Reflection : The evolution of my practice, through cross-sectoral approaches in youth wellbeing.

Wellbeing is everybody’s business

A few years ago, I thought it was a unreasonable for a lawyer to deploy the same skills to enhance wellbeing as the ones I was using everyday in a therapeutic setting as a health practitioner. These days, thanks to a pivot in perspective and deepening cross-sectoral relationships, I understand that concepts like wellbeing, empathy and care is not exclusively for those practitioners in the domain of health.

In this post, I’ll be documenting the evolutions in my practice at Lifehack and linking some key learnings that have helped our team along the way.

Disclaimer: These are all my reflections on my own practice.

Let’s start at the beginning

When Enspiral took over the Lifehack contract back in 2013, the organisation went through a series of distinct transitions, which included three key paradigm shift. These were: moving from mental health to wellbeing, competition to collaboration and projects to people.

Our shifts in practice: … mental health to wellbeing; competition to collaboration & projects to people.

This deeply human reprise of the Lifehack purpose enabled the organisation to re-position its programmes (like Lifehack Labs and the Flourishing Fellowship) to not only better serve those engaged in those programmes, but more importantly to positively contribute to a sustained youth workforce. At the same time, it gave permission for the team to experiment in positive team practices, in what was arguably a wellbeing start-up.

Shifting paradigms takes time and trusted people alongside you

In 2015, Lifehack was supported by a number of prominent Te Ao Māori practitioners to further build our competency in that space. One of the most significant learnings for the team was the importance of whakawhanaungatanga in creating participatory and inclusive spaces, where people immerse themselves in an experience, together.

Lifehack Learning №1 : Invest time in whakawhanaungatanga

In my personal practice, I have been applying this learning most notably when meeting someone new, whether it’s a young person, practitioner or potential programme participant.

A few years ago, I used to be so caught up trying to get all the things done (in my role as a manager of a mental health service) that I neglected to really get to know the people I was working alongside. Our relationships were often galvanised through “making it through” hard times (funding cuts, significant incidents, staffing shortages).

I look back and often wonder if our relationships were stronger amongst the team, might it have been easier to make it through those times? And ultimately offering a better experience to those in our service? Hindsight is always 20/20, it’s safe to say that if I was in that position again, I would definitely do things differently.

If we don’t have a solid relationship, how can we get any work done?

Building relationships takes time

The Lifehack team has been consciously including more activities that whakawhanaungatanga (build relationships) in our programmes. One of the completely unexpected gifts from our 2016 work with Youthline Manakau was the Ngā Uri Ō resource.

The first Ngā Uri Ō prototype.

Chief hustler, and Flourishing Fellowship alumni Christina Leef co-designed this resource with a variety of people, including: trusted friends, her Uber drivers, Mark from Youthline and our incredible friend Beka Whale who illustrated the first prototype.

Ngā uri ō captures the different waterways that each and everyone of us descend from. It celebrates our unique cultures but importantly gives oxygen to those differences and similarities so that when we come into a space, we acknowledge and respect each culture.

Ngā Uri Ō has been absolutely key to how I frame my work. The key theme in Ngā Uri Ō is awa, which for many cultures is a life force. Much of Lifehack’s work is creating and hosting participatory spaces for people to grow confidence and their practice and Ngā Uri Ō provides a frame both in building partnerships and programme design.

Ko te wai te ora o ngā mea katoa — water is the life giver of all things.

Using Ngā Uri Ō to build whanaungatanga

When I’m thinking about working alongside others and co-designing programmes, this is the way I use Ngā Uri Ō:

Ko wai au — Who am I? asking myself these types of questions

Where am I from and what knowledge/experience can I bring? What’s my usual way of doing things and, how might I do something different?

Ko wai koe—Who are you? listening out for the similarities and differences

Where is this other person from? What do we have in common and who do we mutually know?

Ko wai tātau—Who are we? having conversations that look to explore these questions

What might be the possibilities if we blend our skills, knowledge and networks? How can we be together in this experience? How can we chart this course in partnership?

As we are designing this years Fellowship, we’ve been actively iterating content from previous years which has a trio of purposes:

  1. Knowing our own knowledge
  2. Learning about other people’s knowledge
  3. Blending knowledge which is both ours and yours

In previous programmes, we’ve incorporated whakawhanaungatanga activities such as: super hero drawings, collaging, pair walks and speed dating as ways to improve connection and exchange information. We designed our previous Fellowship programmes in a way which enabled participants to spend at least one fifth of their time getting to know another, before any other ‘work’ was done.

Wellbeing at the heart of what I do

Lifehack learning no.2 : Wellbeing plans enhances team cohesion

Just before Labs launched in 2014 (before my time), the team started using individual and team wellbeing plans (you can find the template here). After all, the team were about to embark on five weeks of in-person, residential service delivery with twenty complete strangers — what could possibly go wrong?

The purpose of these plans has been for the team to reflect on what things are like when they are going great and then explore what stress looks like. Most importantly: what are the important steps to take when things aren’t great.

