COVID-19 Customer Experience Healthcare Hospitals Learning - Topics Mental Health

Q&A: “Workplace Culture and the NDIS” Author, Fran Connelley


The healthcare sector has withstood an increasing amount of pressure in the past couple of years. But as COVID-19 dealt a huge blow, the cracks in the health of this specific workplace have begun to show. The disability services sector in particular, after facing external pressure regarding changing policies and services, has slowly become a harder environment to work in, making the workplace culture more challenging.

Non-profit communications expert, facilitator, presenter, and author of the book Workplace Culture and the NDIS, Fran Connelley, spent some time with Healthcare Channel to talk about healthy workplace cultures, her experiences of the NDIS, and the importance of seeing healthcare workers as people not resources.

HCC: Your book talks about the importance of fostering a healthy culture and a more involved way of working as both a leader and a part of the team. What defines a “healthy” workplace culture?

Fran: A healthy workplace culture is one that focuses on building trust and respectful relationships within the workplace itself. Different leaders have different points of view on what a “healthy” workplace is, but essentially, I believe that if your employees feel heard, valued and respected, then so will your clients.

Respectful relationships are the building blocks of trust. So we can’t begin to talk about “improving the patient experience” or “improving the client experience” until we understand the actual employee experience.

Leaders tend to forget that people bring their whole selves to work, not just their ‘work self’.

We are all human beings with different needs to be met. Being aware of those needs and managing them effectively requires empathy. We need more empathy in every interaction.

Sustainable teamwork in a high pressure environment relies on strong, respectful relationships. We lose our capacity to retain and respond to important information if we constantly feel under pressure, undervalued or poorly treated.

HCC: The NDIS has been met with some pushback recently, so it would be correct to assume it is a high-pressure environment for its workers. Would a change in culture help to ease this pressure?

Fran: I think it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of culture right now. It’s become a key business driver for a number of reasons. One of Australia’s bigger problems in the healthcare sector now is worker retention. In the disability sector staff turnover currently averages between 17-25%. This can be even higher for employees who have been in the sector for less than 12 months.

High staff turnover rates across healthcare, combined with significant workforce shortages, has meant that the healthcare sector is now an employee’s market.

Any organisation with a healthy workplace culture is far more likely to retain and attract their talent. Offering a supportive team environment, particularly for new recruits, has become more important than ever.

HCC: If you could break down a healthy workplace culture’s most important points, what would they be?

Fran: I think there are practical lessons here for every sector seeking to build resilience into their workplace practices. From my own experience working in the disability and aged care sectors the most important points would be:

  • Develop a leadership based on trust. Ensure the CEO and senior leadership teams trust each other and are seen to trust each other.
  • The CEO is the Chief Culture Champion. HR doesn’t “own’ culture, The CEO does. What’s needed is personal, visible, human leadership by the CEO. This means gratitude and humility and looking for ways to connect at a personal level and listen to your people.
  • Reconnect the organisation with its culture foundations – the mission, vision and values. Articulate them at every opportunity and begin to actively use the values as the lens for daily decision making.
  • Leaders need to ask the right questions and make it safe for people to speak honestly. Online surveys will never give you all the insights you need to understand the truth about your business. Rich culture conversations can only happen in a ‘psychologically safe space’.
  • Structure internal communications. Language and messaging must be clear and consistent. This requires a well-structured internal communications strategy with marketing and HR working as one team.
  • Share more stories. Stories drive engagement and build empathy. They transform a random group of people into a team.

HCC: With the matter of COVID and how the public has reacted to the NDIS lately, how does one become a good leader in the healthcare sector now?

Fran: What’s happening now is a sector disruption. Before March 2020 I used to say that the role of CEO in the healthcare sector would challenge the leadership skills of any leader, with COVID-19 a challenging role became infinitely more complex.

In the wake of two Royal Commissions, massive workforce shortages, constantly shifting regulatory goalposts and a pandemic – all the data points to extreme workforce fragility. A breakdown in trust on many levels has reduced the capacity of an already stretched frontline.

I think you become a good leader in the healthcare sector by becoming a good listener and remembering your humanity.

I’ve worked with a few wonderful CEOs over the last 18 months who have actually led their organisations to emerge from COVID stronger and better connected than before the pandemic.

They’ve done it through respectful, human leadership. They’ve ‘walked the talk’ of their values. They ensured frequent, clear and consistent communications at all times across their business. And most of all, they never lost sight of the personal physical and mental wellbeing of their clients, participants, families and employees.

One has to be able to listen in order to lead with humanity.

HCC: Lastly, what would your advice be to a worker who feels undervalued in a high-pressure workplace?

Fran: My first suggestion would be to take care of yourself. The stress affects both mind and body, so practice self-care and give yourself a mental and physical break. With healthcare work, it will be hard to take care of others when we don’t feel our best, so it’s important to shift focus.

Next, evaluate your situation and discuss it with someone you trust outside the work environment. An outside opinion can help put things into better perspective, and you can avoid the risk of gossip.

When the opportunity arises, speak to your manager. Make sure your discussion is clear, unemotional and evidence-based. Refer to the organisation’s values and the disconnect you sense, not just for yourself, but for your team. Then, if nothing is done I’d urge you to go to the CEO with your concerns. Give them the chance to hear you before you consider exiting the organisation. Then, if nothing is done, leave. There are plenty of wonderful organisations looking for great talent.

For more information about Fran Connelley and her book, ‘Workplace Culture and the NDIS’ at


Note: Answers have been edited for style and length

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Nina Alvarez is a Content Producer for Healthcare Channel. Her interests include writing, particularly about the healthcare sector and the many ways it can improve to further benefit people from all walks of life.


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