With the prolonged pandemic taking its toll on mental and emotional health, as well as physical, around the world, support services have been inundated with calls for help and support. In this poignant episode, Martyn Riddle chats with Chris Harwood from the Australian charity Lifeline on the impact the virus has had on their operations and how they have scaled up to meet the escalating demand for their services.
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In conversation with . . . is a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX and customer engagement industry across the Asia Pacific region.
Martyn Riddle: Hello, and welcome to In Conversation With, a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact Center, CX, and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During this series, we want to find out what customer service organizations are doing during these challenging times and try and discover what it is that drives the leaders in this space and what makes them tick. My name is Martyn Riddle, and as well as being your host for this series, I am also Verint’s Vice President in marketing for the region.
For this episode of the Verint podcast, we’re in my home country of Australia, and whilst not being hit as hard by the coronavirus as many countries in the region, Australia has still witnessed a lot of suffering and undergone a number of restrictions, particularly the state of Victoria that is just emerging from a particularly limping lockdown induced by a rampant second wave. The stress, worry, uncertainty, and in many cases, losses that have been experienced around the region have still been deeply felt here. This has led to a surge in demand for the services of a number of charities and support agencies.
One of the organizations at the frontline of this demand is Lifeline. A charity that provides free 24-hour crisis support services to Australians experiencing emotional distress. Volunteers provide suicide prevention services, mental health support, and emotional assistance, not only via telephone but face-to-face and online. Joining me on the Verint podcast today to talk about their services and the impacts of the pandemic is Chris Harwood, Executive Director, Service Design and Delivery at Lifeline Australia. Chris, hello and welcome.
Chris Harwood: Thanks, Martyn, and it’s a pleasure to join you today.
Martyn: Great to have you on board. Chris, I provided a brief introduction to Lifeline. Could you expand on that, and explain to our listeners how Lifeline operates?
Chris: Yes, thanks, Martyn. Probably, the best summary that I can give you is we have the privilege of being there for people when they need someone to talk to, and there isn’t someone else to turn to. The organization has been around for quite a long time. It’s a really well-known and trusted service in Australia. It’s about 57 years we’ve been around. Older than I am, I confess. [chuckles]
We have a privilege of being volunteer-led. It’s been really the heart and soul of how we’ve operated for so long and so effectively. We do a lot of stuff as you’ve mentioned, not just phone and text but also face-to-face counseling services around the country. To make that possible, we’ve got about 10,000 volunteers of which 3,500 are trained in crisis support, and no matter which channel that you connect to us on, our whole aim is to be there, to listen, and to connect with you in a nonjudgmental confidential way.
Martyn: Now the mental health aspects of the pandemic have perhaps not received as much media attention as the headline-grabbing death and illness rates. However, just because it’s not being talked about so much publicly doesn’t mean it’s not an issue. From your perspective, what is the impact on mental health of the increased anxiety? How has Lifeline been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Chris: What a great question and really never– as I’ll share you with some of the information I’ll share shortly. Never a more relevant question, Martyn. Australians haven’t had a really good year. I don’t think many people in the world would put their hand up and say this has been their best year, but Australia, in particular, toward December and then onwards into January, February had been ravaged by bushfires like we’ve never seen before, yet Lifeline was on the frontline of some of that response to bushfire affected communities and was already carrying a lot of support responsibility for people who had been displaced, who’d had their livelihoods completely upturned or were going through a significant loss and hurt and then all of a sudden March arrived.
To try to put this into context if you went back to this time last year, Lifeline might receive about 2,500 calls a day, and that’s a very large number. It’s the largest number you’ll get from any crisis support service in the country, but really, from December onwards, we haven’t seen that number come down from 3,000. That stayed there, and it’s suddenly gone up. That’s really about a 25% increase in people reaching out to us. It’s probably not something that we like to say is the right word to use, but we’ve seen records broken. In 57 years of providing support, we’ve never seen the lack of it in our time. I just think that’s a reflection on the genuine mental health impact of what Australians have been going through. We’re not unique.
