Implementing successful employee engagement initiatives

PQSA CEO Peter Stewart on the initiatives that have helped boost employee engagement

HRD Australia speaks to Peter Stewart, CEO of the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of South Australia (PQSA). Stewart was an Excellence Awardee within the Australian HR Champion (CEO) of the Year category at the 2023 HR Awards.

“We are always looking for the right people to work within the sector,” he said. “And by the right people, we mean people who actually want to make a profound difference to the lives of people living with disability.”

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Kylie Speer [00:00:07] Hello and Welcome to HRD TV. I'm Kylie Speer. And joining me today is Peter Stewart, CEO of PQSA, the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of South Australia. Peter is an excellence awardee, Australian HR champion, CEO of the Year. Welcome to you Peter. Congratulations. And thank you so much for joining us today.

Peter Stewart [00:00:30] No, thanks so much for having me. It's an absolute honor. I'm so proud to be part of an organization where I've received the nomination and yeah, so lovely to be with you here today. Thanks so much. 

Kylie Speer [00:00:41] Well, firstly, can you tell us a little more about your journey into leadership and becoming CEO of PQSA? 

Peter Stewart [00:00:49] Yeah, it's been a long, long journey. Going back in the late 1980s, which made up show my age a little bit, but that's okay. I was at a little bit of a junction in terms of my career. And I started nursing at the suggestion of a friend and quickly found that nursing was an absolutely fantastic career. I love working in the health sector, I love working with different people. The patients and clients I met really, absolutely inspired me to be part of human services. And I quickly I guess, moved up in the ranks of nursing, particularly in the area of spinal cord injury, which was the area of expertise I moved into, and I worked in a statewide rehabilitation unit, which look just gave me a whole range of opportunities. For me personally and professionally. I quickly I guess, we rise up through the ranks of nursing, and became the clinical nurse consultant or charge nurse of the South Australian spinal cord injury service, which was just an amazing honor. amazing opportunity for me, as I said, again, not just professionally, but in terms of my personal development and working with people and leading people was absolutely fantastic statewide service. So very specialized niche area quickly developed a passion for education and teaching, and mentoring, which has certainly helped from a leadership perspective. It opened the opportunity for me to take up an academic role with Flinders University here in South Australia as well. So I had a concurrent clinical role and academic role where I was teaching in a postgraduate program, which offered a multidisciplinary master's degree not just across Australia, but Southeast Asia as well. So, you know, the opportunity for me to teach across Australia and in Asia as well was amazing. And I also had the opportunity to do some specialized, innovative projects and programs. Good example, was a statewide pressure injury prevalence study in conjunction with the Department of Health, which, for your viewers may not mean a lot, but a really significant project for people who are at risk of skin breakdown due to mobility issues, or sensory issues, and I lead a statewide project for that, but yeah, lead a lead a large team of nurses, and obviously collaborated with academic institutions as well. And that that'll lead me into a business development path. So I developed expertise in a number of health areas where I was seen as an expert subject matter, or subject matter expert more correctly, which gave me the opportunity to work for a global health care industry company in a business development management role. I have held that role for several years and had a team working with me, which again, just allowed me to nurture those leadership skills. But that actually, that lasted for a few years, and then that there was a another disability service provider that asked me to come into a clinical leadership role with them, but that was only a 12 month journey, because during that time where I was working for that provider, PQSA, Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association South Australia, reached out to me through their board chair because they were looking to appoint a Chief Executive Officer, my predecessor who'd done a great job developing PQSA was an accountant. But PQSA I guess had the foresight to look for someone with a different set of skills and leadership was certainly part of that, but also leadership within the human services sector, where that person had the understanding of the you know, the unique needs of people living not just with spinal cord injury, but broader disabilities because we provide supports to people with all disabilities across South Australia. So I came into that role 10 years ago and 10 years later on still sitting in this Chief Executive Officer, chair. You know, we've grown from an organization at that stage 10 years ago of around about 160 employees, and we're now over 700. And we provide supports to people with a disability of around about 1200 people across the state as of this day, so that journey has been exciting and thrilling, stressful at times. But yeah, that's how I've come from my humble beginnings as a registered nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital to working here at PQSA.

