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FDSV workforce

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What is the family, domestic and sexual violence workforce?

Workers from many different services and sectors interact with people affected by family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV). The specialist FDSV workforce includes those who work directly and mostly with victim-survivors or perpetrators, as well as professionals who may work directly with these workers, such as trainers or specialist consultants in policy. The non-specialist FDSV workforce includes primary prevention and the broader workforce that may intersect with FDSV as part of their wider role in the community, for example, health professionals, police officers and teachers. There are benefits to non-specialist workforces understanding FDSV, and where appropriate, being trained to identify and respond appropriately (see Box 1). This topic page focuses on Australia’s specialist FDSV workforce (FDSV workforce).

The FDSV workforce is essential for FDSV prevention, intervention, response and recovery. The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 (National Plan) has highlighted building ‘a resourced service system with an appropriately skilled and qualified workforce’ as a focus area to prevent violence occurring again (DSS 2022). However, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs Inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence identified ‘significant workforce shortages and a lack of coordination and resourcing to support retention, skill development and leadership’ across the sector (SCSPLA 2021). Workers are often under substantial pressure and required to learn specialist skills on the job, contributing to work safety risks and vicarious trauma (DSS 2022).

The Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations used in the Census of Population and Housing does not contain FDSV-specific occupation codes. The lack of in-depth knowledge and systematic, regular data collection on the FDSV workforce can make efficient workforce planning challenging (ABS 2022; Family Safety Victoria 2021a).

What do the data tell us?

There are limited national data on the workforce for specialist family, domestic and sexual violence services. The University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) National Survey of Workers in the Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Sectors (the National Survey of Workers) provides some information about those working in services used by people affected by violence, including workforce characteristics, workforce strengths, gaps, skill levels and skill-development needs (see Box 2 and Data sources and technical notes). The survey was designed to produce findings that can be used to build the capacity of the workforce and improve responses to those affected by violence (Cortis et al. 2018).

This topic page focuses mainly on the National Survey of Workers, however more recent findings on the specialist FV workforce from the Victorian 2019-20 Census of Workforces that Intersect with Family Violence are also included.

Data in this section were collected prior to the first national lockdown in response to COVID-19. Please refer to the impacts of COVID-19 section for data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most workers in the family, domestic and sexual violence sectors are female

Four in 5 (83%) workers surveyed were female. One in 5 (20%, or 228) workers had personal caring responsibilities, 1 in 12 (8.0%, or 92) identified as LGBTIQ, and 1 in 13 (7.5%, or 86) spoke a language other than English at home. One in 20 (4.9%, or 56) were from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) backgrounds, and 1 in 25 (3.7%, or 43) identified as having disability. Most employees (61%) were working full time (Cortis et al. 2018).

In the 2019-20 Census of Workforces that Intersect with Family Violence, almost 7 in 10 (67%) respondents working in specialist FV response roles had less than 5 years of experience in their current role, and 4 in 10 (40%) used their cultural or faith-based knowledge and experience when undertaking their work (Family Safety Victoria 2021a).

Workers are generally confident in identifying family, domestic and sexual violence

In general, surveyed workers were confident they could identify signs of abuse. However, fewer were confident they could identify financial or sexual abuse, compared with physical or emotional abuse. Almost 9 in 10 (89%) felt able to work creatively to meet clients’ needs, and 2 in 3 (66%) felt able to spend enough time with each client (Cortis et al. 2018).

Many workers felt they needed additional training to support specific client groups such as First Nations people; LGBTIQ people; asylum seekers; people experiencing homelessness; and the perpetrators of violence. Overall, the most common areas where workers felt training was needed were in risk assessment, therapeutic approaches, legal training, general counselling, screening, and supervision training. Those working frequently with perpetrators listed priority areas for skill development as working with clients resistant to intervention, promoting behaviour change, and evaluating participants’ progress.

Many workers experience suboptimal working conditions

  • 49%

    of surveyed FDSV workers in 2018 had experienced bullying, harassment, violence or threats from a client in the last 12 months

    Source: National Survey of Workers in the Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Sectors

Many workers reported experiencing suboptimal working conditions. Among surveyed respondents:

  • Around half (49%) reported experiencing bullying, harassment, violence or threats from a client in the last 12 months, with this proportion increasing to 66% for workers who had daily contact with perpetrators
  • Almost half (48%) reported feeling emotionally drained from work
  • Almost half (45%) reported they felt pressure to work harder
  • Almost 2 in 5 (38%) disagreed they are paid fairly for the work they do
  • More than 30% of practitioners and other frontline support staff regularly worked unpaid hours, with this proportion increasing to more than 70% for workers in leadership positions (that is CEO and senior managers) (Cortis et al. 2018).

Many workers also expressed concern over sector resourcing and accessibility of services. Only 2 in 5 respondents (38%) felt their service had enough staff to get work done, and about 1 in 5 (19%) disagreed with the statement ‘people who need our services can get them’ (Cortis et al. 2018).

Nevertheless, sense of purpose and satisfaction with supervision are high among the workforce. Over 9 in 10 (93%) workers reported that their work makes a difference in people’s lives, and over 70% were very or moderately satisfied with the frequency of supervision, the amount of time supervisors spent with them and the quality of support (Cortis et al. 2018).

What are the impacts of COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the specialist family, domestic and sexual violence workforce to adapt and innovate ways to serve clients while staying COVID-19 safe. The University of New South Wales conducted a nation-wide study that explored service adaptations and the challenges faced by frontline domestic and family violence (DFV) practitioners in Australia between July and October 2020 (Cullen et al. 2020).

Increased workload and insecurities about the future

Frontline DFV practitioners reported a substantial increase in workload and unpaid work hours during the early months of COVID-19. They also expressed concerns over insecure funding and short-term contracts, and fears of burning out with the new pace and methods of working (Cullen et al. 2020).

Digital delivery of services brought challenges and benefits

The widespread adoption of digital service delivery during COVID-19 has brought challenges and benefits to the workforce. Frontline staff have reported difficulty separating home and work life, fatigue from transitioning to remote working, feelings of isolation from colleagues and constrained access to protective measures put in place by organisations. Many organisations have introduced mitigative measures that workers view as beneficial and would like to see continued. These include flexible working arrangements, digital and telehealth options for clients, connecting with colleagues online, enhanced supervision and wellbeing initiatives (Cullen et al. 2020).

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