By | August 27, 2019

When we sent out our online survey to direct support professionals all over the country, we were especially interested in the experiences and opinions of long-serving DSPs—those who have been on the job for six years or longer. Of the 843 responses we received, 456 came from people who said they had been DSPs for that long.

As you can imagine, these folks are passionate about the work they do and the well-being of the people they serve. Here are some of their comments:

I love being able to teach my individuals new skills and to be able to see the progress of their skills from the day I started. I also love being able to help individuals in all of the areas that they need help. I also love being able to connect with my individuals on many different levels.

You spend a great deal of time with the wonderful people you end up serving. Most of the good DSPs stay because we care for them, want them to be healthy, well taken care of and succeed in all aspects of their life. We stay because of the connection, the care, and the support. Leaving feels like abandoning an elderly family member, and it hurts just as bad. We care for them, and in return they care back.

I choose to be a DSP worker because of the positive and empowering impact I am able to make in the lives of the people we care for.

I love the work, it’s immensely rewarding and incredibly fun as well. I have learned so much about myself and the world.

We asked these long-serving DSPs, “Besides increasing your pay or benefits, what is the most important thing your employer could do to make sure you stay with them for the next five years?” and let them choose only one answer. “Show more appreciation for my work” and “Show more respect for my experience” were the top two responses, with a combined 45%.

DSP Survey Results: What Would Make You Stay

What Does Respect Look Like?

We sent a follow-up email to some of the long-serving DSPs to find out what showing respect and appreciation means to them.

The main takeaway from their responses about respect is that they want to be treated like partners by their supervisors and upper management. DSPs are the ones “in the trenches,” and they have ideas on how to better serve specific individuals and how to improve program operations. “Let the DSP workers have a deciding factor in decisions, as we work with them daily and hands-on, higher up management does not,” one DSP wrote.

The DSPs who responded said they are frustrated when changes to programs and policies are made without their input. “I have been in the field for 25 years, yet I find myself in a position of not being listened to or my opinions taken into consideration,” one DSP wrote. “It’s frustrating to have someone treat you with little respect for your experience, especially when they don’t have the day-to-day experience with our program or clients.”

Long-serving DSPs said all sorts of changes—from supports for individuals to added paperwork to new programs—occur without any input from them or any communication about why the change is happening. But surely, no one is creating new paperwork just for the fun of it! There appears to be a communication breakdown—DSPs are not involved in making decisions, and management is not informing them about the reasons behind organizational changes.

Increasing transparency around the decision-making process may go a long way toward relieving some of the frustrations DSPs feel and making them feel more like a respected partner.

Small Acts of Appreciation

It’s clear from the responses we received that a little appreciation can go a long way toward keeping DSPs happy and increasing retention.

It’s the little things that make a huge difference. Let us know that we are doing a great job by a note in our mailbox, a can of soda, a lunch paid for by the company or a breakfast. I love my job and I love the individuals that I work with, which makes coming to my job everyday worth everything else.

Just a simple thank you would be nice.

Take part in DSP Appreciation Day. To be sure those of us who are not at the office that day to be reached out to personally by our direct supervisor or his supervisor. We seem to be “forgotten.” They seem to trust me to do my work, but do not bother to even acknowledge we are “on the team.” [DSP Recognition Week is September 8 – 14, in case you were looking for an opportunity to show some appreciation.]

Several DSPs mentioned that they would like to see and hear from upper management more often. They want their organizations’ higher-ups to be aware of and appreciate the difficulty of the work they do. As one DSP wrote, “We never see anyone from head office. It would be lovely if they would come to our center and join us maybe 3 or 4 times a year. Get to know our clients and participate in some of our programs.”

Calling Us Out

As I mentioned above, the survey question began with, “Besides increasing your pay or benefits…” One DSP called us out for this caveat:

“It’s a bad dodge to say besides pay, because that is ultimately why most people work, while also being the way to show you care for your workers and respect them, paying decent and fair wages/benefits.”

That is a fair criticism. We included that caveat because we know that for most agencies, the money to increase DSP wages just isn’t there. It does raise one question, though—do your DSPs know about your budget challenges? Do they understand that most if not all of your services are funded through Medicaid and that charging more for services is not an option? If not, that might be a conversation worth having.

Your most committed, most passionate DSPs want to be involved in helping your organization improve operations and quality of care. Leaders in IDD organizations need to ask themselves, is my organization making the most of this valuable resource?

Diane Morris

Diane has been researching, writing and advocating on issues facing people with IDD and autism for 15 years -- from the time her two sons were diagnosed with autism. She has more than twenty years of communications experience and previously worked at a disability rights non-profit.

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