Kylie Speer [00:05:38] Peter, the pandemic was a difficult time for everyone, what was some of the challenges you had to overcome and managing the expectations of over 700 employees with COVID restrictions in the disability sector?

Peter Stewart [00:05:53] Look, it's we had in the lead up, I guess, to march 2020, which was when we really all started to feel the impact of the pandemic. And I remember standing in a queue at the Adelaide fringe of all places, and everyone was buzzing about, you know, the potential for lockdown, and what the pandemic might mean, I was reflecting standing in that queue of the stress and the anxiety that, you know, our workers would be failing, and particularly not, not necessarily office space workers, because and we have six offices across South Australia, because we have those, you know, regular connections and you know, the capacity to talk about, you know, what might this mean for us, but a large part of our workforce actually work out in the community, providing in home support. So, over 5[00 of our staff actually just work face to face hands on with clients in the community. So the you know, the prospect of this virus that we knew very little of, at that stage, meant that we had to take an inordinate amount of time in terms of planning and preparation and communication. I bang on about communication, a lot communication, communication, communication, I think this is critical for any organization, but for human services sector, where you have a lot of people that work autonomously, out on the road and in people's homes, we had to make sure that we were able to communicate what we knew about the virus and what the expectations were. And in particular, to prepare our workers for being isolated working at home and potentially, you know, providing face to face intimate supports to people who are tested positive for the virus. And I'm not sure if ironic is the right word. But we were the thirst disability service provider in South Australia to have a COVID Positive disability client who needed supports at home. And I remember getting that call and thinking, Okay, well, we've been thinking about this, we've been planning for this, we have to put things into action. And we had to make sure that you know, we had a whole range of support and initiatives to make our staff feel safe. And not just about infection control and isolation and close contact, but just ensure that we were there for our for our workers and make sure that we were consistently communicating with them and reducing that anxiety of what the pandemic might mean for them. 

Kylie Speer [00:08:45] Can you talk us through some of the initiatives you've undertaken to increase employee engagement?

Peter Stewart [00:08:52] Really good question and relevant to today when I'm meeting with you, it's actually Are you okay day. And, you know, we talk a lot about making sure our, our workers are okay, and adding employee value to the people who do the amazing work for us. Um, the pandemic did offer, you know, particular opportunities, like more opportunities to work from home and I know that's not a PQSA initiative. But when you're working in a human services industry, it people connection is just so important. So I think the way we've been able to set up work from home and flexible work arrangements has been absolutely fantastic. For our employees. We really have spent a lot of time in terms of how we do face to face engagement with our staff, and we do a monthly staff forum for our employees. It's led by Meebo it's where we give updates on you know, things that are happening in the world of PQSA and outside of the world, really sharing the good news stories for what we do within peak USA, because we are a profit for purpose organization. And every single person, regardless of whether they're client facing or they are working in an administrative role, for instance, is actually contributing to the amazing social impact that we have as an organization. So we spend a lot of time making sure that our workers, our employees understand how they contribute to that profit for purpose. And in conjunction with that the engagement with staff, I talk a lot about our support workers who work out on the road, they are isolated to a certain extent, we make sure we've got touch points with them. But I've introduced a program called it's a little bit of a tacky name, maybe I like it, "Meet with Pete". So this is an opportunity for support workers to meet with me, I do a monthly Facebook Live session with them. But this is where, and I did one yesterday in a regional area at Mount Gambier, where we have an office where I go to a cafe or, you know, public place. And we invite support workers to come along and talk about their experiences of working with PQSA. And that's an opportunity for them, I guess, to have the ear of the CEO. And the great thing about the Meet with Pete Sessions is the support workers have really bought into it in the sense that they come along and they have a chat, they have a coffee with me. They talk about their experiences of work. And the great thing is yes, some people come along, thinking, Okay, this is an opportunity for me to say we should do this better, we should do this better, we should do this better. And they do that. And I listen to that. And that feeds into our employee value proposition. So we that gets fed back to the teams here to look at how we can make a difference in those people's lives. But they also talk about the positive things that are happening in the workplace. Because I want to know, not just what's not working right in the workplace, I want to know what's working well, as well. And we can share those stories. And whether it's across regions or across different teams. We've introduced a number of wellbeing initiatives. We do pulse checks, not as in pulse check, but sort of physical and psychological safety post checks, through surveys that we push out once a month, where we check to see how people are feeling. They can put comments in there about their experience within the workplace. And that feeds in again to any initiatives and particular projects that we're running within the workplace. We offer physiotherapy sessions for our staff, so that at our expense, that's been a really fantastic initiative that staff take up the physios that work with us a terrific they understand the challenges of working within the disability sector. So they're but they're able to talk about, okay, what's happening with you physically? Are there musculoskeletal issues that are impacting your work, and they're able to provide treatment that we pay for, and I'm really proud that we're able to offer that to our staff and the physios are able to develop treatment plans and fitness plans. For us for our staff, human services sector is absolutely consistent with an ageing workforce as well. So those sorts of physical programs that we can offer absolutely contribute to psychological safety and psychological well being as well. We offer massage services for our for our staff, as well. So we have trained my masseuses, who were able to provide massage sessions just to help relieve stress and tension. And we've had a big focus on community partnerships. So we're offering our partnerships we've developed with our superannuation agencies to make sure that there's value add, for people in terms of planning for retirement, we offer discounted wills. So we have a partnership with a legal firm where PQSA contributes to the cost of our employees doing a wheel for themselves and their partners. We offer discounted health fund memberships, which is awesome, and then other discounted memberships with other corporate partners. So we're trying to just make sure that we're, you know, we're not just an employer, but we are really mindful of the importance of the little things we can do. They're not huge things, but each little thing contributes to you know, what I think is a really strong working relationship for us PQSA as an employer and our employees.

