groups but few or no formal qualifications. As a result, services described having to adopt a range of strategies to fill positions and to ensure their staffing profile was appropriate to user demand. One service, for example, described forming relationships with universities in order to have temporary student placements. This provided the students with valuable work experience but also allowed the service to identify potential candidates for future work, when vacancies arose, and to observe the student's suitability for that specific service. Services also indicated that employing staff with few formal qualifications, but with good connections to the local community, was often important for meeting community needs, and ensuring cultural appropriateness, particularly (but not exclusively) in remote areas.

We increasingly employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and core community workers who might not have the qualifications but who are trained in some kind of Diploma level, Graduate Diploma, Vocational Diploma level to provide therapeutic services … we've got good numbers in those programs, we've got good numbers of staff that we've employed from those communities. (Service provider)