Gaining Insights into Staff Well-being: My Placement Experience at MVCFS

post by Emma Gentry (2021 cohort)

From July 2023 to February 2024, I undertook my placement with Mountain Valley Child and Family Services (MVCFS), a non-profit US mental health service which supports young people between the ages of 10 and 21 with complex trauma and other significant mental health challenges. They offer a range of inpatient, outpatient, and rehabilitation services in California, operated by multidisciplinary teams of psychologists, doctors, nurses, support workers, and a range of other specialist personnel. Given the demands of this environment, there is great importance in understanding not only the welfare of children but also the welfare and experiences of employees.

My role as a placement student involved exploring ways to best capture staff well-being and satisfaction, and my activities were supervised by the HR director and the director of programme development – both of whom have a great deal of experience in the organisation. During an initial 3-week visit last July/August, I was based in the HR office at their main rehabilitation facility where I was able to observe not only the operations within the HR department but also some of the therapeutic activities that staff were carrying out with clients. In the first week, I met with directors, managers, HR personnel, and support workers to learn about a variety of staff well-being experiences across the organisation. Based on these conversations, I utilised my research skills to extend a common measure of staff satisfaction, which was later disseminated across the organisation. In the following months I (remotely) wrote a report based on quantitative and qualitative themes that emerged from the data, as was requested by my supervisors. Following their specific requirements I also benchmarked some of the findings against the norms for US healthcare organisations and discussed the similarities and differences with results from other organisations. Diligence and thought were required to communicate the findings to a specific client (my placement organisation) – a skill that will be highly useful in future academic and industrial contexts.

The placement presented many opportunities for reflective practice. Although an outsider perspective has its strengths in research, it also comes with limitations (i.e., more focus needed on effective communication and building rapport). Importantly, I tried to remain mindful of ‘learning’ before ‘doing’; those working at MVCFS are the experts of their own experiences after all. Building an awareness of my positionality in relation to those I am researching is something I try to continuously improve in my development as a (mostly) qualitative researcher. Throughout my visit, I stayed in a staff accommodation block and was able to chat to members of staff coming and going in between their shifts, where I tried to learn as much as possible about their experiences. Once I had talked to enough people (all of whom were very welcoming and friendly), I then felt confident enough to carry out my ‘formal’ research activities.

As I have found throughout my own PhD research, a challenge when assessing workplace well-being is socially desirable responding, especially if employees are concerned about the extent to which the measures are truly anonymous, and if there is a lack of transparency around where their responses may end up. There are also inherent dependency relationships at stake between those who provide and those who rely on a source of income and job security, creating difficulty in researching how people really feel. I used this awareness throughout the research process by explaining to employees, with transparency, what would happen with their data, and exactly how it would be presented to decision-makers. I also explained that I was not affiliated with the organisation and that only I would be able to see raw (but still anonymous) responses, as a way to mitigate the potential for socially desirable responding. My prior PhD experience was helpful in this sense for building a sense of trust between myself and those completing the survey, and for maintaining a clear channel of communication throughout the whole research process.

Not only did my PhD research skills help with the placement project, but the discussions I had during my time at MVCFS also sparked ideas for ensuing chapters of my thesis. Through conversations with my HR supervisor, I gained an appreciation of the similarities/differences that exist between UK and US organisations in terms of how they offer employee benefits (i.e., health insurance), and I familiarised myself with the legal aspects of this process too. I also learned about the post-Covid labour market in which MVCFS now operates and how organisations across California are responding to associated challenges. This is important because with workplace well-being it is necessary to consider the myriad of contextual factors that may be impacting employees as well as the organisation.

My own assumptions and implicit biases were challenged throughout the placement, providing key opportunities for reflection. Perhaps coming from the CDT, which is centred around the use of technology, I assumed that everyone would want to take the survey online for greater convenience. However, to my surprise, everyone chose to complete the survey offline. Some employees mentioned they seldom use technology in their daily lives. This prompted deep reflection around representation challenges in my own research, with potential underrepresentation of those who may: (a) be struggling with their well-being but are not open to talking about it; (b) feel less competent with technology; and (c) have reduced access to digital support. In pursuit of more inclusive approaches to well-being strategies it was important that I took a step back at this point to assess personal conscious/unconscious biases I may exert on my research. This experience further prompted reflection on the debate in the information systems literature around what we need to support socially and what can be supported through technology.

Altogether, I greatly enjoyed collaborating with an organisation as unique as MVCFS. Key points for reflection included the importance of (a) learning before doing and (b) continuously challenging your own assumptions as a qualitative researcher. I look forward to applying the valuable experience I have gained at MVCFS not only to my PhD thesis but also to other contexts in the future. Thank you MVCFS!

AI, Mental health and the Human

post by Shazmin Majid (2018 cohort)

Pint of Science 2022 – Bunkers Hill, Nottingham

Pint of Science 2022
Bunkers Hill, Nottingham

I delivered a talk about AI, mental health and the human at Pint of Science 2022 this year which had the theme “A Head Start of Health”. Pint of Science is a grassroots non-profit organisation that runs a worldwide science festival and brings researchers to a local pub/café/space to share their scientific discoveries with you, where no prior knowledge is needed. There are over 24,000 attendees in the U.K with over 600 events in over 45 cities. There were three talks at the time focusing on the theme of mental health.