In that sense, the rest of the world has been reeling. I think we’ve had an incredibly privileged position as a country also and that we’ve had less impact than others may have had, but that doesn’t negate for some of the pain and suffering and isolation and disconnection that many people have been going through, and that’s what they reach out to us to talk about. That’s what they’re there to help them with.
Martyn: You mentioned earlier on that Lifeline provides services across a range of channels, voice, online, and in person. From your perspective, again, how does the human need for the connection change across these various channels?
Chris: Interesting. The channel question. [chuckles] Going back to your question: the human need. I don’t think the human need changes. I think, ultimately, we are people who thrive in connection with others. It doesn’t have to be the numbers of connections, it’s about the quality and the fact that they’re there. That’s a privilege that not every not everyone has access to in society and there’s many reasons why people can become disconnected.
While we’re looking at on a per-channel basis, we don’t see a difference in the need for connection. We see a difference in the way that people show up and connect. I’ll go for the obvious answer around maybe demographic, but you would clearly expect to see, as we have evidence for that on text and chat channels, we have a younger audience who’s approaching us. What might not be so obvious is that text and web chat context, people are more willing to disclose information sooner in a conversation about their levels of crisis, the concerns that they’re going through, and they’ve given us comfort that they perceive those channels to be less judgmental. We’re seeing lower barriers to help-seeking behavior on the non-voice channels.
It’s not to say that we train people differently. In fact, we have the exact same people who can leave behind a text or a voice call. However, there’s that perception that because you can’t hear me, you have less ability to judge me, therefore, I feel more confident in reaching out to share my concerns with you and to get support, which I think is a real privilege. We’ve seen a disproportionate increase compared to what we do with voice in men, youth, Indigenous Australians, LGBTIQ approaching us over text and chat, and that’s been extraordinary.
Martyn: Exploring that human need for connection a little bit further, have you been able to detect swings in sentiments and feeling as this pandemic has progressed?
Chris: Yes. A couple of levels. First is just the sheer volume of people calling and reaching out for help. We’ve considered that response and Lifeline’s engagement with crisis supporting activity as a barometer as it were for what the mental health of the nation may look like. It’s only a lens, but it’s one that we share with policy and some government so that they can be aware of what things are affecting Australians and how decisions they’re making have begun to impact. We can do that in near real-time and that when it comes to volume. What’s also really interesting is to look at the insight that’s occurring within an interaction, and we’re working on enhancing that ability. That’s part of our digital roadmap.
Today, we’re capable of saying, within an interaction, what were the mentions of, say, coronavirus, or was this related to the Victorian lockdown. By March or by the end of March, when we hit that first really significant peak in people being isolated, sent home, the uncertainty around things, 50% of contacts, texts, chats, calls to Lifeline, they were all explicitly mentioning what’s going on for them in their lives as a result of response to coronavirus and lockdown, and all of a sudden got back up to 48% after dropping to around about 30% in-between. We’re starting to see that drop off again, but we are watching and being cautious and optimism I think on that front.
Martyn: Just come back to that March timeframe, when we all became too acutely aware of what was happening in Australia. I’m interested to hear how Lifeline as an organization, and as an employer reacted to the emergence of the pandemic. What did it mean for you, your management, your staff, your IT requirements? I’m guessing there must have been a fair bit of disruption to your services initially.
Chris: I’m grateful to sit here today and say that didn’t happen, but if you had asked me at the start of March, I would have said it’s highly likely and probable that there will be some level of significant disruption, just given what people were going through. I probably won’t use the word unprecedented. Although I just did so won’t say that ever again. I think we’re all sick of that word, but I’ll move on quickly.
For Lifeline, interestingly enough, we have 41 distributed locations across the country that people can provide crisis support from. If you think about that from an organizational and an operational perspective, that’s one heck of a business continuity plan right there when you haven’t got a concept of consolidated risk around premises or staff and anything. That didn’t make a difference because we were facing a potential shutdown of all 41 locations around the country at the start of March.
