Introduction by Croakey: The rampant spread of COVID-19 is not only having direct and indirect effects on the health of people and communities; it is also having serious consequences for the wellbeing of organisations and workplaces, especially those working with under-served communities.
Julie Edwards, the CEO of Jesuit Social Services in Victoria, describes the challenging path that her organisation is seeking to navigate on behalf of communities, clients and staff during this difficult winter.
Julie Edwards writes:
Life before COVID-19 was already tough for many people on the margins. As an organisation working with some of the most disadvantaged members of the community, Jesuit Social Services has seen this first-hand for 45 years.
While the pandemic has affected all of us in significant ways, it is clear that the burdens of crises such as these continue to impact most severely on already marginalised individuals and communities.
Over the last two and a half years, Jesuit Social Services has continued to work with those in the most need of support, through changing and challenging circumstances including lockdowns.
From the adaptation required in early 2020 when our offices closed their doors and we had to find safe ways for our staff to work from home, to more than two years of changing restrictions, to the current challenging period we are navigating, this has been one of the most challenging times in our organisation’s history.
Throughout Melbourne’s six lockdowns, many of our programs had to change the way they supported marginalised people and communities.
While some could continue face-to-face service delivery under strict restrictions, others pivoted to deliver their work remotely.
This includes Support After Suicide, which provides counselling to people bereaved by suicide, and Homework Club which matches students from refugee and migrant families with volunteer tutors. Other programs like Connexions, which provides tailored support to young people experiencing concurrent mental health and substance abuse problems, implemented ‘walk and talks’, allowing case workers and participants to meet outdoors when allowed.
Early in 2022, we were optimistic that we were through the worst of things. The majority of our programs were back to face-to-face service delivery and our offices were open, welcomed by many of our staff who had spent the better part of two years working from home.
Now, in the depths of winter with COVID-19 and other illnesses rampant among the community, we again find ourselves in an extremely challenging situation.
Like other states, Victoria does not currently have mandates with regards to masks or vaccines. Across the board, we are dealing with high numbers of staff and participants who are sick, resulting in a lack of continuity for all.
There has been significant impact been across our education and employment programs, run through our Jesuit Community College, where anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent of staff have been away sick at any given time over recent weeks.
The strong feedback from our Jesuit Community College participants, including foundational learners and people who have had barriers to mainstream education, is that they respond better to in-person learning. We have found that our core audience is the first to drop off when challenges are presented, and the last to re-engage with learning.
So, we are currently navigating a difficult situation where we have had courses postponed or cancelled due to COVID and other illnesses and we are re-engaging with some of the community venues where we hold courses, while conscious that only a small amount of what we do would be effective if done remotely. For these reasons, Jesuit Community College programs are only operating at an estimated 30 percent of their pre-COVID capacities.
We have implemented a range of COVID-safe policies, including strong recommendations for wearing masks, encouraging everyone on site to use hand sanitiser and regularly cleaning tables and other shared facilities, to ensure we are doing our utmost to protect the health and safety of our participants and staff.
Our employment programs are experiencing some different challenges. Some of the work we do with participants – including mentoring, resume building, helping people to apply for jobs and preparation for job interviews – can be done virtually. A number of our participants prefer to meet with their case workers remotely as it is more convenient or time-effective for them.
Digital divide and Zoom fatigue
However, not all participants have digital literacy skills and access to smart devices, so face to face contact remains important. The ‘digital divide’ has also been evident across our Homework Club program and settlement participants.
Ultimately though, we are supporting participants to access employment, and the majority of employers we work with including across the construction, trade and hospitality sectors require face-to-face contact both as part of the application process and the roles themselves.
Our housing and complex needs programs include two residential properties for young people homeless or at risk of homelessness exiting the justice system. Throughout lockdowns, these programs continued to operate with stringent sanitation and hygiene processes. Now, we are regularly dealing with the logistics of staff being impacted by COVID and other illnesses.
The current shift away from the office wherever possible and the accumulated ‘Zoom fatigue’ of remote meetings, which is felt across the entire organisation, has also impacted professional development for staff, which we had recently been delivering face-to-face.
Many of our program managers, who are working with frontline staff and participants every day, feel that there is no end in sight to the current challenges.
We do not have any solutions, beyond hoping to see the Victorian Government’s Business Continuity Fund extended. This Fund has provided valuable support to Jesuit Community College and other training providers throughout the past year but has since ended.
The reinstatement of such a scheme would acknowledge that COVID is still a significant problem impacting businesses and organisations right across the state.
The current climate is also impacting Jesuit Social Services more broadly. We have again strongly encouraged all staff to work from home wherever possible and we have cancelled planned events. We have traditionally held an annual fundraising dinner each year, but have not been able to safely do so since 2019.
Lessons of note
With all this on mind, there are some learnings from COVID that we will carry forward. Some of our participants prefer engaging remotely, and our staff in Victoria have found it easier to stay connected with our colleagues in Western Sydney and the Northern Territory via Zoom.
Instead of traditional face-to-face events, we have had success holding a variety of webinars and symposiums online, which makes it easier for speakers and attendees to dial in from around the world.
It is also true that we have discovered efficiencies in holding some internal and external meetings remotely, reducing travel times where we would previously meet in person. A tangible benefit from this has been a reduction in our organisation’s carbon footprint, in line with our commitment to ecological justice.
We will continue to monitor and implement these learnings, in line with participant and staff feedback, and they will no doubt shape the way Jesuit Social Services operates moving forward.
For now, we hope that we emerge from winter safely and that see a significant reduction in illness as we hit spring, allowing us to continue to navigate the ‘COVID Normal’ landscape and supporting marginalised people and communities in the most effective way possible.
But until then, things are far from business as usual.
• Julie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on health inequalities