The rewards of supporting people in crisis or mental health challenges can be unparalleled. To know we’ve helped someone and made a difference in their lives can impart a deep sense of meaning and purpose to our lives.
But this work can also be intense and stressful. We see and hear so much each day that can wear us down and make our hearts heavy. There is a high potential for us to soak up the traumatic experiences of those we support, or to burn out from compassion fatigue. Pressure to serve more and more people without more and more resources adds further burden. Under these conditions, a work environment that holds and supports us is especially important. We can only give our best to others if we have the personal and organizational supports we need to maintain our own wellbeing.
In this story we describe the Distress Centre Calgary’s (DCC) journey to protect and promote the mental wellbeing of its staff and volunteers in the face of skyrocketing demands for service. Because the DCC is engaging staff in identifying and addressing work-related stresses that are impacting their wellbeing,
the Distress Centre is an exemplar of workplace mental health promotion. A big ‘aha’ has been the importance of building a community of care, including peer support (“scuba buddies”) within the organization. Executive Director Jerilyn Dressler generously invited us in to share their journey.
The impetus for change: Escalating demands for service
The Distress Centre Calgary (DCC) is a not-for-profit social services organization that provides 24/7 crisis support for Calgary and southern Alberta. Historically, the DCC maintained a “small agency feel”. It has been a place where people know and support one another, and where they want to stay and keep engaged. But, in response to demand, the DCC has grown; it now enjoys a culturally diverse workforce of about 100 staff and 250 active volunteers. While this is a good thing, the sheer number of people makes it more challenging to nurture and sustain the rich social fabric of the agency.
Distress Centre Calgary in a nutshell
Mission: “To provide compassionate, accessible crisis support that enhances the health, well-being and resiliency of individuals in distress”.
Vision: “Everyone is heard”.
“We do not define crisis. We do not judge. Anyone can call us day or night.” All services are free.
DISTRESS CENTRE CALGARY SERVICES INCLUDE:
- 24/7 crisis supports by telephone, e-mail, daily chat and specifically for youth, daily text
- Professional counseling for people with issues that cannot be resolved over the phone.
- 211 by phone or chat and now text for people seeking social, community or government services.
- The Coordinated Access and Assessment (CAA) program supports Calgarians who are experiencing homelessness of out the Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre (SORCe).
In the past few years, demands on the DCC have skyrocketed. Between 2015 and 2018, crisis contact volumes increased by 32 percent. In 2018, the Distress Centre responded to 140,000 contacts. At first, DCC volunteers and staff worked valiantly to keep up with escalating contact volumes, but like the proverbial frog in a pot of increasingly hot water, they eventually began to struggle. Interestingly, the Distress Centre’s vision: “Everyone is heard” added to their stress. Strongly invested in that vision, they worked tirelessly to ensure that every caller was indeed heard.
Eventually, DCC leaders noticed that staff were withdrawing, “putting their heads down”, and closing their office doors, trying to just “power through” busy periods; many had stopped taking breaks. And, leaders realized they were setting the tone for this – that they were continually saying, “I’m so busy” and isolating themselves. They began to wonder how the organization could manage if these patterns of behaviour – this “culture of busy” – continued. So, how could staff become empowered to set boundaries in order to care for themselves and each other? Something needed to change.
Jerilyn: “The volumes are going up and up and up and up. Demand is going up and up and up… People were in crisis as they were serving people in crisis because they didn’t feel empowered to set boundaries. They didn’t even feel empowered to take care of themselves and it wasn’t ending. We put our head down to power through busy periods but that busy period wasn’t ending. We had to say, ‘Okay, we need to take a step back, empower people to take care of themselves and each other and get out of that culture of busy’, because the work is always going to be there.”
In June 2018, the leadership team held a half-day, all-staff meeting to discuss these issues and possible solutions. Convening and participating in this meeting took courage for leaders and staff alike.
Jerilyn: “We were all very brave. I think everyone was really brave, not just me and the leadership team, but everyone was very brave and bringing the issues to that meeting and talking about them.”
Provided with a safe environment to speak freely about things that were impacting their wellbeing, staff did just that. They unloaded a lot and it was a difficult meeting. But, as upsetting as it was, getting everything out on the table was crucially important. Otherwise, the leadership team would never have known what staff were experiencing and thinking, and what specifically was upsetting for them. Armed with a better understanding of the real issues, they were then able to look for solutions.
Jerilyn: “Getting everything out on the table was really important…Had we just averted our eyes from what is happening in the Contact Centre – don’t look; it’s scary – we wouldn’t have known… and then we were able to move to solutions.”