We were very, very grateful for the support shown rapidly by the Australian Government at the time to classify us as an essential service provider, so we could remain open. That was our first hurdle. Do we have to shut the doors? We’re glad the answer was no. We had a privilege there, not many other organizations can say the same, and they’ve really suffered as a result. For us, it also meant looking at what do we do in response to potentially having to work remotely at scale? Our technology folks swung into gear. I’m proud to say that within two weeks we had developed a BCP solution that enabled remote telephoning and texts if we had to operate from home and we totally but also trained 1,200 people to do it.
That was Herculean, and we began to pay the price. I’ll tell you a little bit about that in a minute, but that wasn’t without its own mental health impact on our own staff who were working incredibly hard. You can with our facilities. We were lucky to remain open. We put a lot of work into being COVID safe, and as a result, our volunteers were still trusting us to provide a safe working environment.
In fact, they began turning up to shifts in numbers like we’d never seen before. If you look at what Lifeline would normally do, maybe on a good year, we will be able to answer 80% of all calls to the service. Since March, we’ve been consistently answering 90% of all calls and texts and chats to Lifeline, and that’s 25% more than we’ve ever had before. It probably gives you an insight into just the sheer response and the empathy and the willingness of our volunteers to step up and to support people around them when they’re needed.
Martyn: You talked there about the impact on their staff and their own mental health. How has Lifeline able to maintain its high levels of staff and volunteer engagement, particularly as the demand for your services has escalated? I’m guessing perhaps some of the stories that your staff are hearing are getting worse and worse?
Chris: It’s been challenging. We’ve had to ensure that we’re putting in very deliberate and intentional support practices around both our corporate office staff, our admin staff, our center managers, and also really importantly our volunteers. If you’d explain what the life of a volunteer might look like or a day in their life might look like, they’ll put down their own life. They’ll come to a center anywhere around the country where the Lifeline exists, they’ll sit down, and one of our computers know that work with us and support us.
Throughout that time, it might be four hours, it might be two. They will potentially have been exposed to some really, really tough stuff. There are people who call and they’re at the worst point in their life and they needed to share that. We give them the emotional support, which means we’re giving up ourselves when we do these things. If you think about what it’s like when you’ve got a friend or a family member, a trouble shared is a trouble halved, is the saying, but that means you’re carrying something.
That means you’re the person who’s providing empathy and support, even if all you had to do is to listen and to be conscious of the other person and to help them in their time of need. That still costs you. We’re putting a lot of supports in place to debrief and to do clinical programs of support where there’s been potentially a high-risk event or some pretty terrible experiences that people are willing to sign up for, and they come back again, which I think is just the most beautiful service to other people.
Martyn: How do you think the staff are finding this new way of working?
Chris: Part of it it’s the way we’ve worked. I think the intensity of what we do has shifted, and so we’re in turn responding to that with a higher levels of support for them to give you an indicator in the level of engagement and support from that group. We’ve recently held a large Q&A with all the volunteers across the country who wanted to come with our chairman and the CEO. Our chairman, John Brogden, turns to the audience on Zoom and said, “I just want to do a straw poll. Anyone who’s interested in doing a couple of extra hours but you want to work remotely or from home, can you put your hand up?”
Two-thirds of this group of people put their hand up and said, “We’re keen to do more, but to be making it easier for us to participate, don’t jump in my car. I still want to be safe in the way I serve.” That takes my leap of imagination that we’re clearly working on our innovation roadmap, which has been considerably accelerated over the last six months, and that’s been exciting to be a part of.
Martyn: That’s an excellent segue to my next question, which is exploring. Have there been any particular initiatives or technologies that have come to the fore as you’ve scrambled to meet this demand and this new way of working?
Chris: Actually, maybe the less obvious answer to that question would be in terms of training. We have thousands and thousands of volunteers [unintelligible 00:14:27]— I’ve shared about them. I’m so passionate about the experience that we provide for them and the benefit that they deliver with us. One of our lead indicators for capacity instead of performance is our ability to train volunteers as they come to us and want to be a part of Lifeline, but when COVID hit in March, well, guess what we couldn’t do. Get a bunch of 30 people in a room and do training.
