by Author Katy Robinson

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Youth Music Online Network: Supporting Wellbeing

Cartoon hand holding paper that says "Permission slip: to do nothing, to do something, to be unproductive, to do what makes you feel good or comfortable or calm or normal or safe or OK, to get through this in a way that works for you."

At Youth Music, the wellbeing of young musicians and the workforce who support them is hugely important. Our projects cover a wide range of genres, activities and practices, but improving wellbeing is something many of them have in common.

Even at times when we and our funded projects are operating at ‘business as usual’ level, we have a growing interest in wellbeing: over the past couple of years we’ve been undertaking research with our grantholders and their participants into how we define and measure wellbeing, as well as the innovative ways in which projects are working with young musicians to improve their wellbeing through music.

It comes as no surprise, then, that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the wellbeing of the participants and workforce across our portfolio, and of course the wellbeing of our own staff here at Youth Music, is a top priority. We know that many organisations are worried about the wellbeing of their own staff during these uncertain times, not to mention the wellbeing of the young people they support.

Since making the shift to online working, Youth Music wanted to offer an opportunity for grantholders working across the country to connect with each other and discuss topics that are important to them. It was essential that an online network relating to supporting wellbeing was offered, and the first of these network meetings took place on Wednesday 15 April. We wanted to create a space for grantholders to express their concerns, but also to share positive news and ideas that they have tried out in their own organisations.

While we wanted the discussion group to be a positive, solution-focused forum for ideas and best practice, we recognised the importance of giving participants the space to share their worries too.  The following is a summary of the discussion that took place around certain concerns, including ways in which these concerns have been addressed in some of our funded organisations, as well as at Youth Music.

If you have any particular concerns about your Youth Music grant not covered here (related to wellbeing or anything else), please do contact your Grants & Learning Officer or see our list of Coronavirus related FAQs here.



Work circumstances – logistics & practicalities

Most commonly, participants in the online network discussed the changes in working circumstances and the difficulties of navigating these changes within their teams.

Whilst some organisations had started getting to grips with their new virtual set-up, many were still adapting to online working. Many people talked about the overwhelming number of different communication platforms being used, as well as the fact that many staff members are simply getting used to being at a screen for longer than they usually would be. A couple of participants spoke about their experiences of using webcams more than usual, and there was recognition that some people aren’t as comfortable with being on camera as their colleagues, possibly resulting in anxiety and “web conference fatigue”.

Several people discussed the need to be responsive to the current situation and act quickly and proactively, but there was also a recognition that this often leads to increased workloads and additional pressure on staff. Many people were concerned about the capacity of their colleagues for varying reasons: numbers of contracted hours, those looking after and home-schooling children, and those experiencing mental health difficulties. A concern was finding the balance between giving these members of staff the support they need and checking in consistently, without overwhelming them with video calls or additional resources to read through. Similarly, finding a consistent meeting time for whole teams to check in with each other proved difficult, particularly in organisations balancing a number of part time or freelance staff all working different hours.

Solutions/best practice

Despite the many different concerns raised in this area, participants of the discussion group had some useful tips for each other based on their own experiences.

Several people mentioned having regular team catch ups on a video conferencing platform. The duration and frequency of these catch ups varied depending on the size of the team and their workload, but people generally valued having a consistently scheduled catch up with their team to discuss their tasks and priorities. Many people also found it important to create space to talk with colleagues about non-work-related things both inside and outside of work time.

One person discussed the value of a good old-fashioned phone call in lieu of a video meeting for certain situations. Varying the ways in which we communicate with each other instead of allowing a video conference to become “the new normal” for everyone was agreed to be a useful way of allowing people to get away from their screens if needed.

At Youth Music, each team has a regular catch up (these vary: some teams catch up every morning, others catch up once or twice a week) and then the entire team of 24 has a weekly catch up on a Thursday morning. These vary in length and content depending on the priorities of the upcoming week, and there is always an optional space at the end for people to discuss any issues related to their wellbeing or individual needs.

