Julie Gardner, Coach and Trainer, The Thistle Foundation

How have you been able to keep a focus on what matters to people during COVID? 

The current crisis has meant that it is more important than ever to focus on what matters to people, so that we can make sure that the support we offer is making the difference needed in people’s lives. So teams across the organisation have been asking what really matters and how do we support people accordingly. This has included making sure people are able to access the technology needed to keep in touch with family and friends, teams self isolating with the person they support to keep them safe and well, and Health and Wellbeing practitioners offering telephone support as face to face is no longer possible. We’ve also been sensitive to and aware that  what matters most to people may have changed due to COVID. In our engagement with  our community, we’ve explored how people are feeling. An example of this is how we’re using social media to try to help people re-connect with each other and their peer  networks. 

What have you had to do differently and what made this possible? 

There has been a need to act quickly and in response to what the people we support, and  teams are telling us. This has meant we have: 

  • Met more frequently, using MS Teams, as strategic leads to hear what the current  issues are and plan a response eg. recruiting volunteers drivers so that staff didn’t  have to use public transport, planning around PPE. 
  • Encouraged teams to be thinking about how they can support people to live their  best lives given their current restrictions, being creative and innovative.
  • Been focused on communication throughout the organisation. Our CEO, Mark  Hoolahan sends out regular updates to teams (2-3 times weekly). These not only  inform staff of what is happening but capture and feed back stories of people’s  lives and the difference teams are making. This has been important in keeping us  all connected and appreciated, during what can be a very isolating time. Mark has  also directly communicated with people we support, people who normally use the  Hub, and volunteers to help people stay connected. 
  • Been redesigning our training so that we can continue to provide sessions  virtually. Again people have really welcomed the opportunity to keep developing  their practice and also spend time together.
  • Used technology to be able to reach people – delivering remote lifestyle  management courses, consultations and mindfulness, for example. Availability,  development, widespread accessibility and low entry cost of new technologies has  made this possible. 
  • Been using PPE for the first time when supporting people. This could have been an  unpleasant and upsetting experience for the people we support. Our teams  handled this situation through consultation, story-telling, discussion and by  showing sensitivity. 

What made this possible has been an absolute commitment to continuing to work to our  values: 

  • Focusing on what matters 
  • Focusing on people’s strengths, skills, creativity and contribution
  • Making sure that people are supported and are shown appreciation 
  • Making time for reflection and learning 
  • Capturing stories so that we can share and learn from them 
  • Having a commitment to communicating as openly as possible even when we  didn’t have all the answers 

What have you noticed that has been better? 

Due to the ever changing situation we have had to focus on what really matters, and let  go of some of the things that aren’t as important at the moment. This has really  sharpened our decision making. This in turn has meant we are responding faster and  creating a more effective feedback loop throughout the organisation.  

For the people we support we have noticed that people are taking the chance to have a  bit more time and space, as many of the things they would normally do are not  happening. This has resulted in people trying new ways of keeping healthy, and keeping  connected. 

How did this make you feel?  

I have felt really proud to be part of an organisation that is so focused on what matters to  people. My colleagues have consistently shown great commitment, humanity and  creativity in the way that they have supported people, and redesigned support around  this changing situation.  

It is very important to me to be able to live my values through the work that I do, and so  while this has been and continues to be very challenging there has been a lot of powerful  learning. 

What have you learned through this?  

That during such unprecedented times it is even more important to be clear on your  purpose and live your values. That’s what keeps you anchored and able to steer a course  through the complexity of it all.

Phase 2 (Autumn 2020)

What has continued to help keep a focus on what matters for people during the  pandemic? 

One of the key things that has helped us to keep the focus on what matters to people is  the feedback we have been getting from the people we support. Thistle supports people  in a variety of ways, depending on what matters to them, this includes: 

  • Supported living – enabling people to live independently in their own homes and  communities 
  • Health and Wellbeing – this includes Lifestyle Management Courses as well as 1:1  support. 

In relation to Supported Living each person has a team around them. These teams have  continued to go above and beyond, to make sure that people are safe, and also that they  are able to keep connected and active. These teams are so committed to the people they  support and making sure they live their best lives, despite the restrictions. This has meant  we’ve heard lots of stories of people not just surviving but thriving in lockdown. Sharing  stories of how they support people to live according to what matters to them is also a  powerful way of reinforcing our values and our practice. However it has still been  incredibly hard for so many people, and so the values and commitment of the team are  more important than ever. 

In terms of the Health and Wellbeing team they have moved their support online (e.g. virtual Lifestyle Management Courses) and on to the phone. We’ve heard back from lots  of people that this has been a lifeline for them, supporting them to cope and manage in  these challenging times, as well as being an important connection with the outside world. 