Kylie Speer [00:14:48] And finally, Peter, why should people choose a career within the disability sector?

Peter Stewart [00:14:55] The look that's a that's a question. I'm biased because I've worked in the you know, the disability and Human Services sector for over 30 years, wow, it's a long time, isn't it? Over 30 years. Look, it's a challenging sector to work in, in the sense that you are providing support to people who are vulnerable who are most at need. But for me, that challenge is actually the most amazing thing about working within the disability sector. You know, we talk a lot about culture and values, we are always looking for the right people to work within the sector. And by the right people, we mean people who actually want to make a profound difference to the lives of people living with disability. So in terms of sense of fulfillment, sense of job satisfaction, you create relationships within this sector with clients, with whom you as mentioned in an earlier question, you're providing face to face hands on support in in an environment where it is encouraged, it can be intimate in the sense that the proximity of the supports that are provided, but the supports you provide are enabling that individual to live the life that they want to live in, enables them to be included in activities and, you know, societal engagement, which they otherwise might not be able to do. It allows them to participate economically, for instance. So everything we do as a disability service provider is about the end consumer, actually fulfilling their goals, their objectives, and doing the things that they want to do. And within that, you've got a sector that has an incredible framework of opportunity. You know, I've had business directors working within PQSA, who started off work as a support worker. So as a carer, a hands on carer, and I've moved down into maybe client service coordination roles, and then moved into operational supervision, supervision and operational management positions, who then take on a leadership role that is absolutely fantastic for our staff to be able to do that. And similarly, my first executive assistant, when I had this role, starting back in 2013, is now the Quality Manager for PQSA. And that's because of the raft of experience and activities and knowledge that you can develop within the disability sector is absolutely fantastic. And why wouldn't you want to work in a sector that produces such amazing outcomes for every person with whom you have, you know, a touch point or a conversation or service delivery? I just think it's a magnificent sector to work in. 

Kylie Speer [00:17:53] Well, congratulations. And thank you so much, once again, for your time today. Peter, it was great speaking with you. 

Peter Stewart [00:17:59] Thank you so much for the opportunity. It's great to be able to talk about the amazing work that our team does the amazing sector we work in. Again, I'm just so proud to have been nominated for this Excellence Award. And yeah, thank you for the chat today. It's just been delightful. Really lovely. Thank you. 

Kylie Speer [00:18:18] And thank you, of course to our viewers for watching the latest episode of HRD TV. We look forward to seeing you again soon.