The problem was actually a diabolical one because if we hadn’t begun to solve that problem in March, right about now, we wouldn’t be able to answer calls. It’s a six months lead indicator of capability and performance within the organization. We’ve rolled out a remote training and rewriting of a substantial volume about components of our training courses so that it was possible to both facilitate the learning delivery and the training interactions but also the trialing of their skills and how to workshop it together in a remote setting.
Our learning and development team did a great job. We’ve had really good feedback on that, and more importantly, the whole point of that is we’ve hardly seen people begun to get trained at rates that we’ve never seen before because they can now do it remotely, so it’s easier for them to join and easy for them to get in. In a similar sense, my example before around volunteers who want to work remotely.
We’ve begun live trials with people taking calls whilst working remotely and in a safe and confidential environment. We’ve recently completed moving all of our Lifeline text across the support training, which is 27 hours of skills development and testing and training. That’s before you even look at placement skills and observation. That’s 27 hours of e-learning that’s now ready to go, and we have people who have began to complete that training. You’re seeing the first groups of 40 and 50 come through, and we’re really excited.
Just as a personal note, I’m excited by what e-learning can do because this is the first time people with a hearing disability would be able to participate in learning Lifeline skills and provision of service. They don’t need to come to a training seminar where they have to listen to someone who’s telling them about their skills. They don’t have to talk to someone next to them. They can use the computer to read and interact and provide service and to be trained, and I think that’s an extraordinary step forward for Lifeline.
Martyn: The onboarding of agents is obviously are key components of many contact centers. Are you able to take us through what that process would be for you guys? I’m used to hearing stories of four or five, six weeks of intensive training before people are let loose on the phones. How does that process work from a Lifeline perspective?
Chris: Very good question. I’ve said it a lot, but a lot are volunteers. For us, it’s about meeting them where they’re at, so we’ve got different approaches to training that really can connect with people. We can do fast track training every couple of weeks if that’s how people want to be trained, and that’s up to their local centers and how they schedule that. We have now the full e-learning module that you can sign up for, and run at a pace, which is safe. Now we’ve got to be careful around people who might have the willingness to serve and willingness to participate, but they need to be healthy and mentally fit themselves to be able to join in.
Essentially, it’s like joining a workforce where you have a high-risk environment. You want to make sure people are fit for that. We’re careful on the training front, and it can be anywhere between, say, 27 hours for text training or up to a completion of almost 100 hours where someone’s now certified crisis recorded for voice when they’ve completed their training, observation shifts, and those sort of things.
Martyn: Another core components of normal everyday life in a contact center is the camaraderie, the buzz, the sharing of stories amongst colleagues, and with this remote working environment has been enforced upon many contact centers. I’m always interested to hear how they’ve managed to try and replicate that from that remote perspective?
Chris: That’s a very hot topic for us. A great question. In the past, we’ve relied on those communities that are built up around our centers in the country or around the country. What we’ve done recently is introduce– in fact, it was off the back of one of Verint’s technology products. Thank you very much. Some communities that are now online first, so your experience starts your day online. You can connect with people and share stories and hear what’s going on.
We’re now facilitating that connection as a community concept and also as a service delivery concept. That’s interesting to see how it evolves. Now we actually had some great work done with one of the universities here in Sydney. Some of their design-thinking students came up with some very, very creative ways to generate community engagement and sharing and bond in a pure online space, so it’s been fun to watch.
Martyn: You shouldn’t use the new normal word, but once we are back to the new normal, how would you think you’re going to blend perhaps the traditional ways of that internal staff engagement versus these new lessons you’ve learned around communities and that sort of technologies?
Chris: Maybe as a way of answering this question. I learned an interesting skill many years ago going through some design thinking courses when I was all the rage and glad to see it still is for good reason. One of them was how to enable creativity and ideation and that sort of stuff. When you are coming up with ideas, the worst way to receive them is to respond in a way that judges the idea, so you come up with a yes and concept of, “That’s a great idea, Martyn” We could do this extended, or we could steer it a direction. You’re adding your energy. You’re adding your capacity. You’re adding your excitement, and that actually generates more ideas and more engagement.
