“Supporting staff wellbeing was one of the main challenges for us and one that continues”. IRISi interviewed leading researchers and key specialists to talk about the impact of the pandemic on Domestic Violence and Abuse in the UK – and here are 3 responses to our Look Beyond campaign questions from Fiona Dwyer, CEO of Solace
As we continue with our “Look Beyond the Pandemic” campaign, IRISi interviewed leading researchers and key specialists to talk about the impact of the pandemic on Domestic Violence and Abuse in the UK. Here is what Fiona Dwyer, CEO of Solace, told us.
1) When the lockdown was put in place, what were the main difficulties faced by Solace? Was there any aspect that became clearly harder to deal with? What did you do to overcome them?
When the lockdown happened, the key priority was how could we continue to provide specialist support, whilst maintaining a focus on staff wellbeing. The majority of staff started working from home – for many this was for the first time. In delivering specialist services, this poses a real complication as, with the housing situation in London, many of our staff do not have dedicated workspaces and so ended up supporting women with trauma from their bedrooms. Our refuge provision had to continue to be face-to-face support and we adapted the timeframes for support to ensure that both women and staff were safe. It’s a real testament to our fantastic staff team that they were able to adapt – either working from home or, for some, pretty much moving in to our 24-hour services to ensure they run. We set up a redeployment list and loads of our brilliant staff starting supporting other services too – those closer to home, meaning we had additional capacity and support for our service users.
We also changed over our IT system at the end of March and struggled, as many others did, to ensure that our staff had the necessary equipment to be able to work from home. This was an incredible logistical challenge for our COO to support. Some staff also did not have any desk or chair to work from so we also gave staff a one-off payment in November to cover buying additional equipment (we had been sending it out to people who had requested prior to this).
Supporting staff wellbeing was one of the main challenges for us and one that continues. We implemented team wellbeing budgets, extra clinical supervision, specialist leave for those affected by COVID or Black Lives Matters and also had organisational quizzes and wellbeing activities. Despite this, and due to the nature of the work at Solace, our staff struggled with their wellbeing. As above, many of our staff live in rented flat or have caring responsibilities which has affected them. Some of our staff have been personally affected by COVID deaths and for this reason, we also doubled our compassionate and dependency leave.
2) What have you learned during the pandemic – and how will this learning be useful afterwards?
We learned how challenging it is to provide specialist services to women from home. Our staff have done amazing work, but we cannot meet the demand for our services. Cases have also increased in complexity and staff have to spend more time with each woman or child, as well as deal with increased complexities. This has fed in to our planning about how we can work with others in the sector to reduce the ‘safe’ caseloads for our staff across all services, but particularly community services.
Despite the working from home challenges, we have also learned that many people can work effectively from home. There have been some adaptions for some people, especially feeling like they have to be in front of their screens or on the phones for the whole day. We have learned the importance of supporting staff to work effectively from home and not to feel guilty for taking longer breaks to take a walk or do something to support their wellbeing.
3) How has the pandemic changed your services? Is there anything that you would say that came to stay?
Overall, the pandemic hasn’t changed our services – we continue to provide the same services as before the pandemic. What is has done is change, in some instance, how we provide the services. I do think that we won’t have a return to everyone working from the office or refuge/other supported accommodation five days a week. A combination of home working and face-to-face will become the new norm.
Previously, I think we’d considered that it was impossible to run specialist services from home, or with limited time in physical locations, but our team has been brilliant in changing the way we work.
Moving some of the services online has been really beneficial. For example, our training has had greater reach and has really adapted, meaning we can have online webinars and training reaching more people than in a physical space. Likewise, some women have found online counselling is better for them than face-to-face so we will continue to have a blend of this going forward.
As an organisation, we work with a whole range of partners across the sector. We run services in GP practices in 5 areas across London and work in partnership with IRISi on this. One of the sites was brand new at the start of COVID and IRISi provided support to move the training and the clinical sessions online – this was a real success of the adaptations during COVID and one that can continue in a blended fashion post-COVID as it has proven to be very effective for many patients.
Fiona has been the CEO of Solace for a little over a year, starting as the CEO designate in August 2019. She brings with her significant experience working with and for women and young people’s protection with 18 years’ experience across the statutory and voluntary sectors. She has worked in Ireland, Peru, Mexico and Switzerland on human rights and international development and has spent the last 12 working explicitly on VAWG in the UK. She spent 7 years as a local authority commissioner, working in Haringey as VAWG Strategic Lead and previously in Tower Hamlets where she initiated and led on VAWG work for three years. Prior to that she was National Children and Young People officer at Women’s Aid where she was involved in developing national policy guidance and resources on a wide range of domestic violence issues facing children and young people. She has also been a trustee at Rights of Women for the past 6 years.