No matter how valuable this meeting was, for Jerilyn as the leader ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of the organization and its people, this meeting felt like a “knife to the heart”:
Jerilyn: “[I took it personally.] It’s hard not to. It was knife to the heart stuff. Things are not good. People are burnt out. The turnover rate is rising. It was like a knife to the heart. I was nearly devastated by that meeting… I didn’t know if I could continue. I was like, ‘I’m going to take some time off in the summer to think about what this means for me. I don’t know that I’m the right person… But then I’m so dedicated to this place. I started here as a volunteer, so the Distress Centre is a part of who I am. I was like, ‘I can’t leave it worse off than when I found it. I’m going to fight through this’.”
The leadership team realized that to avoid this level of intensity again, they would need to institute some clear and formalized avenues for staff to communicate with them – to share concerns and be heard in an ongoing manner.
Jerilyn: “It never should have been a staff meeting that we waited for that… My hope is that will never happen again …because we are creating things to prevent that from happening. We are creating feedback loops and communication channels that didn’t exist previously.”
Early responses: Addressing work pressures and promoting self-care
This emotional jolt kickstarted the Distress Centre’s journey to reinvigorate and sustain its longstanding culture of high engagement and wellbeing, but now in the “new world” of overwhelming demands for service.
The leadership team responded immediately, first tackling some of the identified work-related pressures. An initiative that had been generating significant strain was dropped, and other initiatives were modified. Crisis call volumes were stabilized through new policy and technological measures. Staff and volunteers were reminded that the vision, “Everyone is heard” is an aspirational statement, not a mandatory daily requirement. New communication channels have been created through more surveys and more face time with leadership. Jerilyn and Robyn Romano, Director of Operations, strive to attend all of the different staff group meetings. And there was another half-day all staff meeting this year. All of these actions demonstrated to staff that they had been heard and that concrete things were being done to make things better. This in turn helped to build staff trust in the leadership team.
And yet, that growing demand for service wasn’t going to go away, and the likelihood of additional funding was low. Leaders decided to focus on what they could control, and that was supporting staff to take care of themselves. They started to talk about how, in this high stress environment, staff could be empowered to feel more in control of their situation, to feel they could set boundaries with callers and take a break when needed.
Jerilyn: “What we really can control is how we take care of ourselves… because if they burn themselves out, which is, ‘I’ll get to that next call and make sure that all calls are answered’, and ‘Everyone is heard’ is our vision statement. It’s a vision, not a mission. That’s in the perfect reality if we had all the funding we needed. That doesn’t mean we want people to respond to the demand at the expense of their own wellbeing. That’s when we really started focusing on, ‘Okay, this is a high stress environment. How can we empower people to set boundaries so they can feel like they’re in control of what’s happening for them?’ That’s the number one determinant for job satisfaction, is the internal locus of control, right? How can we help them feel empowered to set boundaries with the callers and to take a break when they need it?”
Reception area of Distress Centre Calgary (DCC). Photo courtesy of DCC.
Embedding self-care into the organization’s strategic plan
To ensure all of this would get the sustained and focused attention it needed, the leadership team embedded self-care into the organization’s strategic plan. This was approved by the DCC Board in January 2019.
Jerilyn: “So, we had the great idea of embedding self-care into the strategic plan. Okay, we need to make sure that this is a pillar of the work that we’re doing, because we can’t do anything without people who are well and healthy. So, we did embed it into our strategic plan, and it was very high level, you know, ‘We’re going to talk about what self-care means to us as individuals, as a group’.”
And yet there were some “nigglies” about this focus on self-care. Was it right to put all of the on us on employees?
Jerilyn: “We were putting all of the onus on our employees, and one of our newest managers, Mike Velthuis Kroeze, the Crisis Program Manager, questioned, ‘But, what are we doing as a leadership team? What policies do we need to put in place to make sure staff can care for themselves?’”
Epiphany: Self-care isn’t enough
And then, the March 2019 terrorist attack on two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques happened. In a Facebook post, Muslim activist Nakita Valerio commented on the tragedy and peoples’ response to it: “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who need community care is how we fail people”.
That comment really struck Jerilyn – it was a “a big light bulb” helping her to realize that self-care for Distress Centre staff wasn’t enough either and rather, that a collective approach – a community of care where people support each other – was essential:
Jerilyn: “We have to create a community of care that supports other people; that encourages people to access support; that is also shared collectively and there is shared ownership of it. I can expect support from my colleagues but also, I expect that I will give support and provide that support and feedback and everything that goes with having a healthy, diverse, open culture at the Distress Centre.”
