Strengths, challenges, and future directions for the non-government alcohol and other drugs workforce

October 2020
Kostadinov, V., Roche, A., McEntee, A., Duraisingam, V., Hodge, S., & Chapman, J. (2020). Strengths, challenges, and future directions for the non-government alcohol and other drugs workforce. Journal of Substance Use, 1-7. doi:10.1080/14659891.2020.1812125.

The impact of AOD use on the service delivery system is substantial. To inform future workforce planning efforts this study examined the demographic and employment characteristics of the AOD NGO workforce in NSW. As the Australian health care system is heavily impacted by problems associated with AOD, appropriately skilled and qualified workers are essential. Patients/clients seeking AOD-related treatment or advice are reliant on an optimal workforce.

While AOD treatment services are provided by government and non-government (NGO) organizations, a disproportionately large burden is carried by the non-government sector. In 2017-18, approximately 210,000 AOD-related treatment episodes were provided to 130,000 people who sought treatment from 952 services, with NGOs accounting for 61% of treatment agencies and 70% of treatment episodes (AIHW, 2019).

This study ascertained the demographic composition, organizational characteristics, working conditions, and health and wellbeing of the AOD NGO workforce in NSW. A custom online survey (N=294) was developed to assess participants’ demographics, working conditions, organizational characteristics, health and wellbeing. Full instrument details are available elsewhere (Roche et al., 2018).

This workforce was predominately female, middle aged with a substantial proportions who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander; or identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer and a very large proportion of workers also had lived experience of problematic AOD use. For each of these demographic groups there are important workforce development implications and require carefully tailored workforce development responses.

Approximately one third of this workforce were 50 years or older, suggesting that succession planning strategies are pressingly required to mitigate institutional knowledge loss when these workers retire. Mid-aged and older workers also have a range of needs that are particular to their life circumstances (e.g., additional carer roles and external demands on their time and resources) (Hill et al., 2014); organizations seeking to retain mid-career and older employees are encouraged to implement support strategies accordingly.

There was also a substantial minority of young workers. These young (and most likely new) workforce entrants may require markedly different forms of support, professional development and mentoring than their older, more experienced counterparts.

These workforce profiles also highlight the need for concerted supervision and mentoring efforts to ensure implementation of evidence-based practice and adherence to high standards of quality care. It is also important that these workers receive appropriate support, given the demands of working in areas of high emotional labor (Ewer et al., 2015).

Encouragingly, participants reported high levels of satisfaction with their work/life balance and with working in the NGO AOD sector. They also perceived co-workers and supervisors to be highly supportive. However, a substantial proportion intended to look for a new job in the next 12 months. Factors that may contribute to high turnover intention include the level of job insecurity cited by many respondents, full-time salaries commonly below the national average, dissatisfaction with remuneration or the experiences of workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment.

It is recommended that managers and policy makers seeking to improve attraction and retention focus their efforts on these areas in the first instance.