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Workforce Innovation during COVID-19: Wellways

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In April 2020, NDS interviewed a number of disability service providers to understand how they are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, all disability service providers have had to innovate, make their service delivery more flexible, and change the way they operate, as well as ensure staff and client wellbeing is supported during this time.

This is a summary of an interview between Anthea Gellie, Senior Policy Officer, NDS and Rowena Jonas, Project Lead, Grassroots Advocacy, Quality and Service Development, Wellways Australia.

Tell us about Wellways?
Wellways Australia Limited is a leading not-for-profit mental health and disability support organisation with services in Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania. Our services span mental health, disability and community care, and reach thousands of people each year.

Wellways work with a diverse range of people living with mental health issues or various disabilities. We connect people, strengthen families and transform communities. We work with individuals of all ages experiencing disabilities or challenges to their social and emotional wellbeing. This can include creating a home, securing a job and building meaningful relationships.

For Australians living with disabilities who experience inequality and psychological distress, Wellways are acutely aware that COVID-19 has greatly increased exposures to these factors leading to, in some cases, dire consequences. In addition to the disruption to the services, people are receiving – and the common risks and challenges faced by this community – people are experiencing further social exclusion, and the significant impacts associated with this.

We are already seeing the exacerbation of mental health issues in the community, which can have long-term impacts, as well as rapid deteriorations in the maintenance of social networks and financial security. The increased risk of suicide is a major concern for providers of psychosocial supports. First Nations peoples, those from CALD communities, those who identify as LGBTIQ+ or those with comorbid conditions are at even greater risk during this pandemic and beyond.

How have you supported your staff?
We have been able to leverage off an internal project called ‘WeConnect’, which commenced before COVID-19. Wellways have many regionally based services across Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania. Staff working in these services experience barriers in connecting with other staff, due to working remotely and spending significant amounts of time driving between participants. The WeConnect project has come up with innovations around the way staff connect, using technology to connect remote staff with co-workers and with their participants. The project, which has been rigorously co-designed, uses video editing to connect staff and participants, who are able to film themselves on their phone and share it. We are conscious of the online safety of anyone filming people in their homes. Wellways has provided training on cyber safety including the use of virtual backgrounds to protect people’s privacy. We find this makes a big difference to the levels of engagement with this technology. Wellways really value receptive story telling as a way of breaking down stigma and discrimination, and have been drawing on peer-to-peer storytelling to support staff during this time, to facilitate the sharing of practice tips on how to work with clients and support mental wellbeing.

Wellways advocate for peer champions within the organisation, who can connect with new staff and show them the ropes, who in turn can become peer champions themselves. The literature tells us that connection is everything, and so we really try to encourage staff to connect with each other in ways that are healthy and will build each other up. The IPS (Intentional Peer Support) model of peer support and the CHIME (Connectedness, Hope, Identity, Meaning and Empowerment) model of recovery underpins everything that we do. Many staff undertake training in those models and frameworks, and we encourage staff to connect in ways that are fun that also supports a person’s trauma history. We know that the little chats around the water cooler or at lunch are what people are really missing. Finding new ways to connect doesn’t always require a Zoom meeting or phone call – we can share parts of our experience in other ways, such as sending photos of something in our environment; sharing recipes; sharing a snippet of how you are feeling in a poem, however it needs to be balanced as we know people are also really busy.

Wellways are also utilising the range of resources that are readily available online to assist people to work in the virtual environment. We share links to things that are easily accessible and based on best practice and we have consulted with experts regarding online adult learning.

Lastly, we emphasise asking important wellbeing questions outright: Are you ok? How are you feeling? We do a mental health check-in during every phone call and team meeting – being open around this is key. We really encourage a culture in the organisation where staff can feel safe to say, ‘I'm not feeling okay today’, and can talk openly with their manager and colleagues. We can hold space for someone who is not doing well.

What have you learned?
The Wellways response to the crisis was swift. As part of risk mitigation, a COVID-19 working group meets daily to discuss strategies and resources to support staff. Non-vital face-to-face services were suspended; events were cancelled, modified or postponed. Walk-in services were suspended; most of the workforce are working from home.
Some vital face-to-face services continue. We have found some workers are happy to move in and live with families during lockdown. We are providing support to use telehealth, and using web-based real time platforms to continue virtual mental health supports. We were able to use the learnings from our Carer Gateway project, which is a largely online or phone-based service, as resources and service processes had already been developed.

Wellways teams have utilized a range of applications and technology that are readily available for peer-to-peer connection such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Zoom. We have been hosting a wide range of forums on these platforms such as social peer groups, training, webinars and podcasts. We have also encouraged staff to connect with each other for peer support and to share practice tips. Staff have then been able to help participants to access similar ways of connecting with their communities safely.

We learned from our WeConnect project to explore the use of technology to keep staff and participants more connected. We have found that peer to peer sharing of practice tips, how people are coping, and real time stories between peers has a great effect on mental wellbeing and the feelings of being supported. People are connecting, as they never have before, particularly those who are geographically isolated, those who struggle with face-to-face environments, or have other barriers with physically accessing services. We are keeping our vital connection with service users going, and a culture of learning, continuous improvement, education and advocacy work has continued in this time.

We have used the opportunity to start up a bigger project to redevelop all our peer and community educations products into a different format, with flexible delivery.

What service models will you retain in the recovery phase and beyond?
Flexible delivery will stay as a permanent service delivery option for people who cannot attend in person. There are barriers for some participants in getting in a car and attending a group, this should not be forced on people as we connect in different ways. In another sense, we have found that as far as creating connections, space needs to be allowed for people to be heard and to speak properly. This means online or virtual courses may need to be about the same length those held as in person. To make this sustainable we are looking at condensing courses, breaking them into smaller chunks, and having frequent online meetings.

We have set up online etiquette and online safety for any of our peer, community education and social connection programs that we were able to adapt for a virtual environment. This includes Facebook groups, setting up online talks about cyber bullying, and safe spaces to talk about this openly. We recognise from a mental health perspective that people are at varying stages of recovery, and that their behaviours could be interpreted differently. Having said that, some people are feeling safer in the online environment, as sometimes their mental health condition prevents them from participating in person.

Contact information

For any enquiries, please contact Cassidy Livingstone, Policy and Project Officer, 0448 076 987,