In the same way, the concept works in design thinking and creative ideation, we’re seeing that happen with workforce. It’s not about which model, it’s about the yes. How can we extend options to you, Martyn, if you want to be a volunteer? Really, what suits you? You might actually be really comfortable and prefer to come to us and to sit down, log on, provide service, and actually log off and say, “That’s me. I’m done. I’m separating that out.”
It’s a clean physical separation in allowing me to mentally process what I’ve gone through and what I’ve done, or you might actually say, “No, I want to help out tonight. I’m sitting at home. It’s Friday night. I’m really over Netflix. The series I’m watching is awful, and my wife keeps making me watch it.” I’m not talking about myself here at all maybe. [chuckles] What I prefer to do is something a little bit more selfless and jump on and do crisis support. That, to me, is the secret to volunteering in the future, meeting people where they’re at.
Martyn: You talked, just a couple of questions ago about learnings and the impacts of your design, thinking, training from years gone by. Any other lessons learned along the way? Anything you’d do differently with hindsight?
Chris: Yes. Probably, one is to consider running at two different speeds. I think what we’ve learned the hard way over the last six months, and this might sound somewhat ironic from someone who’s a leader in a mental health organization. We have spent too much time on the doing and on the responding and reacting and getting it finished. We haven’t been running at the other speed, which is working on the way we work. Working on us, our culture, our people as much as we could have. Especially when the majority of those people have had to sit at home now for– what I do, similarly, 10, 12 hours a day on a bad day, in front of the same computer, looking at the same screen, looking at the same wall. [laughs] It’s familiar story.
Interestingly enough, it becomes a tale of self-care and understanding yourself better. We’ve had to be intentional in the training of mental self-care and mental health help and self-help across our own staff. It’s not something that people naturally fall into or have been effectively trained and disciplined in unless you’re in a clinical practice-type role. We’ve begun to invest in that, and I feel like we’re playing a bit of catch-up, to be honest, but it’s vital that we catch up on that area because it’s a long performance indicator, and we need to be practicing what we preach so well.
Martyn: With those lessons learned, what are you going to take in? How are you going to adjust your processes and the way that you engage?
Chris: Look, at a leadership level, I’m investing in better structures for investing in the way that we work. We have explicitly carved out space in our leadership team, an investment in tools processes, and enabling remote-first work so that we’re not continuing in the mental model of, “I’m working remotely.” It’s like, “No, I’m working. I might be remote. I might be in the office.” You have to break down some of those mental model barriers
Also, explicitly hear from our staff creates space for that and say, “What are we going to do to help?” Coming from a long line of agile, digital, and product-in-development cycles in other organizations, I’ve been able to bring some of those practices in around effective reflection. Looking at the retrospectives around what’s working, what’s not, and rapid pivoting to see what can work in our environment.
That’s the way I’ve also been accountable as a leader to the people that you serve to ensure that the space you’re creating is safe from performance for them; that they have a voice when concerns tend to be brought up and understanding really through and through that you probably know that 5% of what’s going on and you need to listen 95% of the time and talk the other 5%.
Martyn: I think a lesson I could probably take myself. If you talk there about leadership, I’m wondering what this meant for you personally. What impacts has it had on you as a leader?
Chris: Look, I’ll be quite candid and say I did not manage myself well around March and April. In fact, it got to the middle of April, and I’ll share with you, Martyn, and the audience. I caught myself after weeks and weeks and weeks of 12-hour days sitting in front of meetings, then turning around and doing work at night. I just had enough. I was just lying on the bed destroyed. I literally did not want to do anymore.
I had no less affinity for the course and the purpose for which we are serving and working, but I had not managed my own health well. I put in a regime. I just made myself get back on the horse in terms of the things I had stopped doing because of changes in my working rhythm. I used to walk to the bus and back and through the city every single day. There was at least about 8,000 steps. That physical exercise had gone for two months straight.
