I joined Defra nearly a year ago; prior to that I was on the Civil Service Fast Stream programme in the Department for Work and Pensions doing a variety of roles, projects and experiences.
I’m a User Researcher, helping to design future Environmental Land Management services around the needs of the people who will be using them. That involves speaking with people (internal and external users), learning about their circumstances and experiences and bringing key insights and knowledge about their needs back into Defra so that the services can be designed to achieve desired outcomes.
I’ve been involved in volunteering since my university days. I find it helps all aspects of my life, including my work. In the current situation it’s helping me to gain an understanding of how people are responding, their needs, and the kinds of things which are preying on their mind. This can be the context which many of my service users will be experiencing and provides insight into some of their thoughts and concerns too.
The power of two
I’m volunteering with two different organisations in response to the coronavirus crisis. One of my roles is as an NHS responder, the other is as a ‘Community Care’ volunteer with Voluntary Action Leeds. There are similarities in the activities but using slightly different approaches. Essentially, I’m helping people who are being shielded because they are vulnerable, (elderly, those with medical conditions etc) or those having to isolate.
In my NHS responder role, there is a ‘GoodSAM’ (Good Samaritan) app. The app alerts you if someone needs your help - it could be anybody. If you’re able to respond, you do, or it goes onto alert the next volunteer. The activities I’ve been doing often involve getting and delivering people’s shopping or prescriptions and a lot of ‘check in and chat’ to touch base with people and see if they’re ok or need help with anything.
As a ‘Community care’ volunteer, I am buddied up with someone and have a longer ongoing relationship with that person. Again, this mainly involves having a chat and getting shopping for them.
I do feel like I’m adding value and connecting with people- you can see that you’ve had a positive impact and been able to help someone. I feel like the positives go both ways and I benefit too. I feel privileged that people in the community put their trust in me and welcome my help. And it’s wonderful to see people coming together and supporting each other as a community. It’s a tangible insight into how we are all inter-connected and can positively shape each other’s lives.
I’ve also learned a lot about my own community, what’s in the locality, support structures etc. I’ve not lived in my local area very long and I’ve learned that there is a pharmacy literally the parallel road over!
I’ve met some real characters too - one involved me going on a virtual shopping trip, with me in the supermarket being directed around the shop by an older person on the end of the phone, and them saying things like ‘make sure you get the big blue b***er (laundry detergent) and not the piddly one’.
Not all plain sailing
It’s not been without its challenges though. Volunteering for two organisations has meant juggling slightly different approaches, understanding different rules and processes. For example, how to pay for things. The overall aim is to help people and ensure that they are in a better situation than before you got involved and sometimes this can be challenging because you can be facing things you feel totally unprepared for.
For example, the amount and depth of the mental and physical situations that people are dealing with. I feel very fortunate that my work and my previous experiences as a volunteer mediator have helped prepare me to better respond and provide appropriate support in those circumstances.
Adapting to the ‘new normal’ workplace
Although I have spent quite a bit of my ‘lockdown’ time volunteering, I have also been continuing to work. Everything at work feels very strange and surreal right now. I’m grateful to be able to continue working and earning and feel very fortunate to have my own space at home with a garden too.
It’s great to see how positively my team has responded and adapted to this situation and pulled together. They’ve embraced different ways of working, they’re supporting each other, making sure we still make time for remote ‘cooler chats’ if people want to touch base.
Working continuously from home is not a choice I would normally make though. I really prefer to keep home and work quite separate and distinct because I think it’s better for my mental and physical wellbeing. I’m having to learn how to be much stricter with myself.
It’s weird not seeing and catching up with colleagues in person. I miss the tangible collaboration sessions and the more impromptu interactions you can have. The days do start to merge into one too; I find I’m working longer hours and meetings seem to be back to back sometimes.
The show still goes on
Volunteering is really helping me to stay connected with others though. I feel like I’m adding value and making something positive out of these strange and unusual circumstances, which I think is good for my mental health and wellbeing more generally.
Outside of work people would probably describe me as outgoing. I’m seen as the ‘go to’ family member/friend, the person willing to give any new activity or adventure a go. In the past I’ve tried random courses such as tiling, carpentry and bricklaying.
I enjoy spending time with friends and family. We have a regular monthly game night, now done remotely. I love outdoor activities, and I enjoy dancing and trying different crafts and making something tangible - ideally something aesthetically pleasing but useful. Being able to continue with some of these things, albeit virtually, has made a huge difference to my lockdown experience in a positive way.
Volunteers’ Week takes place 1 – 7 June every year. It’s a chance to celebrate and say thank you for the contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK. Although it’s more important than ever to recognise and support volunteers, the organisers decided it would be inappropriate to go ahead with many of the things which they’d usually do around this time. Like many across the volunteering sector, their focus is on supporting volunteers to take on coronavirus-related volunteering roles to help communities cope with the many consequences of coronavirus.
Find out how you can get involved in volunteering.