As charities rapidly launch new online services in response to Coronavirus, how can they also keep the loneliness epidemic at bay? A new charity-led research project is seeking answers
You might have heard the recent study findings that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese, affecting the body’s immune response and contributing to chronic health conditions and stress.
The effects of enforced social isolation during lockdown can be tough on anyone’s mental and physical health, but for people who are already socially excluded or vulnerable, they may be felt even more keenly.
For many people, interacting with a charities’ services not only represents a practical help, but a lifeline of social interaction and community. To suddenly have no face to face access to their weekly volunteering shift, a counselling group or a befriending service, could plunge many deeper into a loneliness crisis.
Unlike the Coronavirus crisis in the news every day, it’s a crisis that could be playing out privately, behind the scenes. Digital design lab Deepr and their project partners argue that it’s squarely within the responsibility of charities to make sure they are addressing it, and consider the cost to their service users of losing out on face to face interaction as charities scramble to adapt their services for the online world.
“There are considerable risks that the relational benefits services provide can be lost, negatively impacting beneficiaries,” says Matt McStravick, who heads creative direction at Deepr, following on from his role as Head of Digital Support and Interaction at CAST. “Yet there is an opportunity there. How can we rapidly ensure that charities’ digital services are optimised for relational wellbeing? These are the problem we’re working through right now.”
The question of how to make digital services more ’human’ for the people using them is still an emerging area of research and learning for organisations. Over the last four years, digital design lab Deepr has been part of a trio of organisations investigating the theme of how to weave meaningful and more effective human connection into services and systems, using tools such as cognitive, behavioural science and psychology.
In January this year they were granted support from Catalyst – a joint-funded accelerator programme for the charity sector, to deliver work researching and teaching how to build more empathic connections with charities’ digital service users.
What started out as a six month programme of activities for charities including a residential weekend exploring how these challenges can be met in their services, has broadened its scope since the start of the UK lockdown as these issues have become timely and important for the charity sector as a whole. Six months has condensed into 12 weeks, and the programme is now inviting charity organisations to collaborate in a much more open way, with a promise of sharing learnings more widely.
As McStravick explains: “When Covid 19 hit, everyone at CAST and Catalyst became really focused on a new goal of delivering the immediate needs the sector.”
“Charities do relational culture better than any other sector. We’re trying to identify it, put it together and cofidy it as meaningful guidelines that anyone can access at any point when designing digital services. We want to make this as valuable as possible as quickly as possible.”
Working in fortnightly sprints, the unique project invites feedback through virtual Meetups through charity discussing group Netsquared, including both charities and digital professionals. Throughout the twelve week research period, charities are encouraged to join the Meetups and share how they are working, as well as to learn from examples from other organisations who are modelling positive and effective approaches.
From the project’s research outside of the charity sector, they’ve found that when certain qualities are included in a digital service, this can help trigger the feelings of empathy, belonging and wellbeing that make face to face social interaction a satisfying experience for people.
One is to acknowledge equality and reciprocity, and engaging beneficiaries as peers. When people can come together over a digital platform and interact as equals, with a feeling that they are themselves sharing responsibility for the experience of the other person, this can help break down the perceived barriers of talking over a video or digital platform and help people feel more enagaged and ’present’ with others.
One familiar example of this is short stay hosting platform AirBnB. For some people, the idea of travelling to a foreign country as a tourist is unappealing to them. But being able to personally interact with local hosts feels a lot more like being part of a global community than a travel booking platform, and the company has built their entire app around this experience of trust and equal exchange.
Organisations are also exploring tools in the toolbox of online counselling and similar services, that can tap into things we know about the human brain and what we naturally respond to. Well-known psychotherapy research shows that doing a synchronised activity, from breathing together, to clapping, dancing or making music can make people feel connected. In a digital context this could take the form of watching a video together, breathing exercises or even just clicking a mouse.
Whatever form these experiments take, they need to be closely mirrored in how a charity interacts within its own teams and maintains wellbeing internally.
“We know that cultural practises within organisations inevitably form part of the relational culture they have with their beneficiaries and service they deliver,” says McStravick. “Work doesn’t need to start at home but needs to have a dual focus within your organisation – culture starts from within.”
An example of this type of behaviour might take the form of non-judgemental ’whole person check-ins’ at the start of meetings that build trust and vulnerability, where organisations go around the virtual table and express how they are both in and outside of work, and are upfront and honest about what they bring to a meeting and want to take away.
As charities’ needs evolve, there are a lot of questions left to be answered, such as how ’humanised’ digital services can reflect needs of people on the broad spectrum of charities’ service users, including those who may lack access to the internet or digital skills. How will charities ensure they are included, signpost them to digital where possible, counter resistance where appropriate and create offline alternatives during social distancing?
“Right now we have examples of great need in the charity sector,” says McStravick, “But we are also starting to see lots of really good examples emerging from the sessions, modelling behaviours and tools, and demonstrating to charities that they really can do these things.”