Mutuality in Support Relationships

Mutuality in Support Relationships
Organisation: University of NSW Partner: Inclusion Melbourne
Contact: Karen Fisher

This project was an extension of earlier research on the quality of the support worker-service user ‘mutual relationship’, refined by working with Inclusion Melbourne Design Lab.

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The Context

As the transition to full implementation of the NDIS nears, it is critical for the disability sector to expand its focus beyond structural and process reconfiguration that will ensure viability and to focus attention on the quality of the relationship between worker and individual service user.

The Problem

When paid support relationships are grounded in mutuality, they can be transformative in developing personal identity and empowerment for the person with disability. This mutual relationship can also contribute to job satisfaction for the worker. Mutuality is often difficult to foster due to power differentials, sector policy and procedures, limited time and funding and high staff turnover.

The Solution

This project focused on better understanding of what it takes to build a shared understanding of mutuality (defined as caring about, respecting and valuing each other) between workers and individuals and to ensure that organisational policy, process, and culture support the practice over the long term.   

The previous research focused on analysis of interactions experienced by people with disability and their support workers and identified the elements of mutuality evident in support relationships. This Australian Research Council funded project was entitled ‘Young people with cognitive disability: relationships and paid support’ (Southern Cross University and UNSW with partner organisations, National Disability Services, Northcott and NSW Department of Families and Community Services) and information can be found at

The most recent work involved validating these findings and the development and testing of strategies, particularly training and reflection strategies, to give effect to the principles of mutual recognition. 

Expected Impact

This project allowed both workers and individuals to have a shared language and understanding of the construct of mutuality and to identify examples of it occurring in day to day interactions.

It is expected to influence job design, inform attraction strategy, recruitment and retention practice and the performance management of workers.

This work may also inform debate on quality systems and safeguards required for the disability sector.

For the disability sector, the training resource developed as part of this project will provide a basis for organisations to reflect on the quality of their service, as measured by the perspectives of both worker and individual.

Perhaps first, it will bring the language of mutuality and empowerment to life for organisations and ensure both policy, culture and practice embed this understanding.

Stage and Spread

This project validated the understanding of what constitutes mutuality from both worker and NDIS participant perspectives.

The validation was conducted with the assistance of Inclusion Melbourne and was achieved by bringing together pairs of support staff and service users to build a shared understanding of mutuality. The draft training materials were also piloted with pairs to see if it is useful and engaging.

Lessons and Insights

Time is needed for building relationship and developing shared understanding.

The recruitment process needs to be clear from the outset, outlining the expected way of working.

Individuals and staff need to trust that the organisation will deliver on its commitment over time, rather than it being a one off, token activity.

Organisations need to embed these approaches through policy, human resources and cultures.

It needs to be acknowledged that this approach requires a significant change in culture. For many organisations, that may translate into an investment of resources. 

Roadblocks and Risks

A risk to the successful implementation of this approach is rushing the process of building relationship and shared understanding of mutuality.

Another risk to success is the assumption that one approach and timeline will work for everyone.

A roadblock to change is prioritising standardisation over responsiveness to needed flexibility.