Frontline Initiative Direct Support Professionals

The Voice of a DSP


Pat Gerke teaches Survey of Developmental Disabilities and Health Issues across the Lifespan at Ocean County College and Camden County College in New Jersey. Gerke has 22 years of experience in the fi eld of developmental disabilities and has worked as a DSP in residential and employment services in positions in health care spiritual support (HIV/AIDS and developmental disabilities), and as a community builder for individuals living in a variety of settings. She has taught Survey of Developmental Disabilities and Health Issues across the Lifespan for four years as part of her consultant role for the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Gerke also has a six-year-old son with developmental disabilities. As a part of Gerke’s class, Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) have the opportunity to write about their experiences and opinions of their jobs. Through a class assignment, Gerke’s students wrote reflective memos about issues important to them and their direct support work. In the article that follows, one of Gerke’s students shares her ideas about reducing stress on the job.

Reducing Job Stress

by Diana Ritter

Standing in long lines to make purchases, baking dozens and dozens of cookies, wrapping presents, snow-covered roads, ice, sleet, final exams, traffic  jams, research papers, projects, writing out holiday cards, bills, family issues, holiday parties, long hours at work, deadlines, meetings, added job responsibilities, lack of sleep, registering for classes, and the list goes on and on and on. Did your blood pressure rise at the mere mention of snow- and ice-covered roads and traffic jams?

Stress management is big business in the U.S. Products are marketed to hopeful consumers. Hope and desperation send us in search of easy fixes, creating a multibillion-dollar industry. Companies advertise the following products and services as the answer to our stressful lives: scented candles, spas, massages, calming nature sounds, calming drinks and teas, new age music, vitamins, pills, decaffeinated coffee, and vacations. These products and services only offer a temporary reprieve from the whirlwind around us.

As employees in the human service fi eld, we often find ourselves in stressful situations. This continual exposure to stress can lead to burnout. Employees overcome by stress and burnout jeopardize the safety and wellbeing of the people they support. People receiving supports are subjected to distracted employees who make errors and mistakes that can be life-threatening: medication errors, car accidents, and situations of abuse and neglect. We have all heard the stories of people receiving supports not receiving their medication, and being victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation at the hands of DSPs. Reducing stress is hard work. There is no easy fix. It takes time, planning, and persistence. Employers should provide support to all employees so they can meet the needs of people receiving supports. Employees and DSPs should take responsibility to recognize their own increased stress and work hard to reduce it.

In speaking with several employees of the Easter Seals Lacey Community Support Services, we identified areas of concern that employees have related to stress. In discussing these concerns, we have been able to formulate responses to most of these issues.

The following questions were asked —

  • On a scale of one to ten (ten being the highest), how would you rate your stress level?
  • What is the most stressful aspect of your life? Pick one from the list or add your own. Home, work, school, family, financial, or ____
  • What are your top three stressors at work?
  • What do you like best about your job? • How long have you been in this position?
  • What specific changes would you recommend to ease your level of stress?

Several respondents gave similar answers. Their responses and our conversations with DSPs led us to understand that those DSPs were discouraged. While many of the issues we uncovered seemed obvious and have been know for years to people in our fi eld, I felt it was time to say, “Now we have to do something about it.” Identified stressors and suggested organizational responses to these stressors are identified in the remainder of this article.

Stressor 1: Too much paperwork and not enough time to do it.

Relief: We have made arrangements for an employee who does not have the same documentation obligations as the other staff to cover the morning transportation pick-up. We have posted a sign-up sheet; any employee who would like to have their morning transportation covered puts their name under that day of the week. The employees who utilize the coverage have an extra hour to work on paperwork. Our administrative assistant is also helping out by typing addenda to daily training records and assisting with filing.


Stressor 2: Employees do not have opportunities to pursue activities in the community. Also, they are apprehensive about making those contacts.

Relief: A Community Development Coordinator was hired to work throughout Ocean County. This individual has been hired to make those connections and identify activities based on the needs of persons receiving services.

Stressor 3: Employees do a great deal of driving daily. Many employees pass the homes of people receiving services as they are traveling to and from work, but they must come to the site get a vehicle and drive back to get the person served.

Relief: We were able to make arrangements so that employees who wanted to take a vehicle home could do so (for work purposes only). This allowed employees to save a half hour to an hour of commuting time each way. This relief also helps employees who are finding it difficult to finish their paperwork. The time that they save in driving allows more time to complete the necessary documentation. 

Stress 4: Employees stated that the rate of pay and finances are areas of stress.

Relief: The employees who chose to bring a work vehicle home have found a variety of financial benefits including a reduction in their personal car insurance and savings on gas. They have also saved money by reducing the number of oil changes and tune ups for their personal car. We are also in the process of creating and implementing an incentive program for employee attendance, quality activities, and timely submission of documentation.

Most people have a certain degree of stress in their lives. We are responsible for making the necessary changes to ensure that we can continue to support people with developmental disabilities. We have been able to make some progress in reducing stress at the Easter Seals Lacey site. We know there are some things we cannot change, but we are optimistic and empowered by the things we can change.