We’ve since taken this tool on the road, workshopped it at a conference, introduced it to 2016 Fellows and most recently introduced it to school teachers at an Auckland school. Some of the feedback we have received includes:

  1. If you’re asking the questions, be prepared for the answers — empathy, listening and aroha (love and compassion) go a long way.
  2. Focusing in on enhancing wellbeing helps people feel prepared for when times are tough.
  3. Having the numbers of supportive services listed at the bottom is helpful if people are going through hard times, as well as being a health promotion message.

Spread across two pages, colleagues or team members can quickly get a sense of what people are like when they are flourishing, what things are like when they are stressed and most importantly, the activities people can do for themselves to promote positive wellbeing.

At the bottom of the tool is a link and some phone numbers that you can contact if you might be going through some hard times. Don’t forget that wellbeing is everyone’s business, it’s not about being happy all the time. Moreover it’s about having the fortitude to deal with curve balls life throws at you.

These plans have turned, with multiple iterations, into a strengths-based tool, influenced by the Five Ways To Wellbeing and Wellness Recovery Action Plan.

The wellbeing plans is an example of an ‘adapter’ that we think bridge the void between enterprise and wellbeing.

Working in cross disciplinary ways

Lifehack learning no.3 some tools cross disciplines easily

Some tools cross-disciplines easily, while others need a little adapting. We’re now, more than ever considering what tools can be borrowed and built upon to bridge the worlds of design, technology, enterprise and wellbeing.

Over the past few years I’ve been part of and convened variety of spaces where a cross-section of people from different backgrounds (eg. NGOs, corporates and DHBs) and generations (young people + adults) to work together on the topic of youth wellbeing.

Some of the barriers to cross-sector collaboration noted includes:

× Language differences (eg. co-design vs. co-construct)

× Difference in experience (eg. teachers and youth workers)

× Differing values (eg. personal and professional values)

× Limited time and resources (the bane of most of our lives)

Sometimes ideas translate easily and sometimes they don’t. Photo Credit igor kisselev

Working across sectors has only been possible by the development (and borrowing) of what we call adapters, which are tools that we can plug in to help bridge the gap between disciplines and sectors. These adapters enable us to connect human to human; frame and share our learnings (when the existing evidence might be lean) and ultimately work together better on stuff that matters.

I can hear some health practitioners now saying:

Using tools from outside of my discipline is outside my scope of practice.

My reply to that would be (and this is my own personal opinion):

If you are practicing ethically, within your code of conduct, applying clinical reasoning and incorporating an evidence base true to your discipline, you are pushing the edges of your practice.

Working across sectors means adapting methods, tools and ways of thinking to support innovation. I see one of the keys to borrowing and applying tools as being clinical and ethical reasoning.

Interviewing in co-design : An over simplified example of when literal translation of tools doesn’t work

Say you are starting a business that is creating bike locks. One way to validate your idea is that you might approach strangers at your local cafe who ride those fixed-gear-hipster-bicycles and ask them about how they keep their bikes secure. You’re questions might range from:

How do you currently keep your bike secure?

What brand of bike lock do you currently use?

What lead you to purchase your current brand of bike lock?

All pretty innocuous questions, really.

Fixed gear bike secured against a pole outside a cafe

But, what happens when you substitute “bike locks” for “a service that reduces mental distress?”.

Rocking up to an absolute stranger and asking them outright about their experience of mental distress, is both unsafe (for both parties) and probably won’t give you the answers that you need (because who’s keen to disclose personal circumstances without trust?).

Co-designing a wellbeing initiative is tricky. Through our experimentation in this cross-sectoral approach to improving youth wellbeing, three main insights have emerged:

Insight one: Partner Up!

Wanting to co-design something in the youth wellbeing zone? Partner up with a youth organisation. Young people will already have an existing, trusting relationship with that organisation and if you can offer a positive new experience of what it’s like to engage with people of your age or background that’s a great thing.

Insight two: Work with a facilitator, enabling you to participate

Through hosting spaces for others, using a variety of adapters and social processes to support people to be true participants was helpful in breaking down boundaries, building common language, celebrating diversity and acknowledging strengths.

Insight three 
Know who you are Be clear on your own boundaries, purpose and intent before engaging in this work. 
Ko wai au — Who am I?

What does all this mean?

People often tell us that it’s super hard to describe an experience with Lifehack as a participant. I’ll let you in on a secret, it‘s taken me nearly two years to figure it out!

What I can do is start to list some of the ingredients in our special sauce which is a combination of:

× Investing in relationships with all stakeholders first and foremost

× Running programmes with the wellbeing of participants, and each other at the core

× Inviting people across the youth wellbeing sector, from youth workers to librarians, teachers and lawyers to have brave conversations and push the limits of their practice

× Collaboratively designing things together, for the good of communities in Aotearoa

These four components have impacted my practice significantly over the years, gone of the days when I thought wellbeing was the sole responsibility of those working solely in the healthcare sector:

wellbeing is everyone’s business

If you are working in the wellbeing space, interested in collaborating across disciplines and further pushing the boundaries of your practice: check out the Lifehack website or hit me up on Twitter @ton3s