“Face to face is best”. Or at least this is what many believe when it comes to counselling and therapy. Our charity was no different, supporting 75 service users face-to-face each week with our amazing staff and sub contracted therapists. This doctrine is not always easy nor cost-effective to uphold. A pandemic where meeting face to face is not just frowned upon, but illegal, did little to mitigate this.
Lots of literature highlight the equal, if not superior, efficiency of less resource intensive online psychological treatments. So, we were not the first to innovate in this space. But, the tide of COVID-19 hit suddenly. We didn’t have much time to figure out how to provide support, engage our clients and keep offering quality therapy without losing the personal touch. As a semblance of normality begins to trickle back into everyday life (haircut anyone?), it has given us as a charity a chance to reflect and build upon what we’ve learnt. How did we innovate? How did we put out service users first?
Nearly 70% of adults with pre-existing mental health problems reporting a worsening of symptoms during the pandemic. So, we did not underestimate the extra mental toll of 100+ days of lockdown was going to bring. We have been trying to prepare for what some are calling a “tsunami” of mental health issues.
Our key challenges were:
- Getting the infrastructure, processes and coms right so all our team were empowered and equipped to work remotely.
- Engaging our service users, so we could build solutions that worked for them and that they would engage with.
- Keeping ourselves healthy, safe and well.
So, what did we do when lockdown looked inevitable?
We wanted to make sure all our team could work effectively and safely from home. Secondly, we realised each team member’s decision making process was going to be increasingly decentralised. For instance I couldn’t grab Bessie or Laura for a quick chat. I wasn’t going to bump into Clare in the hallway and run through a safeguarding concern.
So how did we tackle this? Collaboration and communication.
Supporting our staff
We discussed as a team what everyone would need to work from home. This didn’t just include equipment and practicalities, but also what additional emotional support they may need. We took into account the impact COVID and lockdown would have on their families and loved ones. We wanted to plan how we could best support them through a range of likely scenarios. Being paperless for the last 3 years was a godsend and ensured we could seamlessly move to remote working.
Okay, practicalities done. Kate, our chair of trustees was our runner – running laptops and new phone lines around the county to ensure everyone was connected. Our staff safety was a priority, so we did this before lockdown had even been enforced. Okay, what next…How were we going to continue functioning as a team once this happened?
We amended all our protocols to account for remote working to ensure our team’s and client’s safety. Having clear protocols for staff to refer to if they get stuck is vital. It ensures our team has the necessary tools to do their work well and safely, feel confident and achieve our charity’s mission without compromising our organisational values. Is the decision you need to make inline with our mission and our values? Do it, we trust you.
Another important change we made was increasing the frequency of our team meetings – our support staff still meet with Clare every morning to check in and discuss the day ahead. Laura holds a debrief session at the end of the day to ensure we bring the day to close as we don’t have the luxury of a drive home any more! It’s really important to ‘leave’ work at work.
We have a full staff meeting once a week and therapists meeting weekly to stay connected and current. Not only did this ensure we maintained clear communication but could identify and respond to issues quickly; there is still something to be said for the comfort of seeing a familiar face, albeit on a Zoom screen.
Supporting our service users
Our priority (and the people at the core of what we do) is our service users. We are so privileged to be providing a service for them. So, we wanted to build a remote working practice that works for them to ensure they stayed engaged. So what did we do? Communication and collaboration win the day again. We know they are resilient and innovative …so we talked to them.
Before lockdown we re-triaged all our service users and asked them what support they needed and how they wanted to receive it. We wanted to build a solution together. We moved all our therapy and support to telephone calls or online video calls. We asked our service users for regular feedback: are we doing enough? Are our processes giving you the support you need? How can we meet you where you are? We have delivered life saving (their words, not mine) therapies in cars, garages, sheds and parks.
Communication and collaboration wasn’t just used to ensure the smooth running of our operations, but it helped keep us connected in an unprecedented time. Our meetings don’t just focus on practicalities, but include emotional check ins and an opportunity to discuss how everyone is feeling. The work we do is challenging, emotional, raw, rewarding, vital but one thing it’s not is easy. Acknowledging the fears and worries of our team allows us to plan and implement the right strategies to keep delivering the best service we can. That hasn’t changed. We’re just not in the same room doing it.