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Inspiring Occupational Wellness Among Direct Support Professionals

Occupational wellness is a key ingredient to a healthy, happy, and balanced life — no matter one’s line of work. When it comes to direct support professionals (DSPs) and other positions focused on care where burnout is prevalent, occupational wellness is even more important.

Although achieving occupational wellness is often discussed from the perspective of the employee, there’s actually quite a bit that organizations can do to promote it. Indeed, promoting occupational wellness among your DSPs can have many benefits, such as reducing burnout, compassion fatigue, and more, thus leading to greater retention rates and higher standards of care.

But what steps can organizations take to help their DSPs achieve occupational wellness?

What is occupational wellness?

Occupational wellness is the balance between personal and professional well-being that promotes overall positive mental health. Several factors go into occupational wellness, including:

  • Feeling engaged in and motivated by one’s work
  • Gaining a sense of fulfillment from one’s work
  • Working openly and honestly with one’s coworkers
  • Seeing the ability to grow one’s career

To promote occupational wellness, organizations must utilize several types of staff enrichment and engagement programs.

Fostering occupational wellness among staff members is key for any organization looking to establish, maintain, or improve its work culture. Through programs that allow staff to achieve greater levels of happiness while at work, organizations can reduce stress, foster retention, and more.

Obstacles faced by DSPs

Creating programs to increase occupational wellness is often easier said than done. This is especially the case in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) care. With DSP staff working at different times throughout the day in homes or facilities outside your organization’s headquarters, it can be hard to create programs that everyone can take advantage of. But the unique demands put on DSPs make these employee well-being programs all the more important.

For one, while DSPs deeply care for persons served, their role can be emotionally taxing. It’s undoubtedly difficult to watch someone you care for navigate the harsh realities of living with IDD, as well as the social stigmas surrounding these conditions. By providing constant support to persons served while they learn to navigate these difficulties, DSPs face the risk of having their own psychological well-being impacted.

Not only that, but the long hours and active nature of the work that direct support professionals do can lead to physical exhaustion. DSPs are constantly on their feet or driving from one client’s home to another, while working long days that don’t always conform to the standard nine-to-five of most professions.

This combination of psychological and physical strain puts many DSPs at risk of developing burnout and compassion fatigue. Once DSPs begin to feel burned out or like they’re losing compassion, the ability to achieve occupational wellness through organizational programs becomes nearly impossible. To help keep your DSPs from reaching this point, take action now.

How to promote DSP occupational wellness

There are many ways to promote occupational wellness at your organization. Because Relias is dedicated to understanding the needs of direct support professionals, we can offer guidance on building DSP-specific wellness programs. In our surveys of the DSP community, we’ve found that they want to learn and grow within their career, how they prefer to receive recognition for a job well done, and the types of feedback they find impactful.

In this section, we’ll cover how to create training and recognition programs that will keep your DSP staff motivated, inspired, and on the road to occupational wellness.

Creating a culture of learning

There are several solid strategies that can help you get started on your learning culture journey.

First, invest in upskilling and reskilling programs. These programs are designed to help staff acquire the skills they need to excel within their current role, as well as grow the skills they need to take the next step in their career.

Upskilling is the process of doing the same job, only better, while reskilling is training for an entirely new role. By investing in upskilling and reskilling programs for your DSPs, you will demonstrate that the organization cares about their careers, as well as the level of care provided to persons served. To learn more about creating these programs, see our post on upskilling and reskilling here.

Next, work with your human resources department to create career paths for every role in your organization. This will allow your DSPs to visualize their future and plan for the career they want. While not every DSP will want to move out of direct support, some will certainly enjoy and be adept at DSP management or other roles within your organization.

Also, make sure you outline the knowledge and skills needed for each role and provide ways for the DSPs on your staff to receive training on these skills. This way, they know the skills needed to advance their career in the way they want while also having the means to do so.

Finally, make sure the training you use is appropriate for your staff’s learning styles. Everyone learns in slightly different ways, so giving your DSPs multiple ways to ingest information, such as video courses, assigned reading, or interactive training, can go a long way. By using training that addresses each adult learning style, you will create a more engaged learner base and allow your staff to get the most out of their training. For more on using adult learning styles to create training, see our post on how to meet the needs of adult learning styles.

Recognition and appreciation

In the 2021 Relias DSP Survey Report, 84% of respondents told us it was important that they receive appreciation from a supervisor. Additionally, DSPs who were satisfied with the ways their organizations showed appreciation were significantly more likely to report that they enjoy being with the people they support and feel like they were making a difference in their lives.

Clearly, appreciation and recognition efforts can have positive effects on occupational wellness. But what can your organization do to get these efforts off the ground? While there are a lot of ways to recognize your DSP staff, the following recommendations are aimed at providing a sense of personal and professional fulfillment to improve occupational wellness.

First, set aside time and space dedicated to team building. Given the varied hours and locations that DSPs work, providing your DSP team with a dedicated break room can give everyone a common space to gather and get to know their fellow DSPs. Also, setting up team get-togethers during operation hours, such as lunch, can be a nice way of allowing your DSPs to take a break during the day while making it easier to form personally meaningful connections with colleagues.

We also recommend that supervisors provide recognition of DSP staff members on a one-on-one basis. In our 2021 DSP Survey Report, respondents told us that receiving direct recognition from a supervisor was the most valuable form of appreciation. Indeed, 69% of DSPs who were satisfied with their organizations reported receiving private recognition directly from their supervisor.

Finally, small rewards can go a long way. Consider offering gift cards to a staff member’s favorite establishment, giving out organization-branded swag, or providing staff with other tangible means of appreciation.

Collect positive feedback from clients

A great way to help DSPs understand the impact their work has, and thus inspire a sense of professional fulfillment, is to collect positive feedback from persons served.

In the 2021 DSP Survey Report, 90% of respondents reported that what they enjoyed most about their job was the ability to make a difference in the lives of those they support. On top of that, 87% reported enjoying being with those they support.

Collecting kind words from clients and their care givers about the support given by their DSP will undoubtedly brighten any support professional’s day. And having tangible evidence of the positive difference they make in the lives of others will help these DSPs gain or maintain a sense of fulfillment from their work.

Recognizing and Retaining Your Direct Support Professionals (DSPs)

Being a direct support professionals (DSP) can be hard work — mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s important to recognize and support your DSPs throughout their tenure at your organization, especially if you want to retain them long-term.

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