Drug and alcohol workforce committed but under pressure

An Australian Government-commissioned report on workers in the alcohol and other drug (AOD) support sector has observed a highly committed workforce operating under significant pressure.

The recently released report Australia’s Alcohol & Other Drug National Workforce: National Survey Results 2019-2020 found that just over 40% of respondents reported moderate to high levels of burnout. Close to one quarter of respondents intend to leave their job within the next 12 months, citing stress, burnout and high workloads among the reasons for the sector’s high turnover. Despite these pressures, the workforce is also highly committed, with 93% of respondents saying their work is meaningful, and three quarters reporting being highly motivated.

The national survey was conducted by Flinders University’s National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) for the Australian Government Department of Health, with the aim to inform workforce planning and development in this critical sector.

A total of 1,506 workers were surveyed from 14 August 2019 to 19 February 2020, with the majority (71%) in direct client service roles. All workers in the AOD sector were invited to participate, including those involved with client service, management, projects and administration.

A significant 65% of workers surveyed had lived experience of alcohol or other drug issues, either personally, with a family member or other experience.

The AOD workforce, like others in human services, comprises a high proportion of women together with workers in the middle years of their careers. These essential workers have a critical role helping the one in twenty estimated Australians who have a substance use problem and just under one in six who drink at risky levels (https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/substance-abuse).

Together with long-term damage to physical health, substance use problems are a major cause of mental health conditions and a significant contributor to many major social issues such as homelessness, risky or criminal activity and family, domestic and sexual violence.

Report co-author Dr Natalie Skinner of NCETA says “The survey found that Australia’s alcohol and drug workforce is generally well qualified and many also have lived experience dealing with substance issues, but one third of employees working directly with addiction do not hold any form of AOD-related qualification. This speaks to an urgent need to prioritise improved professional development opportunities for those working on the ground.

“We also found that most respondents were satisfied with their jobs and intended to stay in the sector but around a quarter were looking to move in the short term. This further highlights the need to prioritise strategies to address and prevent chronic stress in the workforce, and ensure professional development and career enhancement opportunities are in place.

“Ensuring the AOD workforce is suitably supported and resourced is more important than ever in this current COVID-19 era which has bought changes to drug and alcohol use in the community, as well as major disruptions to service delivery. These factors have resulted in increased pressure on the AOD workforce which must be acknowledged and managed.

“It’s also important that attention is given to new recruitment activities as older workers move towards retirement”.

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Research The National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction