Pathways to Friendship: Keeping Your Focus on Friendships Despite the Workforce Crisis

The article below was prepared just days before COVID-19 deeply changed the way we all are doing our work and living our lives.  But one of the many things revealed by the pandemic is that our human service system’s workforce is in even deeper crisis than we thought and—despite many stories of strength and commitment—quite fragile, too.  But another lesson underscored by the pandemic is that relationships and friendships may be the best vaccine against the isolation and loneliness.  So always—and especially now—our workforce needs to devote attention, time and creativity to helping the people they support connect deeply with others in their communities.

We know that you’re facing staff shortages, that it’s difficult to both attract staff and to retain them.   We know that the value of your work—the positive differences that you make in the lives of the people you serve and your communities—is more than you’re compensated for.  We want to help you stay true to your values and commitment despite staffing challenges.  And we know that your values include but go beyond helping people stay healthy and productive.

At Widening the Circle and PATHWAYS to Friendship, we do not pretend that we can fix the underlying problems in this crisis.  However, we recognize that staffing issues are probably the single greatest challenge to your efforts to promote friendships between people with and without disabilities.  It’s quite clear that when there’s a constant merry-go-round of new staff, relief & temp staff who don’t know the individuals, staff who are unfamiliar with the communities they work in, congregations of people with disabilities in segregated settings, etc., that our goals for deep and meaningful community connections will suffer greatly.

But it is not hopeless!  Even assuming that we will all be struggling with these staffing issues for the foreseeable future, our PATHWAYS partners are showing us some ways to keep our eyes on the prize.  Here are some things that you can do now, during these tumultuous times:

  1. Be sure that your organization is aware of the importance of friendships in the lives of the people you support. People with friends are happier, healthier and safer than those who are friendless.  Embed that in your organization’s mission. 
  2. Staff orientation (as well as on-going staff training) should include a segment on both the importance of friendships between people with and without disabilities as well as some “how-to” tips for staff. You can find some training material at https://thearcofmass.org/friendship/training
  3. Build a “friendship” component into every employee job description, throughout the organization. But be sure to have some flexibility…
  4. Assign tasks to staff that capitalize on their strengths. Some staff are good at paperwork; some not so much.  Some are good cooks; some are dreadful.  Some are wonderful at helping people connect in the community; some are frightened at the prospect.  Get the most out of everyone.
  5. Include a measurement related to “friendship” in all staff performance evaluations.
  6. Include a “friendship effort/success” item in the agenda for every house and management meeting as a way of staying focused.
  7. In some fashion (data base?) gather interests/affiliations of your organization’s willing employees and people in their circles. This information could be very helpful when trying to match the interests of the people you serve to opportunities in the community where others with those interests may gather.  The individuals you identify may be good “gate-keepers”, helping to introduce people to each other.
  8. Celebrate friend-making. Recognize efforts and successes in friend-making with articles in newsletters, announcements at Board meetings, awards at annual meetings, gift cards, etc.
  9. Analyze current staffing patterns and roles. You may find that your organization has unnecessary “layers” of staff who can be re-deployed in ways that promote friendships.  You may, for instance, be able to use existing resources to establish one or more “community connector/community builder” positions.
  10. Actively recruit trusted ex-staff to continue a relationship with someone they worked with. You may even want to add a question to your exit interview asking staff who are leaving if they would be interested in doing so.
  11. Make extra efforts to hire local people who already have good connections in the communities in which the people you support live.
  12. Partner with colleges & universities for volunteers/interns whose role would be as community connectors, not just as short-term companions.
  13. Establish (within your organization or within your larger community, including the faith community) a volunteer or citizen advocacy program which plays the role of “match-maker”.
  14. Establish relationships with local community organizations like municipal park & recreation departments, YM/WCAs, churches, sports groups, civic organizations, etc. which may be able to help connect people you support to their current members. Some of these people may be interested in serving on your organization’s board of directors.
  15. Make use of technology (low and high tech) and adaptive equipment that can help the people you support be less reliant on staff for many activities.  There are communication devices of many kinds; technology that enables people to use voice or remote devices to control lights, TVs, heat, phones,  and more; adaptations that allow people to more independently eat, cook, dress and bathe; automatic medication dispensers; wheelchairs that can handle challenging terrain, etc.  The list is nearly endless.  And when people you support are more independent, staff can devote their attention to other tasks, like helping with community connections!    
  16. Use on-line resources and social media…with care. It is easier than ever to go on-line and research community groups and events at which connections might happen (https://www.meetup.com/, https://www.facebook.com/groups).  And if, for some reason, people you support are unable to get out and about, social media can help them maintain relationships as well as finding and reconnecting with people from the past.  Platforms and apps like Skype, Zoom and Facetime allow users to connect visually with others.  Used carefully, these can supplement, but they should never supplant, the direct, face-to-face contact inherent in true friendships.  Injudicious use can, in fact, create isolation, alienation and depression. 
  17. Include relationship/friendship items in everyone’s ISPs. This way, even if staff change, the intent of the supports remains clear.  You can read more about this at: https://www.mass.gov/doc/bulletin-4-the-isp-and-social-inclusion/download.

Please don’t let these tough times derail your efforts to make the lives of people with and without disabilities better through their friendships.  We know that staff who know that their work is really making a positive difference in peoples’ lives are much more likely to stay in our field.  And, at least anecdotally, we know that staff feel deeply rewarded when they are able to help the people they support connect to others in their communities.  If you have any other ideas of how to keep focused, please submit them to Jim Ross at ross@arcmass.org.

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