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Recognizing Your DSPs During COVID-19

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been quick to recognize the contributions of our healthcare and essential workers — doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks — and rightfully so. These professions are keeping our nation afloat during one of the most devastating public health crises of our lifetime. However, direct support professionals (DSPs) have often been overlooked when we think of who deserves recognition during COVID-19.

The week of September 12 to 18, 2021, is DSP Recognition Week, where IDD providers across the nation take the time to highlight the dedication of this critical workforce. DSPs are essential workers and are still dealing with the effects of COVID-19, not only with persons served, but also at home in their own families and communities. While there is light at the end of the tunnel, the pandemic is not over yet, and DSPs continue to deserve recognition and support.

The Challenges of Being a DSP During COVID-19

The DSP workforce faced several challenges prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a national turnover rate of 50% and vacancy rates near 15% for full-time DSPs. The profession remains one of the lowest-paying occupations for the range of skills and competencies required, with a national average of $13.63 per hour. Some of the factors contributing to these challenges include Medicaid reimbursement rates, limited access to benefits, and a general lack of respect toward this workforce.

Now during the pandemic, more challenges have arisen. A survey of the direct support workforce conducted by the National Association of Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) and the University of Minnesota found a range of difficulties facing DSPs during COVID-19:

  • 34% of DSPs reported working more hours since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • Only 24% of DSPs reported receiving extra pay for COVID-19 risks.
  • 42% of DSPs knew someone in the workforce who left their job due to the pandemic.
  • Only 10% of employers provided COVID-19 testing.
  • 53% of DSPs had access to homemade masks, while 46% had access to medical-grade masks.
  • Many DSPs reported having access to “other” types of personal protective equipment (PPE), including bandanas for masks and garbage bags for gowns.

In Relias’ 2021 DSP Survey Report, 50.7% of DSPs reported difficulty with COVID-19 as among the top reasons for disliking their job. DSPs elaborated on the difficulties, sharing:

  • “It’s upsetting… with COVID-19, my life has become work.”
  • “[Employee appreciation] is lacking with the pandemic.”
  • “The sheer volume and complication of providing needed services is MUCH too strict and with the pandemic, those rules and regulations are causing undue harm to service providers and the individual.”

While the proliferation of COVID-19 vaccines is easing the restrictions around social distancing, DSPs still face challenges related to the virus. Longer hours, low wages, and lack of resources for child and elder care leave many DSPs more burned out than ever before. These challenges can also create situations where DSPs may experience secondary trauma or compassion fatigue as a result of their work.

How Can You Show Appreciation for DSPs?

In our 2021 DSP Report, we found that 51% of DSPs were satisfied with how their organizations chose to recognize them. On the other hand, 30% said they were dissatisfied, to some degree, with how their organizations are recognizing DSPs’ contributions. Those are alarmingly high numbers of DSPs who are either lukewarm or dissatisfied with their organization’s recognition efforts.

Given the incredible amount of stress placed upon DSPs right now, how can IDD providers best support and show appreciation for DSPs? Thankfully, there are a multitude of ways to adequately show appreciation to your DSPs while also supporting them as professionals and advocating on their behalf.

1. Show Appreciation Through DSP Recognition Programs

In a 2019 Relias-conducted survey of DSPs, 45% of DSPs said that showing appreciation for their work and experience is an important thing their employer could do to make them stay on the job. This increased to 52% of DSPs in 2021. Establishing DSP recognition programs that all staff can participate in is an easy way to show appreciation and boost morale. Even small acts of appreciation, such as a note or a small gift card, are an effective way to show gratitude toward DSPs.

2. Offer Excellent Onboarding and Professional Development Training

For those who began working as DSPs during the pandemic, the majority found themselves unprepared for the skills and competencies required to be effective on the job. Indeed, 27% of DSPs who were new hires during the pandemic reported not getting typical orientation and training, and only 66% of providers offered more training on health and safety precautions. Robust training that goes beyond compliance requirements is also essential, especially as research continues to show that ongoing staff development improves the health and safety of persons served.

Continuing professional development for DSPs is also a critical factor in helping retain talented staff and increasing confidence in the role. The 2021 Relias DSP Survey discovered that 66% of DSPs find it valuable when their organization provides professional development to show appreciation.

3. Create a Culture of Respect

In 2019, 45% of DSPs who responded to the Relias DSP Survey stated that one of the most important things their employer could do to make them stay for five more years would be to “show more respect for my experience.” This trend continued in our 2021 survey. DSPs are an invaluable resource for information and ideas on programs, organizational policies, and the needs of persons served. Creating a culture of respect involves giving DSPs a chance to have their voices heard.

One way to cultivate this culture of respect is to ensure that there are ways for DSPs to provide feedback to organizational leadership and have their concerns or suggestions taken seriously. In our 2021 survey, 80% of DSPs said they see this as an important organizational quality. Sadly, however, only 55% reported that they had a safe avenue to provide feedback. Looking forward, see how you can create methods for DSPs to confidentially provide feedback and have that feedback carried up through the organization and out into the community, even to local and state policymakers. A joint initiative of the NADSP, ANCOR, and University of Minnesota has created a campaign to allow DSPs to share their stories of working through the COVID-19 pandemic. Encourage your DSPs to use this resource so their voices resonate beyond the organization.

4. Hire the Right People

Many committed DSPs leave the profession due to frustration caused by coworkers who do not provide the same quality of care. High turnover rates and staff vacancies can tempt IDD providers into hiring quickly to fill gaps in services; however, the cost of a poor hire far outweighs the benefits. Hiring individuals who encompass the critical core competencies of a great DSP — compassion, empathy, reliability, and good judgment — can prevent frustration among your talented staff, as well as prevent high turnover due to poor hiring practices. Pre- and post-hire assessments are one example of ensuring that the DSPs who are hired have the critical core competencies required, while also gauging skills, competencies, and knowledge gaps.

5. Train Front-Line Supervisors and Leadership Teams

In 2021, DSPs who were satisfied with their supervisors were significantly more likely to report that they enjoyed working at their current organization. Additionally, 51% said that it’s important for supervisors to show respect for their staff as individuals. To ensure that your DSPs feel appreciated — not just during DSP week, but all year — you need to train your supervisors to be supportive, appreciative, and hold everyone on the team accountable for doing quality work.

A great DSP may still need mentoring and guidance to become a great DSP supervisor. Giving front-line supervisors education on effective communication, leadership, constructive feedback, and conflict resolution is essential to your organization’s DSP appreciation strategy.

Advocacy and Resources for IDD Organizations

In addition to these strategies for recognizing DSPs, providers can advocate for their DSPs on local, state, and national platforms. Leaders at IDD organizations can advocate for increased overtime and hazard pay for DSPs and other essential workers, increased Medicaid reimbursement rates, and access to emergency childcare and eldercare subsidies.

Most importantly, organizations need to prioritize providing appropriate resources to protect the health and safety of DSPs from COVID-19.

Several organizations have free resources available for IDD organizations to help them support their DSPs during the pandemic:

DSPs are a lifeline for individuals with disabilities, and they deserve the utmost respect for their commitment to supporting independence and a self-directed life for persons served. They also deserve to have their leadership advocate on behalf of their profession, to have their voices heard, and their needs met during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The 2021 DSP Survey Report

Download the 2021 DSP Survey Report to get even more data and insights on job satisfaction, supervision, recognition and appreciation, and career growth to improve DSP engagement and retention at your organization.

Download the Report →

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