Workplace culture and employee retention in the disability sector

4-minute read – NDIS Business Growth Series – Workplace Culture

If you haven’t read the 2020 NDS State of the Disability Sector, it is well worth a read, especially if you have read the report from last year and years previous.

The report once again points out the shared challenges of NDIS providers and how they have escalated or declined over the last year.

Of course, the last 12 months have been unique, with Covid-19 no doubt influencing the sector extensively, and providers and the workforce impacted by the virus and the restrictions put in place to manage it.

The workforce in 2020

Of interest, is the state of the workforce report, and the ongoing difficulty providers are having recruiting and retaining people in key roles, especially those working directly with participants.

In the 2020 report, almost 60% of NDS survey respondents noted extreme or moderate difficulty in recruiting disability support workers, and 40% reported difficulty retaining them – up from 34% in 2019.

In previous articles, we have spoken with experts about some of the reasons providers might have difficulty with employee retention, and investigated strategies that can be implemented to more effectively hold onto valuable employees.

One of the main challenges identified by HR specialists was the lack of job security often associated with frontline roles.

In 2020, the NDS reports a ‘distinct shift towards permanent employment’, with the highest level of permanent employment reported since 2015.

With this in mind, while job security almost certainly still has a role in retention of disability support workers, there are clearly other factors at play.

What is workplace culture?

Workplace culture, at its most basic level, is the environment you build for your employees – it’s that organisation’s personality; how it feels.

It affects and is influenced by elements like leadership and management, career growth opportunities, communication and collaboration, employee interaction, recruitment, policies, flexibility and a number of other areas.

Workplace culture is also an important factor in retention.

While challenges like policy, salary and job security aren’t easily overcome in the current market, workplace culture is something a provider can have a lot more control over, and can use to help increase retention.

Testing your workplace culture

Though workplace culture can be carefully cultivated and nurtured, in many organisations it is just something that grows and changes organically, which – depending on the result – can be a positive or a negative for a business.

Culture can be optimistic and energetic, motivating, open, collaborative, inspiring. In contrast, it can be toxic, with a lot of resentment, careless communication, anger, disengagement or just dissociation – a place where people just ‘get through the day’.

Obviously, if your workplace culture is the latter, if it is toxic, it is highly likely good employees will quickly see this, and look for new employment in an organisation that fosters a more positive and productive environment.

If you don’t know what your current workplace culture is, or even if you think you do, it can easily be tested and confirmed by asking your employees.

Simple workplace surveys can test the culture by asking employees to identify traits of the workplace now and how they would like it to be.

Taking it a step further, your organisation could also hold (externally, objectively led) focus groups to identify how the workplace currently feels and how it should feel, to better attract and retain employees.

Changing your workplace culture

If it turns out your workplace culture is not as positive as hoped, and it may in fact be contributing to (or at least not helping) your employee retention, it’s time to get to work!

Changing culture is not easily done – you cannot just declare to employees that culture has to change, that they suddenly have to feel happier and respect their managers more.

The process must be a collaborative one, that is supported both from the top and the bottom.

Here are some of the fundamentals for improving workplace culture in your organisation:

  1. Defining ideal workplace culture

Working with employees from all levels and departments within the organisation, start by defining the ideal culture for your organisation, with your Employee Value Proposition at its foundation.

This can be done through independent surveys, workshops and consultation and reinforced through internal communications.

  1. Lead from the front

The quickest way to destroy a cultural movement is to have leaders who don’t live up to it.

For example, if your aim is to build a more supportive and collaborative culture, after having a culture of mistrust and silos; having a leader who doesn’t communicate and dismisses employee concerns, will immediately undermine any hope of positive change.

Start by ensuring you have the right leaders in place. Leaders who naturally embody the culture you want to create and can walk-the-walk, showing employees how it looks every day.

  1. Communicate quick wins

Most often, organisations want to change a more negative culture into a positive culture; they want to iron out and remove anything that may be making the environment toxic.

To show employees you are serious, you need to deliver some quick wins.

For example, if, as in the last section, you are aiming to build a more collaborative environment, start by setting up some clear channels for two-way communication that enables employees to be part of that collaboration.

When feedback is submitted, ensure employees are aware of when it is acted upon and how, so they can see the effectiveness of those communication mechanisms. This will create trust in the movement and help to build a belief that it can be achieved.

  1. Put a spotlight on the right behaviour

Ultimately, changing workplace culture is about changing behaviour – sometimes of the many, sometimes of the few.

Certain behaviour will align with your vision for workplace culture, other behaviour will work to undermine and destroy it.

When employees or leaders exemplify the right behaviour, reward them, either through incentives, or by sharing their work with other staff and celebrating the win together.

A great example of this is an organisation that came from a particularly negative culture, within which employee morale was very low, partly due to a lack of feeling valued by management.

As a quick win, the CEO of the company implemented a monthly morning tea, within which she selected a half dozen people from various levels within the organisation to join her for a safe and open conversation.

After seeing some of their feedback had been implemented, a small but important shift in employee morale was measured.

With just one, simple activity, this CEO had started a movement!


There are a lot of factors involved in effective retention.

While more permanent roles and evolved policies will likely help improve this ongoing challenge in the NDIS, organisations need to look internally, not just externally, in order to keep hold of the industry’s best performers.

VisiCase provides an NDIS-ready business automation platform, built on powerful workflows. It helps you manage, streamline and optimise every component of your business, and its modules empower a positive employee and client experience.

Image by KrakenImages

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