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!