A province-wide mental health survey recently conducted by the Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopment Centre at CAMH has found that 35 per cent of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) are reporting moderate to severe levels of distress.
The Azrieli Centre has been following the mental health of staff in the sector since the start of the pandemic, and this new report confirms that levels of staff distress have continued to rise over the last two years.
In this latest survey conducted in the summer of 2022, 868 DSPs took the time to share important concerns regarding their mental health, the mental health of those they support, as well as current stressors.
The report lists several factors that may be contributing to higher levels of pandemic-related mental distress among DSPs, including:
- Pandemic pressures at work. These include ongoing staff shortages, longer hours and lack of time off.
- Structural and system challenges. These include low pay, unpaid sick time and lack of benefits.Infection prevention and control procedures. These include increased fears about risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the community and frustration regarding a perceived lack of public concern regarding the more vulnerable clients they work with.
- Impact of the pandemic on the health and well-being of people with developmental disabilities. These include poor mental and physical health, decrease in quality of life, long-term effects of not seeing family and friends, decline in independence and feelings of compromised care due to staffing shortages.
- Barriers to seeking their own mental health supports. Nearly half of DSPs (49 per cent) reported barriers to accessing mental health supports for themselves, including financial barriers, lack of time to seek supports and stigma.
“The combination of more difficult working conditions and staff shortages, plus greater distress among the clients they support, has made this an exceedingly difficult time for Direct Support Professionals on the front lines” says Dr. Yona Lunsky, Director of the Azrieli Centre and Senior Scientist at CAMH. “To promote the health and well-being of this essential workforce, it is critical to address the unique needs of DSPs as well as the people with developmental disabilities they support.”
Previous studies have found that people with developmental disabilities are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it, and are nearly four times as likely to die prematurely from all causes than the general population. Some of the DSPs who took part in the survey indicated that increased work stress due to the pandemic was making it more difficult to provide for the health and wellness need of their vulnerable clients.
“Providing good quality supports on any day can be challenging,” said one respondent. “Most days are very good. However, that wears very thin when staff are working 12- or 13-hour shifts, day after day after day…morale becomes low and that is seen by the people we support. Care is always provided, but perhaps not done with a smile due to fatigue and exhaustion.”
“I got serious burnout and ended up crying to my scheduling manager,” said another. “I wish that people realized that everyone has a breaking point and it’s important to catch it before it happens to staff. Look at the signs and train your employees to recognize it in each other.”
These stories, along with the information that DSPs have shared about their mental health, provide important insights from the front line. This knowledge will be used to inform critical next steps to address the mental health needs of all those that work and receive supports in the developmental services sector. This includes advocating for greater access to the same mental health supports and resources available to other professionals working in health and long-term care.
“Navigating the global pandemic through execution of intensive infection control supports has been daunting in demand and it has been compounded by some of the most critical staffing shortages in our history.” says Michelle Brooks, Executive Director of The Participation House Project in Durham Region, and Chairperson of The Provincial Network on Developmental Services. “The significant toll on our frontline caregivers and our leadership teams has given way to unprecedented occurrences of burnout and depletion of resilience in both people and care giving teams. As we continue to collaborate and develop resources, we are taking pause to review and reflect on the feedback gathered through this survey. The voices of many will help inform how we can grow our efforts and help others create environments where people can come together, support each other and begin to heal.”
You can read the full report here.
This report builds on findings are among the findings of a province-wide mental health survey of 868 DSPs conducted in July 2020. Learn more about that previous survey and other related documents here.