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Staff Turnover: How we’re bucking the trend

We’re committed to reducing staff turnover through an innovative workforce model.

Outback Futures’ team includes a range of specialists: occupational therapists, speech therapists, literacy and learning professionals, counsellors and psychologists.

These teams provide regular, accessible support to people living on properties or in remote communities through the Stay with Me phone/video connect service.

Selena Gomersall | Founder & Psychologist

When we talk about regional and rural mental health and wellbeing, workforce plays a critical factor in effective service delivery. Research indicates staff turnover of allied health professionals in remote communities can be as high as 80% each year. One question comes up time and again in the context of this challenge:

How can we better incentivise our mental health roles in the bush to ensure quality and longevity?

This speaks to the significant challenges faced by government funders and service providers in addressing staff turnover. We believe, however, that this is the wrong question to be asking.

The close-knit nature of small, isolated and remote regions across Australia is well understood. There is also widespread recognition of the stigma around help-seeking and mental health. These aspects of rural life create a challenging context for establishing a quality and consistent mental and allied health workforce. The solution to this problem must also suit both the community and the workers.

For a potential client, sharing with your psychologist or mental health support may be challenging in any circumstance. Sharing in a highly insular community of people, spaces and events is an extremely challenging, if not completely prohibitive prospect.

For practitioners, creating a client base within small, highly connected communities has huge implications for their work–life differentiation. A tight-knit environment also affects the practitioner’s capacity to develop a genuine personal, peer and social network.

It would seem that inherent characteristics of rural and remote life create a situation that is intrinsically bound to fail. At the very least, this environment may be significantly less than optimal both for client and clinician. With this in mind, the question we need to ask should not focus on workforce incentives. Instead, the issue requires a broader perspective, to develop creative, bush-specific solutions.

Outback Futures has developed a bush-informed model which is achieving significant traction in staff retention. It’s also delivering on long-term service delivery outcomes in the western* Queensland communities we are currently working in. For the three years 2018–20, Outback Futures’ average clinical staff turnover was 10.8 per cent per annum.

*Central West and North West regions.

Key elements of this model which reduce staff turnover include:

Extended FIFO

Wendy has been a counsellor with Outback Futures since 2013. She’s based in south-east Queensland and provides both face-to-face and telehealth support to clients in central-west Queensland. Wendy’s clients benefit from the resources, peer support and professional development available to a clinician based in a metropolitan context. These factors are critical to her longevity and commitment to working in remote contexts. The extended fly-in fly-out (FIFO) approach means Wendy builds trusted relationships with clients, when she’s on clinics in their community. It also allows her to deliver regular and consistent interim care to them via telehealth. This enables clients to access care from the safety of their own home, while Wendy operates from the advantages of her best context.

Combined face-to-face and telehealth service delivery

Brisbane-based Pam has also been with Outback Futures since 2013. Her role focuses on developing literacy and learning skills in children, and supporting whole schools and educators. She finds the opportunities of a hybrid model powerful in seeing transformational change. Traditional snail mail is utilised to send resources to remote properties and providing regular telehealth support to tutors and families. This works well when combined with in-person opportunities to develop long-term, trusted relationships and deliver in‑person workshops.

The model also prioritises recruiting personnel for a single region; developing community co-design; and ownership of long-term goals; supporting local champions’ and interagency collaboration.

It’s imperative we work together with our rural, regional and remote communities to develop bush-specific solutions that deliver for both our communities and our workforce.


Article originally published on Partyline. Partyline is the online magazine of the National Rural Health Alliance, the peak body working to improve health and wellbeing in rural and remote Australia.

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