‘Direct care staff are arguably the most important employees in the mental handicap
service’ (Sharrard 1992).
‘Since staff constitute the largest slice of revenue expenditure in services, increasing the quality of staff performance is crucial if scarce resources are to optimally benefit people with intellectual disabilities’ (Hatton et al. 1999).
So, what can be done to increase the performance of the staff who are already employed and to ensure their retention in the Celtic Tiger economy of today? This article summarises some of the general findings of a recent study of staff in an Irish intellectual disability service. The study was framed to investigate differences in the perceived levels of stress, job satisfaction, organisational and social support between day and residential staff. In fact the differences between the two groups were not found to be significant, and staff did not appear to be particularly dissatisfied/satisfied with their employment. Some members of both groups reported high levels of stress; others reported feeling even better than usual! In this short study, shift work did not appear to cause more stress than day work–a finding replicated by many other research studies. Since stress and job dissatisfaction are known to be predictors of staff turnover, the study included questions about how both these problems might be combated within the organisation.
Residential staff (who work shifts and are generally community-based) reported that they would like increased support from the organisation–scheduled meetings with a supervisor with whom they could discuss future plans and ‘off-load’ any problems they had encountered. This concept of social support was suggested again and again, pointing to the staff need for feedback on performance and future direction, and an underlying need to feel listened-to and valued. This group also suggested that staff social nights should be organised to promote social support throughout the organisation. Community staff in intellectual disability care often report feelings of isolation and lack of support. The sense of isolation is increased for those who work on their own or who have little opportunity to meet other employees in the organisation. Similarly, some of them also reported that the impossibility of taking time out from difficult and challenging clinical situations, when one is working on one’s own, adds to stress and job dissatisfaction.
Other research has shown that employees find what they see as unnecessary and time-consuming paperwork unduly stressful; this was also the main cause of stress highlighted by the day-service staff in this study. Staff in the residential service reported that working longer than 8-hour shifts was very tiring and they looked for a change in the system of rostering. Many also disliked the long hours involved in carrying out sleepover shifts, particularly those extending from early on one day to late on the next. They suggested that shifts could be made shorter, with recognition given for the fact that they are on call throughout the night. Some asked that more staff be employed; others did, of course, ask for more money. Another prevalent theme, among both day-service and residential staff groups, was the request to have their role more clearly defined.
Many staff saw training and promotional prospects as being outside of their present employment and would like to be given opportunities for the same. Those staff who reported that they did feel stressed and dissatisfied sought training in stress management and facilities to assist in de-stressing–yoga, sport and counselling. (The organisation does offer such counselling, and wider publicising of this is advisable to ensure that all staff are aware of the facilities already available.)
In this study, the most common factors in job satisfaction and lowering stress levels in work voiced by the staff interviewed were that they should be listened to, have access to all relevant information, and have their suggestions taken on board. These suggestions are all feasible in implementation. In the pro-employee climate in Ireland today, if learning disability services are to retain valuable and expensive staff, they would do well to listen to their needs and suggestions.