We have also discussed our online meeting etiquette and made it clear to staff that they are welcome to turn their camera off in meetings if they aren’t comfortable with being on screen for the entire duration of a meeting. Similarly, we have reminded staff that they are welcome to treat online meetings as they would treat meetings in the office: for example, if you need to get up and pop to the loo or grab a drink, this is allowed! It might seem obvious, but these things all take a bit of adjusting to, and sometimes simply being given permission to take things a little more casually can put someone’s mind at ease.

These tips and solutions have all been tried in response to the situation at each individual organisation and won’t work for everyone. Every organisation is operating under a unique set of circumstances and will have practical requirements to fulfil as best they can. Additionally, each individual person is processing this situation in our own way, and at our own pace. We imagine many organisations will be starting to figure out routines that work best for them, but if you’re struggling to find a well-balanced and flexible routine for you and your colleagues, we recommend:

  • Maintaining core opening hours: Youth Music’s core hours are between 10am-4pm, with staff then having the freedom to choose what hours they work around that.
  • Ensuring check ins are frequent and not always ‘booked in’ formally: varying the communication channels used so people don’t have to be at a screen every time you catch up.
  • Keeping meetings consistent and focused: making time for both professional and personal concerns and achievements.
  • Making sure your team achieve a good work/life balance: ensuring staff understand the importance of ‘switching off’, encouraging regular breaks, and being kind to yourselves if you’re not quite as productive as you’d like to be right now.

For more useful tips on creating a working from home routine that works for you, see our Office Manager Leigh’s blog here. You can also see a summary of tools and resources for taking your work online here.



Work circumstances – stress and morale

Alongside the tensions created from team communication and online technology, several participants expressed concerns about the stress their staff were under due to wider factors of their work.

Having to give staff reduced hours or furlough leave was a worry for many, as was the resulting workload/capacity stresses for those staff members not on furlough leave. Meeting grant requirements and fundraising targets was also a concern and of course, several people talked about the disappointment of having to cancel activities and events which had often been the result of a lot of hard work and planning.

People also understandably had concerns about the reduced contact with the young musicians they usually work with, and whilst many organisations are working on ways to stay in touch with their participants virtually, in some cases even this is not possible, for example, projects working in hospitals. This leaves many members of staff worrying for the safety and wellbeing of the young musicians they’re working with, particularly those in difficult home situations or those without internet access. This worry and sense of responsibility can understandably have a negative impact on the workforce when things are currently beyond their control.

Additionally, for those members of the group with responsibility for their team’s wellbeing (managers, directors etc.), there were concerns about general anxiety relating to the pandemic, lack of social interaction, and poor levels of overall wellbeing in staff.

Solutions/best practice

However, more positively, the majority of participants are trying out lots of innovative ways to ensure their staff stay motivated, happy, and connected.

Many teams are planning optional online social activities to ensure their teams have ways of staying connected outside work hours if they wish. Others have curated a newsletter to circulate to staff, containing things such as wellbeing tips, light-hearted and positive news items, and TV/book/podcast recommendations.

As previously mentioned, regular catch ups with the team is a common way to ensure everyone stays connected, and it was agreed that having a space to talk about non-work-related things is just as important as having more official meetings. One organisation noted how there was an additional weekly meeting especially for staff members who had been placed on furlough leave in order for them to stay connected and still feel included in the organisation despite currently being unable to work.

At Youth Music, in addition to our work-related video meetings, we have a weekly virtual ‘lunch room’ on a Wednesday, where any member of staff can join and eat their lunch together, if they wish. Likewise, staff are encouraged to finish work a little earlier on a Friday if they are able to, and unwind in an after-work chat with colleagues from 4:30pm onwards. These activities are entirely optional, but there is a rota of meeting hosts so that we can ensure colleagues know there will be someone to chat to at these times if they want to.

Another member of the discussion group spoke about finding simple but effective ways to add a little joy to each colleague’s day. In his case, this involved ensuring each staff member had essential items at home such as first aid kits, as well as posting each colleague an Easter egg to tuck into over the long weekend!

