Worker Burnout and Staff Retention in the Community Sector – A Way Forward

Worker Burnout and Staff Retention…there is a way forward


The Community Services sector and the Personal Welfare Services Sectors are two of the growing employment sectors in Australia. In 2020 the Community Services Sector employed 710,250 people and the Personal Welfare Services Sector employed 276,258 people. Combined these sectors employed 968,438 people. In anyone’s terms this is a huge number to employ. I would venture to add that with the growth of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) this will continue to grow.

These are sectors where the focus is on professional and personal care, on concern for the welfare and wellbeing of others and for community development. With this focus it is alarming that there is a high rate of staff turnover and worker burnout.

While not advocating that staff turnover and burnout will ever be eradicated, I propose that there are ways to reduce both turnover and burnout in the sector.

Contributing Factors

There are a number of contributing factors to both rates of staff turnover and worker burnout. I don’t intend on devoting space to a thorough examination of these factors but the following is an indicative list of what some of these contributing factors may be:

  • Too much time spent in meetings, email correspondence
  • The decision-making structure of the organisation
  • Poor time management
  • The most capable workers being overloaded
  • The “privatisation” of the welfare sector and funding politically decided using neo liberal policy structures
  • Competitive tendering resulting in cost cutting
  • High workloads and excessive paperwork

I could go on. But our focus is on what we can do about it. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic and lockdowns.

(Further detail on workplace stress factors: Sources of stress toxic stress)

Staff Retention

Replacing staff represents a significant cost to any employer. A reasonable estimate is the replacement of a staff member represents 33% of that employee’s annual salary. For example, if a position attracted an income of $45,000 to replace that person would cost the organisation $15000

Can your organisation afford this cost every time a person leaves the organisation? It might seem high but this figure includes indirect cost such as lower staff morale, loss of productivity, loss of knowledge, the period of time a new employee will take to get up to speed etc.


Burnout is a horrible thing. It is the result of being in an extended period of excessive stress

People experiencing burnout feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and not in a position to meet the demands of the job. If the stress continues the person will lose motivation for the job they previously enjoyed. Productivity will decrease, energy levels will be low and a person will feel, and voice, feelings of hopelessness. This will be accompanied by increased cynicism and resentment. But it just won’t impact on the workplace. It will spill over into other areas of the person’s life. Recovery can take a long time.

Burnout needs to be dealt with as soon as it is recognised.

Many workplaces have structures in place to assist the person. These need to activated as soon as possible.

But is shouldn’t be seen as just the worker’s problem. Much of the control in both retaining staff and preventing burnout are in the hands of the organisation and management.

A Way Forward

I’m certain that anyone working in the community sector has observed these issues. They are not new. Working alongside people in crisis or requiring interventions to assist with daily activities is not easy. It can take a heavy toll and “caring fatigue” can set in. But there is a way forward to reduce both the number of staff leaving an organisation and those suffering from burnout.

I’m also certain that many managers and organisations are already doing some of these things. For example, most organisations have an Employee Assistance Program for those who could benefit from counselling or organisations can negotiate changes to their funding agreement if the current funding is not effectual. Funding applications can also be broader. There are discussions to be had with funding providers in changing the current system from a needs based and narrowly targeted basis to one that addresses the issues as communities see them. Organisations should have a priority in training workers so they can be prepared for what they will experience in the field. Training funds should be a part of every funding application if possible and an essential part of how an organisation functions.

But there is something else that can be put into operation to lower staff burnout and slow down the revolving door of staff leaving the organisation. Adopting an Appreciative Inquiry approach to building an organisation that attracts staff, is an organisation of choice and where employee wellbeing is a priority is something having the potential to change the game.

Appreciative Inquiry is a strengths-based approach to change. It is a participative and collaborative approach that seeks out the best, the positive core in an organisation and build on this core to dream, design and put into action a way to change to reach the desired outcome. In this case that of becoming an organisation of choice and one that has worker wellbeing as a priority. Using Appreciative Inquiry allows staff to share their experiences, strengthen the connections between staff and management, focus on the positive work they do and can assist in reducing the impact of “caring fatigue”. It is an approach verified by research. A powerful tool.  One that many organisations could benefit from using. But it takes commitment.  

An Appreciative Inquiry process is time intensive and requires the support of senior management for it to be successful. Without this commitment the process will fail. As would any process. But if you really want to reduce staff turnover and substantially lower the rate of worker burnout then it is by far the best way forward.

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