Communication has also continued to be crucial and Mark, our CEO, continues to send  out regular updates and stories. We also had our information and consultation sessions.  These are held regularly as a way of people getting together throughout the organisation.  It was really touching how pleased people were to see each other across the zoom  screen. Lots of waving and smiles. We heard so many stories of how people are  supporting each other but also the emotional toll it is taking. As one person said ‘we feel  like we’re just trying to gulp for air before going back under the next wave’. The sessions  really were moving and emotional, with Mark acknowledging that everyone has been  affected by the pandemic, both personally and professionally. It is important to keep  acknowledging that, and allowing people to talk about it. 

It is about walking the talk, if we want practitioners to focus on what matters to the  people they support, then we need to focus on what matters to them. So allowing staff  time to connect, talk and be heard is fundamental to keeping a focus on what matters.

Are there changes that seem to be lasting longer term and are there things that have  slid back to old ways of doing things?  

As an organisation we have been building on the changes we started during lockdown,  including: 

  • Virtual training – we’ve now got a regular programme of dates for internal  training, and people have valued the chance to connect and keep developing.
  • Self-organised teams – we’ve continued to make progress despite the pandemic  and there are good signs that the change is enduring even in these challenging  times. Also the move to tablets for employees has made it easier for people to  communicate. 
  • Online Lifestyle Management Courses 
  • Support by phone 
  • Regular meetings on MS Teams 
  • Virtual information and consultation sessions – this is open to staff and volunteers  across the organisation. 
  • Regular updates from CEO – including updates from our Strategic Leaders Group  so that there is a more open flow of communication about what is happening,  which also shows how the feedback from teams shapes decision making. 

We try to keep paying attention to what is working and building on it. In terms of sliding  back to old ways the main thing I would say is continuing to be on the hamster wheel. By  that I mean being busy and so not always being able to step back and at times say ‘no, we  can’t do that because we’re doing this’. When you get busy it can be hard to prioritise – so we keep trying to challenge ourselves and each other about this.

What difference has this made to people? 

I think it has meant that people have continued to show great humanity, understanding and support. Everyone has times when they struggle but there is a real effort to provide  mutual support, and time and space to talk and acknowledge how hard it is and will  continue to be. For example, we did a survey of people who use Thistle, including people  who use the gym, to get their thoughts about what they wanted us to prioritise as part of  a gradual reopening. The key message from people was that they absolutely wanted to  be able to come back, but that they understood the restrictions and they trusted Thistle  to make the right decisions. It was just a really heartening and warm response, and so  supportive given that people have been missing something that they greatly value. Our  hope is that we can reopen the gym towards mid-November. 

Offering online/telephone support has meant that people, who might have been very  isolated, have been able to connect and continue to receive support. 

Being open in our communication with staff about the challenges we’re facing, has  resulted in positive feedback. Even though at times we’ve acknowledged we don’t have  all the answers but are working things through. This helps to build and keep trust, which  is so important in times of great uncertainty.

How did this make you feel?

I continue to be really proud of the people I work with, and it’s hard to put into words  how moving it is to see people, day in and day out, do their very best, despite their  weariness and own struggles, to support others, not just to be safe but to focus on what  matters to them. One of the Personal Assistants from Supported Living, Chelsea Diane, sent the following poem, after a very reflective and emotional conversation with their  team lead, inspired by the stories from the information and consultation sessions. I think  it sums it up in a powerful way. 

And then the whole world 

walked inside and shut their 

doors and said we would stop it 

all. Everything. To protect our 

weaker ones and our sicker ones. 

Our older ones. And nothing. 

Nothing in the history of 

humankind ever felt more 

like love than this

Reflecting on your experiences what have you learned? 

It continues to reinforce for me the importance of living our values and being very clear  on our purpose. Last time I said that this helps us to navigate the complexity of the  situation, and that is still true, but it’s also become clearer to me that it is fundamental to  supporting us to keep going, find ways of coping and supporting each other. We’ve all  had days when we have felt overwhelmed, but it is knowing that what we do makes a real  difference that keeps us turning up.

What difference has it made to you to tell your story as part of this project? 

It is always helpful to stop and reflect, and having to write this down has helped me to do  that. In doing this story 6 months on from the last one I have reflected on how we are  just beginning to engage with the emotional impact of the pandemic. In the first story the  focus was on action, and responding quickly and effectively. In the last 6 weeks or so I’ve  noticed how we are talking more about the emotional impact, and not just talking about  it but sharing tears and real struggles. This is very hard but absolutely crucial – it is part of  us living our values.