In terms of keeping track of staff’s wellbeing more formally, those in positions of leadership had different methods of keeping on top of the wellbeing levels of their staff. Many recommended personal check-ins over the phone, video chat or email, but some people had additional suggestions.

One member of the group recommended a tool called Chimp or Champ, which allows staff members to report on their happiness and work satisfaction levels anonymously, once a week. Managers/leaders will then get a weekly report on their team’s wellbeing, complete with anonymous feedback on any issues affecting their staff. The same member of the group told us about how she and her colleagues had signed up to a Laughter Yoga session on Zoom run by a parent of one of their young musicians – an activity which she recommended people try out!

Finally, whilst people spoke about specific instances where an individual staff member’s wellbeing was a concern and the measures they were putting in place to monitor this, many people also wanted to talk about staff members who are thriving during this time. Several participants noticed the efforts that certain staff members were making, acknowledging those who have adapted well to this change in circumstance. This is another reminder that every individual situation is unique, and that we can’t always predict exactly how someone is going to respond to uncertainty: once again, the best thing we can do is be flexible and responsive to the needs of our colleagues and team mates.



Young people’s wellbeing

Naturally, many people raised concerns about the wellbeing of the young people they support. Many young musicians taking part in Youth Music funded projects experience lower levels of wellbeing as a result of the barriers they face, and at a time when music-making activities are no longer able to operate in their usual way, members of the workforce are anticipating that wellbeing levels in young musicians may currently be lower than usual.

Specific concerns raised in the group usually related to the living conditions or circumstances of certain groups of young people. One participant working at a charity supporting young refugees and asylum seekers was concerned about the lack of space in the homes of the young people they support and how this could affect their overall wellbeing, as well as their ability to engage in music-making at home. Another organisation had received reports that some of the young people they work with are gathering in local areas and not fully observing social distancing guidelines, leaving those supporting them concerned about their health and safety. There was a sense of responsibility amongst members of the discussion group to do whatever they can to support the young musicians’ wellbeing, despite currently being unable to work with them face to face.

Solutions/best practice

Almost all the network participants had something to say about the ways in which they were trying to get around the problem of having limited contact with young people. It appears there’s still plenty of demand for musical and creative opportunities amongst the young musicians they work with, and the majority of network participants spoke about moving their musical offer online and doing their best to cater to this appetite for virtual musical opportunities.

Those with the ability to stay in contact with the young people via social media discussed the innovative ways they were encouraging connection and creativity: Instagram Live videos, online gigs and WhatsApp music quizzes were amongst some of the ideas shared. Additionally, those without the option to communicate directly with the young people they support were creating video and online resources and sharing them via the settings in which they usually work.

Aside from musical and creative ways of engaging with the young people, some organisations spoke about their experiences of supporting the young people more widely during this period of uncertainty and confusion. Many members of staff have found themselves trying to help the young people they work with to make sense of the COVID-19 situation and how it impacts their lives: for some this involves patiently and sympathetically explaining why it’s important to observe social distancing guidelines, whilst others are busy finding up-to-date official information on the virus to share, and correcting misleading information that’s circulating social media.

Other practical ways of supporting the young people from afar included providing them with phone credit, lending out laptops and tablets not currently being used by organisations, and, where budget allowed, sending out musical equipment for use at home. Of course, we recognise that this will not be financially possible for all organisations. If your organisation has additional financial needs during this period, please see this page for information on the Youth Music emergency fund.

Once again, there was a shared sense amongst everyone that the best approach was an adaptable one, recognising each individual young person’s experience, and in one participant’s words, “not assuming anything” about the way each young person may be processing this situation, not forcing them to talk or engage if they don’t feel up to it, but letting them know that support is available if they need it.



Wrapping up

These are just the beginnings of a wider conversation about how Youth Music and its funded organisations are supporting the wellbeing of young musicians and the workforce during this time. Whilst every organisation, staff member, and young person is facing a unique set of circumstances right now, many are slowly but surely working out ways and approaches that work for them, and we would like to thank the participants of this online network for sharing their experiences.

The above notes are just some examples of things that have worked for the participants of the online network, but may prove useful to others – do let us know in the comments what works for you!