Help for the hard conversations

For Kāinga Ora’s frontline staff, providing customers with safe, healthy homes can sometimes feel like the easy part of their job.

“The people our customer-facing teams deal with are often vulnerable and may have complex needs and challenges,” says Naomi Hosted, technical response manager in the Safety, Support and Wellbeing team.

“In some cases our people are the only support people who connect with them regularly, who they can talk to about what’s going on in their lives.

“As a result our people get to hear to a lot of challenging conversations, and
often help connect up customers with other agencies and support services.”

It’s an aspect of the work that Kāinga Ora, and its predecessor Housing New
Zealand, has long been aware of, and services such as EAP have been provided
to help with the stresses that may result.

Mental wellbeing refresh

In 2018, however, Kāinga Ora decided it was time to take a fresh look at how it
could best protect mental wellbeing.

“We want our people who engage with customers on a day-to-day basis to turn up feeling able to give their best to the job every day,” says Taina Jones, North
and West Auckland regional director.

“We were looking for something that would support individuals and teams and
give them strategies for managing the challenging situations they encounter.”

An extensive consultation process followed, in which the Safety, Support and Wellbeing team visited every Kāinga Ora office nationwide and sought the views of people right across the organisation, from tenancy managers and call centre teams to the board and chief executive. There was enthusiastic support from senior leadership, with the director of safety, support and wellbeing, Tarniya Comrie, urging the team to get creative.

“Tarniya encouraged us to think outside the box and ask ourselves, if we could have anything – our dream programme – what would it be?”

Professional supervision

The proposal that most resonated with both the wellbeing team and those on the frontline was professional supervision – something that had already been successfully tested in a pilot programme set up to support a tenancy team in a high-needs area.

Like counselling, professional supervision involves regular confidential conversations between a professional provider and an individual or group. Unlike counselling, it is an ongoing relationship rather than a short-term response, and isn’t primarily problem-focused. Instead it offers people an opportunity to reflect on their work-related challenges and to develop good practices to help manage their own wellbeing and to develop professionally.

It was what the organisation had been looking for. The decision was made to offer an hour a month of one-on-one supervision for all people in customer-facing roles, and an additional hour-and-a-half every three months for team sessions. However before the programme could be rolled out one problem had to be solved: people liked the concept of professional supervision, but didn’t like the name.

“People thought supervision sounded a bit scary – like they would be watched over and told what to do,” Hosted says. “But we got around it by having a competition to choose our own name, and came up with Wā Manaaki, which means support time, time to protect, and to show respect.”

The new branding gave the project an identity all its own. The safety, support and wellbeing team worked closely with the chosen service provider – ABACUS Counselling, Training and Supervision – to develop a series of short videos, and to bring supervisors into Kāinga Ora offices to explain the practicalities and purposes of the initiative ahead of Wā Manaaki’s launch in December 2019.

Connection, relationship

At the heart of the programme is the relationship between an individual and their supervisor. Flexibility has been built in to help everyone find a match that fits them well. Not only do participants get to select their own supervisors from website profile pages, but they’re also free to swap to someone else whenever they wish.

For those favouring face-to-face sessions (when not in lockdown), supervisor choice is more limited, especially in the smaller centres, but those willing to build the relationship online can choose from around 50 candidates with a wide range of backgrounds.

ABACUS director Ali Penfold says all supervisors are trained and registered professionals but their areas of expertise vary, including not only psychology, social work and counselling, but also occupational therapy and mediation.

“It’s really critical for people to have a comfortable relationship with their supervisor and if they don’t, for whatever reason, we strongly encourage them to change,” she says. “Connection and relationship are absolutely key. If they’re not there it’s not going to work.”

The timing of Wā Manaaki’s introduction meant the programme was still bedding in when the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown began in late March 2020. The need for people to work from home and make regular welfare checks on their customers was going to create new pressures, but many did not yet have the support of a Wā Manaaki supervisor.

“What ABACUS did for us then was amazing,” says Hosted. “They made contact with everyone who was eligible for supervision – more than 500 people – and talked them through what the programme could offer.

“There was a massive increase in uptake as a result, and ABACUS helped match them all up with supervisors.”

Working through grief

For many, the support provided by the programme during lockdown turned out to be a game-changer. Kāinga Ora offered everyone the option of swapping from a monthly one-hour supervision session to shorter weekly catch-ups, and provided extra sessions for those who needed them. The opportunities for more regular contact were welcomed by many, as supervisors helped people adapt to the overlapping demands of work and home life, and adjust to doing their jobs differently.

For Taina Jones, however, the supervision she received during this period was especially poignant.

“My nephew was killed in a car crash on the first day of lockdown.

“With the little-understood restrictions around travel, funeral arrangements and bubbles, it was particularly difficult.

“At the same time I was also trying to deal with lockdown from a management perspective.

“I’m responsible for the operational team across the region and we were all struggling to connect – the working from home environment, having the right tools, how to use Zoom properly.”

The ability to talk things through with her supervisor was invaluable, she says. Together they found meaningful ways for her to express her grief and honour her nephew’s memory, while also establishing a workable system of priorities that made her job demands manageable.

“I got approval for a second supervision session every month during this time and it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was able to find a sense of peace and a way forward in my grief, and that wouldn’t have happened without my supervisor.”

Feedback loop

One of the strengths of Wā Manaaki is Kāinga Ora’s willingness to attune the programme to individual needs. While supervision is available as of right for all those with regular customer contact, others can request it, and Hosted says the numbers of these people having supervision has grown significantly over the year.

“Usage is going up every month.

“When people hear colleagues talking about it a lot of them want to give it a go, and the organisation supports this.”

Although the supervision provided is confidential, Kāinga Ora receives a summary of topics discussed – something Jones says plays an important part in helping the organisation shape its messaging.

“Our frontline service is going through a bit of a reshape, with new roles being recruited and people moving across regions.

“At a time like this the themes that come out of supervision are really critical because they show whether we’re communicating clearly with our teams, whether there are different modes of communication we need to employ, and whether there are things coming from the ground that might actually inform what we’re doing as an organisation.”

Glowing endorsements

In December 2020, a year after the programme’s launch, a staff survey sought feedback on how it was being received. While 97% of those who had used it expressed satisfaction with the process and 86% said their supervisor was good or excellent, a surprising number of respondents also used the free text box at the end to provide glowing endorsements of the people they had worked with.

“We were all blown away,” Penfold says. “And the best feedback was from people who said they hadn’t wanted to join the programme in the first place but were sort of pushed into it.

“It was lovely to see how many individual supervisors were named, and to be able to let them know how much they were appreciated.”

A second survey is planned for this month, and Jones is confident the responses will be no less favourable.

 “Having access to an independent voice just broadens people’s perspectives,” she says. “It gives people time to reflect on what’s going on for them, and helps them unpack issues more thoroughly.

“We are seeing our people thinking differently and becoming more self-aware in the way they connect with people and manage situations with customers.

“This has become the norm for us as an organisation, and the benefits it brings are significant.”

Jackie Brown-Haysom is a contributing writer to Safeguard.