That was a big lead indicator of potential mental ill health, and I wasn’t watching the signs. I now am and I’m now working those things into a regular regime, and I’m accountable to other people in. If I don’t show up at the park at a certain time, they’re going to come and knock the door down. I show up at the park on time. [laughs]
Martyn: It’s nice to hear what people have done to try and change or break the routine. You did that, and I went and got a knee replaced. Each to their own.
Chris: It sounds like mine was a choice, and yours was enforced on you.
Martyn: Yours may be a little bit more pleasurable for taking 8,000 steps. Whist we are going a bit more personal, let’s see if we can find out what else has kept you occupied away from work. As is traditional on this podcast, I’m interested in your choices of entertainment. Is there a particular tune or style of music that has kept you sane or put you in a happy or relaxed place?
Chris: [chuckles] I’ll tell you what. It doesn’t do that for me anymore is my Spotify playlist. Thanks to the kids and us recently purchasing Echo Dots for them in their rooms. They all use my Spotify account. I’m going to change that by the way. I now happen to randomly come across Harry Styles and some wonderful rap. A bit of One Direction or some musicals that I really essentially don’t enjoy. I’ve had to turn Spotify off, and then look at some other options. [laughs]
My chill zone where I go is probably some modern classical composers like Max Richter. Did you ever watch that movie? What was it was called? I can’t remember the name of it now. Anyway, I’ll come back to it. There’s a beautiful classical music score, and he wrote it. There’s other concerts that we used to go to around classical music, which works for me, and I can’t wait to get back into those.
Martyn: How about a book or a film or a TV shows? Is there anyone title that always keeps you entertained at the moment?
Chris: It’s very timely because on– Well, probably give away to the audience when this is recorded, but tomorrow, the next season of The Mandalorian comes out. I have a family, which probably turned their nose up at Star Wars generally. I’m not a particularly huge sci-fi fan, but we’ve loved that show. Everyone in the family, including the people who would normally turn their nose up at sci-fi, is hanging out for The Mandalorian to start again. That’s where attention is at the moment, or it’s endless reruns of Friends that I endure because my wife loves it. [chuckles]
Martyn: I’m making no comments. [chuckles] Finally, how about a material object or a gadget that makes you happy, something you just couldn’t be without?
Chris: I’m going to out myself as a massive nerd in a past life now. Would you believe that the device that’s brought me the most joy over the last six months has been a new keyboard? One that has the perfect feel, the right amount of travel, and I use it for so many hours a day that it actually makes a significant difference in, “Am I enjoying sitting at a computer?” For me, it’s that one keyboard I knew I wanted and got. I’m very happy with.
Martyn: I’m assuming we’re talking a typing keyboard as opposed to a piano keyboard here.
Chris: Unfortunately, yes.
Martyn: You’ll not be sitting away bashing out some tunes.
Chris: I’d much rather be on a drum kit or a synthesizer, but that’s not what they’re paying me to do. [laughs]
Martyn: Hey, Chris, this has been an eye-opening discussion, and I suspect I’m echoing the thoughts of many in thanking you and your colleagues and all the staff and volunteers at Lifeline for the awesome work you do and the invaluable services you provide. If people want to get involved or make a donation to the charity or support you in some way, what should they do?
Chris: First of all, look after the people around you. That we ask first. The number one thing you can do is to be conscious of connection with others, conscious of those that might not be reaching out to you that you haven’t heard from in a while. Be proactive where we may not be able to be. Reach out to them, and ask them how they’re going. If you want and can support what Lifeline does, then simply go to lifeline.org.au, and you can choose from how you’d like to help us. You can share information with people who might need it. You can donate, and you can choose to volunteer with us. It’ll be a privilege if you chose any of the above. Thanks for asking.
Martyn: It’s a pleasure. The least we can do. Chris Harwood, Executive Director, Service Design and Delivery at Lifeline Australia. Thank you so much for your time today and your candid thoughts. I wish you, your family, your colleagues all the very best, first life, and happy future. Thanks, Chris.
Chris: Thank you, Martyn. It’s been a privilege.