Supporting staff in the women and girls’ sector

Supporting staff in the women and girls’ sector

This blog reflects on what some WGI projects were doing to increase support for staff and volunteer wellbeing during the unprecedented early days of COVID-19. It includes guidance, tools and links to a webinar on the subject.

Since we began working with projects funded through The National Lottery Community Fund’s Women and Girls Initiative (WGI), the skills, experience, knowledge, passion and commitment of staff from the 62 projects has been clearly apparent.

We have been privileged to experience the warm welcoming environments and supportive cultures within the different projects we have visited. We have also noticed some of the stretched resources and big workloads staff face. During annual progress reviews with projects, concerns have been raised about staff wellbeing and the WGI Synthesis Report #1 identified challenges around staffing. These include recruitment difficulties, high staff turnover, some skills and knowledge gaps and the potential for burnout, which affect the individual, the organisation and the strength of the sector as a whole.

In response to this, we ran a Webinar on 8 July 2020, titled ‘Workers Wellbeing: Supporting Staff in the Women and Girls Sector’. A recording of the event can be seen below.

Although a seminar had been on the cards since 2019, it’s timing, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, seemed fitting, bearing in mind staff, and the women and girls they work with, were facing a whole new set of work, home and life challenges. In the early days of lockdown, organisations adapted their support for staff that had moved to work from home or were otherwise working in a Covid-safe way.

For instance, Trevi House implemented more frequent catch ups and supervision sessions for staff, as well as emphasising an ‘open door’ policy so that staff knew they could contact their manager or colleagues to get additional support as needed. All staff were also made aware that they have direct access to additional therapeutic support via Trevi House’s Clinical Lead, in the awareness that Covid-19 has in some cases impacted on staff’s mental health as well as the women they work with. Support has been available for all staff, whether on furlough or not, or working at the centre or from home. Additionally, they have reviewed staffing policies, including sick pay entitlement, to ensure that staff are well supported if they cannot work because of Covid-19 related symptoms.

Bromley and Croydon Women’s Aid set up brief daily open calls for staff, to enable informal connections, as might happen in a staff kitchen. Senior management also host small staff support groups, so that everyone has a space to talk and be mutually supported, whilst management can keep aware of staff needs and respond accordingly. These additional factors seem to have been highly valued by staff who otherwise could feel quite isolated at this time. Women@TheWell have organised training around boundaries to support staff with maintaining a distinction between work and home when working remotely and, in some cases, taking distressed calls in spaces where they usually relax.

For the women and girls’ sector, who are leaders in trauma-informed practice, supporting staff with the emotional load of the work, is of paramount concern – and perhaps even more so now, as some staff are working with traumatised clients from their home environments. Fiona Dunkley’s RESPECT Model[1] is useful as a checklist for organisations and staff in considering the aspects that work together to prevent and repair the negative impacts of vicarious trauma. Role-modelling by leaders and organisational efforts to create space for self-care and reflection can help staff prioritise their own self-care.

Reflective groups, which we know some WGI projects ran, provided a space for staff to feel, think about and express their feelings about working together, in relation to the ‘primary task’ of their organisation. People were supported to make connections between their life experiences, work, their organisations and the broader context that they are working in, getting under the surface of what is going on for themselves and their teams and helping make sense of it.

It is not always easy to do this at the time of working directly with a client who may be sharing very difficult life experiences or re-experiencing traumatic events, or when teams appear not to be functioning well. Reflective spaces can help in several ways. For example, it can be beneficial for staff to understand when emotions and experiences are held in common with colleagues, which arise from the work they are doing and which they can then work through collectively. It may also be that the internal dynamics within or across teams are a result of powerful group dynamics which they are not aware of on a day to day basis. 

Working all this out together, and with a facilitator, helps individuals and teams to work through issues which might otherwise stay underground and become undiscussable. Although reflective groups are not therapy, they can have therapeutic benefits and can also enable staff to give practical support to each other.

When it comes to workers wellbeing, a range of approaches are necessary to meet the needs of different staff and to support staff with their overall wellbeing. Getting the basics in place, such as clear contracts and job roles, with terms and conditions that, for instance, support flexible working and caring responsibilities, are key to wellbeing. As is involving staff in designing work tasks and improving task processes. We were able to talk about some of these at the webinar.

In the spirit of role-modelling, we also included a self-care practice during the webinar. You can access this section at about 40 minutes into the recording, where Elena leads a self-massage and centering with breath activity. From the responses of those attending the webinar, it is 25 minutes well worth spending.

Self-care takes practice and it can be difficult at first to find a routine. However, by taking a few moments for this, at the beginning of a staff meeting, before and after meeting a client, can all help self-care become an integrated part of working life.  Whilst breathwork is generally recognised as helpful in supporting workers and traumatised clients, as Dunkley suggests, other approaches are also useful and can work well. Doing something physical, playful, reflective, creative can all contribute to looking after oneself and as a result, benefit the work with clients. One thing that we know from research into ‘evidence-led’ practice is that whilst there is lots of information available about what can support staff wellbeing, this needs to be adapted into individual organisational contexts, using knowledge built from individual and organisational experience. It is then possible to build an evidence base of what works for your specific organisation.

We hope to offer future activities building on the Workers Wellbeing Webinar and are interested in what WGI projects would like us to support with. This could be skills-building, such as facilitation skills for hosting reflective groups, information-sharing from evidence available, or possibly offering a short programme of self-care practice.

We end with a few points to help WGI projects in their work to support staff wellbeing:

  1. Covid-19, the #BlackLivesMatters protests, and the more widespread recognition that anti-racism is everyone’s business, offer a unique opportunity to create space for dialogue with staff about wellbeing in this context and make positive adjustments for the future.
  2. Be careful about rushing to solutions – first think what you want to achieve and why you know it is needed.
  3. Notice your organisational ‘culture’ around self-care, for instance, if self-care is valued in words, but then is cut out of agendas or missed because of heavy workloads. How does this get interpreted by staff and what messages are communicated by this?
  4. What are you doing to look after you?

Heather Stradling, Camilla Child and Elena Giannotti
WGI Learning and Impact Services

[1] Dunkley, F (2018). RESPECT- Resilience toolkit blog series.

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