Structure of the talk:

    1. What is AI
    2. How AI is being used in mental health
    3. AI and mental health: my cool experiences
    4. My current issues with AI and mental health

After days of practice and even delivering the jokes on cue whilst in pj’s in the comfort of my living room, the day for presenting arrived. Those that know me, know that I’m not too shy when it comes to presenting but this felt different and I really wanted to get the crowd engaged, and practise good storytelling. I arrived on the day and was welcomed, especially by fellow Horizon-er Peter Boyes who was the one who suggested my talk to the Pint of Science crew. I learnt that I would be the last talk and I did something I have never done before, I walked up to the bar and ordered a big old pint, a packet of crisps and enjoyed the wait.  Normally, I would find this process to be mildly agonising, having to wait until it’s your go. My parents have got a collection of photos of me when I was a child having to wait for a funfair ride. Let me set the scene – fists in a ball screaming at the top of my lungs. I guess that never leaves you which is why I’d much rather go first. The pint helped.

My talk aimed at providing a whistle-stop tour of the ways I’ve interacted with AI and mental health. To start off by loosely introducing AI, providing some of the state of the art ways that it’s being used, provide a summary of the ways I’ve got to engage in the sector and present what I consider to be current issues on this. I can say, this is not how it went down. I was approximately 3 slides in and then was hit with an image that’ll never leave me and this was a black screen with the text “slide show ended”. And it was right at this moment that I realised that I had sent over some butchered version of my slide show. I had only one copy of the slides which I had sent over – how could this happen! I also realised that I had saved the slideshow on my *desktop* (like, seriously, who does that!) with no remote drive links sprinkled in fairy dust to access it. A sudden wave of appreciation of being last hit me like a wave because the crowd just bobbed along as on average everyone was around 3 pints down!

Pete and I scrambled in the corner to find another presentation I could quickly deliver and we settled at an older MRL lab talk about a piece of research I had published. This piece of work explored the extent of user involvement in the design of mental health technology And lo and behold, the new structure:

The new structure of the talk

    1. Background of mental health technology
    2. The research questions
    3. The method of exploration
    4. Our results
    5. What we recommend for the future

Getting into the nitty-gritty:

    1. Background of mental health technology

Self-monitoring applications for mental health technology are increasing in numbers. The involvement of users has been informed by its long history in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research and is becoming a core concern for designers working in this space. The application of models of involvement,  such as user-centered design (UCD), is becoming standardised to optimise the reach, adoption and sustained use of this type of technology.

    1. The research questions

This paper examined the current ways in which users are involved in the design and evaluation of self-monitoring applications, specifically for bipolar disorder by investigating three specific questions a) are users being involved in the design and evaluation of technology?  b) if so, how is this happening? and lastly, c) what are the best practice ‘ingredients’ regarding the design of mental health technology?

    1. The method of exploration

To explore these practices, we reviewed available literature for self-tracking technology for bipolar disorder and made an overall assessment of the level of user involvement in design. The findings were reviewed by an expert panel, including an individual with lived experience of bipolar disorder, to form best practice “ingredients”  for design of mental health technology.  This combines the already existing practices of patient and public involvement and human-computer interaction to evolve from the generic guidelines of UCD to ones that are tailored towards mental health technology.

    1. Our results

For question a), it was found that out of the 13 novel smartphone applications included in this review, 4 self-monitoring applications were classified as having no mention of user involvement in the design, 3 self-monitoring applications were classified as having low user involvement, 4 self-monitoring applications were classified as having medium user involvement and 2 self-monitoring applications were classified as high user involvement. In regards to question b), it was found that despite the presence of extant approaches for the involvement of the user in the process of design and evaluation, there is large variability in whether the user is involved, how they are involved and to what extent there is a reported emphasis on the voice of the user, which is the ultimate aim of design approaches involved in mental health technology.

    1. What we recommend for the future

As per question c), it is recommended that users are involved in all stages of design with the ultimate goal to empower and create empathy for the user. Users should be involved early in the process of design and this should not just be limited to design itself, but also associated research ensuring end-to-end involvement. The communities in the healthcare-based design and human-computer interaction design need to work together to increase awareness of the different methods available and encourage the use and mixing of the methods, as well as establish better mechanisms to reach the target user group. Future research using systematic literature search methods should explore this further.

Closing remarks

Adaptability is the moral of the story here! Practice can make perfect but in the end, technology failed me even though my talk was about technology – ironically! I guess I was more proud of delivering the talk in this haphazard way, compared to if I delivered on cue like I practised. Another reflection that I made is that after 4 years of doing a PhD, it’s interesting how you can naturally talk about the topic at hand – so rambling for 20 mins just flowed. Talking about your PhD for a non-technical audience was also a very interesting experience too and a great experience to practise good storytelling.



Measure and track your mood with smart clothes

post by Marie Dilworth (2017 cohort)

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to wear a t-shirt that measured your emotions and your mood?

One day this might be a reality!

We are running an online survey to understand what people think about emotion-tracking smart clothing.

We would love to know what you think about the idea.

If you can it will take 10-15 minutes to fill out this survey to support PhD Research.

This research is being run by:

  • University of Nottingham, School of Computer Science and
  • Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre, Mental Health Technology



Thank you for giving your time to support mental health technology research!

Marie Dilworth
PhD Candidate
School of Computer Science
University of Nottingham