Jerilyn explained that a community of care is all about human connection and mutual support. She described this as being like “scuba buddies” – a community of like-minded people driven by the same mission, who believe in and truly understand the work and what you’re going through. You don’t go scuba diving with someone who doesn’t understand scuba diving – you go with someone who knows all about it and who can support you when needed:
Jerilyn: “They say you never go scuba diving alone. You always have a scuba buddy. You have someone who knows you don’t go scuba diving with a snorkeler or someone who’s going to sit on the beach. You go scuba diving with someone who knows how to scuba dive…having like-minded people who are driven by the mission and believe in the work and understand that there’s tough days and there’s good days and that’s very rewarding. But you need to have someone who understands what you’re going through. That often means within this environment, somebody sitting next to you, doing the same job as you. Peer support – it’s all about peers – scuba buddies.”
Not one to just sit on an idea for long, Jerilyn decided to take her idea out to her colleagues and see what they thought of it.
Another all-staff meeting…
In June 2019 Distress Centre staff and leaders came together for another all-staff meeting. The leadership team began by describing how they’d responded to staff feedback from that difficult 2018 all-staff meeting.
Jerilyn: “What we said to them this year, ‘We’ve changed things a lot since last year, based on your feedback… look what we did with your feedback’.”
Then they focused on the notion of a community of care and generating co-owned ideas for creating and sustaining that: “What ideas do you have for creating a community of care?”. Interestingly, most of the suggestions put forward were no- or low-cost – simple things that anyone could do at any time.
Here’s some examples of what came up:
- Checking in with each other (raised by many).
- Time and space for checking in with each other.
- “Create space: my door is open if you need to talk”.
- Ask people what they need.
- Words of gratitude.
- “You deserve a break; take a break”.
- Smiles and laughter; creating a fun, happy work environment where we tell lots of stories and have lots of fun.
- Wellness days to focus on different aspects of wellbeing.
- More activities by the Wellness Committee.
- Information sessions (e.g., lunch and learns).
Ideas about work practices and policies were also put forward:
- Creating clear expectations – What do you expect of me? What should I be working on?
- Setting an example (e.g., managers not sending work emails at night).
- Change “sick” days to “personal wellness” days so that people don’t have to feel guilty calling in “sick” when they actually just need a mental health break.
As with any stakeholder engagement process, DCC leaders made it clear they would consider all ideas and try to implement as many as possible. However, with limited resources, not all could be addressed, and priorities would need to be determined. Following the meeting, staff were asked to complete a priority-ranking survey. By the end of 2019, DCC leaders expect to have some action plans for self-care and a community of care, based on staff’s prioritizations, in place.
The Distress Centre is also integrating the notions of self-care and community of care into the physical design of its workplace. In early 2020, the Centre is moving to a new building. The new offices are intentionally being designed to include ample space for people to debrief and a quiet room where people can meditate, pray or just generally relax.
Some of the staff at the Distress Centre Calgary. Photo courtesy of Distress Centre Calgary
Essential pieces of the puzzle, and moving forward
Stepping back and looking at their work to date, Jerilyn noted that this combination of things – self-care, a community of care and peer support, the ability to set boundaries and take a break when needed, and a physical space to enable this – are all essential pieces of the puzzle of creating a mentally healthy space:
Jerilyn: “There’s some actual physical space that we’re creating in hope that people will mentally create that space for themselves. All of these different things, not one of them is enough. They all have to work together.”
To assess progress, the Distress Centre will add some new questions to an annual employee satisfaction survey. The survey will be conducted this year to capture baseline data, and it will be repeated next year, once some initiatives have been rolled out. And so, through continued listening and a participatory approach, this work to support the mental wellbeing of DCC staff and volunteers will continue.
We’re certainly looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds!
Why the Distress Centre’s approach is so exciting
We think the Distress Centre’s approach to supporting mental health in the workplace is exciting and exemplary in many ways. First, the leadership team has fully invested in employee mental wellbeing and has ensured it will remain a priority by embedding it into the organization’s structure and policies (strategic plan; communication channels/feedback loops; physical design of the workplace). These new structures complement existing programs to support wellbeing, including a Wellness Committee and an employee assistance program that was expanded as a result of the participatory process with staff.
The second thing that’s so great about this work is recognition by organizational leaders that it’s the work that is largely problematic, not simply the inability of its people to “manage stress”. Even within fiscal constraints, they found ways to make the work less stressful, and in so doing have helped to protect employee mental wellbeing.
Third, in true health promotion fashion, the DCC is authentically engaging staff in identifying issues that are impacting their wellbeing, and in finding solutions; they are working with staff, rather than “doing to” or “doing for”. This is a process that fosters empowerment where people realize their own “power from within” to take control of factors that impact their wellbeing – the overarching goal of health promotion. Also congruent with mental health promotion are efforts to address factors that may contribute to ill-health, and the DCC’s intent to sustain its supportive environment for mental wellbeing.
But taking this open-ended approach took courage. As Jerilyn experienced, this is not for the faint of heart! For leaders, it can be extremely difficult to open oneself up for whatever comes out – and to hear that things aren’t perfect under one’s command. And for staff, there must be a high level of psychological safety in the organization such that they feel safe to express “what’s really going on”. We suspect the DCC’s longstanding culture of engagement and the value placed on reflective practice and ongoing learning have been instrumental in the DCC’s ability to engage staff and get to the heart of the matter.
Jerilyn: “This challenge and the way we approached it was not only my doing, but our 48/49 years of history as a social work agency and emphasis on human connection, supervision and reflection… we have always been a teaching and learning agency. We work with volunteers. This is heart work, and we have to be kind to each other. All of this contributed to us taking this course of direction.”
And finally, recognition that “self-care is not enough” and that what is really important is a community
of care is exciting because it recognizes the power of relationships to support mental wellbeing in organizations. This is highly resonant with the research of William Kahn, an organizational psychologist who has studied holding environments in organizations. Holding environments are created when work colleagues make time and space to “hold” or support coworkers who are upset and together, work through that “upset” in caring and supportive ways.
Kahn has more recently written about resilient caregiving organizations – those that have the capacity
to absorb stress and continue to function effectively. Becoming a resilient organization is not easily achieved; however, it appears that the Distress Centre Calgary is well on its way.
“Resilient organizations, like individuals, have the capacity to absorb stress and difficult emotions without being so harmed that they cannot function effectively. They may sway and bend under the weight of what they absorb but they do not break; they maintain the capacity to right themselves… In resilient cultures, members have figured out how to learn and grow in the midst of difficult, sometimes painful environments; they have learned to remain connected rather than disconnected from one another and careseekers. This is not a simple proposition, and many caregiving organizations struggle to make it true.”
Want to support mental wellbeing in your workplace? Some thoughts…
When asked for advice about supporting mental wellbeing in the workplace, Jerilyn’s key piece of advice was to “don’t look away” and to “work as a team”:
Jerilyn: “It is important to not look away. The old adage, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but action in the face of fear” is certainly appropriate here. We were all feeling so overwhelmed in 2017-2018 – I was a brand-new ED working with a leadership team in new roles. It was hard to lift our heads up and look at what was happening elsewhere in the agency. But we carved out the time and approached it as a team.
I have big shoulders, but I couldn’t have possibly taken that on myself. The leadership team helped facilitate smaller groups to make sure everyone had the opportunity to express themselves and be heard. We took it on together and proceeded together…I remember debriefing with Robyn and David from my team late in the afternoon/into the evening after the June 2018 meeting. The “knife in the heart” was so much easier to take because they (and the other members of the leadership team) were right beside me.”
Another important learning is that this process doesn’t need to be expensive. Staff’s expressed needs were predominantly about shifting a mindset or being more mindful of mental wellbeing in the workplace, rather than expensive new programs or supports. This is good food for thought!
In closing, if you want to better support mental wellbeing in your own workplace, here are some questions you might ask yourself to get started…
- How are we really doing in terms of mental wellbeing at work? Are we really seeing what is going on? Are there signs of distress? Are we afraid to “really see”? If yes, why?
- What supports do we already have in place for supporting mental wellbeing in our workplace? For individuals? For all of us as a community?
- What things in our work or work environment might be impacting our mental wellbeing?
- How “safe” is our workplace for talking about difficult things? How can we make it safer for people to say what is really going on and to raise any concerns they might have?
- What example am I/are we setting in regard to mental wellbeing at work?
- How can we work together to better support our individual and collective mental wellbeing?
- How will we know if what we’re doing is making things better?
i See for example, Canadian Mental Health Association. Mental health promotion: A framework for action.
ii See, for example, Bishop, A. (2015). Becoming an ally. Breaking the cycle of oppression in people. 3rd Ed. Black Point,
Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, for a discussion of “power over” and “power with”.
iii Kahn, W. (2001). Holding environments at work. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 37(3); 260-279.
iv Kahn, W. (2005). Holding fast. The struggle to create resilient caregiving organizations. New York: Brunner-Routledge; pg. xi.