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Practicing Self-care in Times of High Stress

April is Stress Awareness Month. Right now we’re all very aware of just how stressful life is, and for those providing any kind of services and response to COVID-19, it is an especially stressful time. When the calls are nonstop, the task list is endless, and the hours are long, that’s precisely when we tend to abandon our self-care so we can focus more attention on work—And that’s the exact wrong thing to do.

It is normal to approach self-care with skepticism. Not so much questioning its importance, but how realistic it is to achieve. The reality is none of us have the free time staring us in the face where we can easily focus on ourselves, the point is you have to make the time and commit to it.

Why is Self-care Important?

Be a more effective caregiver

As the flight attendant says, “In the event of an emergency, when the oxygen masks deploy, be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Why? Because if you pass out from lack of oxygen, not only do you suffer but those who needed your assistance can’t receive help either. You cannot be an effective caregiver to others if you yourself are suffering from excessive stress or burnout. And the way to avoid getting to the breaking point is to practice self-care along the way, and often, so that stress levels aren’t able to get to the point of breaking you and preventing you from truly being present for each client interaction you are tasked to handle.

Prevent physical and mental health problems

It’s not just about the health and well-being of the people you serve—your own health is put at risk when stress compounds and you neglect a self-care routine. According to numerous health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Canadian Public Health Association, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Heart Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and others, chronic stress can lead to several—sometimes serious—health conditions including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Problems sleeping/insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Weight gain
  • Disruption to memory and concentration
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease and stroke

The American Psychological Association outlines the numerous, and very scientific, reasons that stress impacts your body from your brain to your muscles and everything in between. If you struggle with investing time in a self-care routine, think of it this way: If any of the conditions listed above develop as a result of chronic stress, you’ll end up spending much more of your time, resources, finances—and, ultimately undergo even more stress. Think of the old quote by Benjamin Franklin coined way back in 1736: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Maintain healthy relationships

When things are particularly hectic at work, coming home can be a welcome reprieve. But, left unmanaged, stress can create unrest in your household. Stress is contagious, and so your overall mood or tense demeanor could cause your partner, children, and others in your home, to experience similar symptoms. Stress can cause us to have a “shorter fuse” and lose patience more quickly, leading to bickering or blow ups. And, in this case, one of the scientific benefits of stress—increased vigilance—can make you hyper aware of the faults, annoying habits, and negative behaviors of those around you, again potentially creating more arguments and bickering. Effectively managing stress through self-care can help keep the peace.

How do I practice self-care?

In Part 2 of this blog series, we’ll look at the different ways one can practice self-care to relieve the symptoms and effects of stress.

Sources:
Why Self Care Can Help You Manage Stress
The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain
Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior
The Effects of Stress on Your Body
Lower Stress: How does stress affect the body?
Mental Health – Coping With Stress
Stress effects on the body
5 Things You Should Know About Stress
Managing Stress
How Stress Affects Mental Health
Is Stress Killing Your Relationship? Why You’re Not Alone
What are the effects of stress on a relationship?

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How iCarol Facilitates Remote Work

Technology has made it easier than ever to turn any setting into a contact center, including your workers’ homes. Because iCarol is a web-based solution, it can be used anywhere with an internet connection. iCarol Software empowers employers to not only make remote work possible, but do so without sacrificing service delivery or quality. Now more than ever, especially given the continuity of operations needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies we can be sure to experience in the future, it’s time to consider remote work for your agency.

Controlling Access

There are a number of tools in iCarol that help you exercise control over what your users can see or do when working outside of the office. For instance, while any device can sign in to iCarol, you can make it so that only certain devices can access sensitive information such as Client Profiles or Contact Records. Using the Restriction/Certification tool, individual devices can be certified either directly by an iCarol Admin level user, or you can give permissions to a user to download and install a certification tool on the device themselves. iCarol’s Support Team can also authorize specific IP addresses, if you have a particular static IP address that should be allowed to access sensitive areas of the software.

iCarol Admin users can also restrict an individual volunteer or staff member’s movements throughout the solution on a very granular level using Advanced Security Settings found within each individual user Volunteer/Staff Profile. There are five high level security settings, plus numerous advanced security settings that enable or disable even more specific controls over what areas of iCarol a user can access, and what types of tasks they can complete. This way, you can restrict users’ movements in the system which is especially helpful when you aren’t able to supervise a worker in person or wish them to have more limited iCarol capabilities if they are working away from the office.

Connect Your Workforce with Your Mission and Each Other

One objection often heard about remote work, particularly from those who enjoy the socialization that comes with an office setting, is that it can make one feel lonely and isolated. It is very important that remote workers are given opportunities to connect with one another, their supervisor or manager, and the mission or “big picture” of the organization for which they work. Being separated from one’s coworkers physically doesn’t have to lead to separation anxiety for workers who crave or need human connectivity to perform their work.

When logging in to iCarol, all users see a home page that provides a snapshot at what’s going on at their agency. The News section can be used to share the latest information they might need to know, perhaps a new service provider was added to your resource database, or a local TV station is airing a story that will share your helpline number which could lead to a bump in volume. No matter the news, you can put it front and center and be sure your iCarol users are in the know.

Sharing important information with your workers is important, but so is getting your workers to interact with each other and feel like a team. In the Chatboard, volunteers and staff can add to discussions on topics and in forums set up by managers, giving everyone a chance to share ideas, input, and add to conversations. iCarol also provides an Internal Chat feature that allows logged in users to securely chat with one another. This helps iCarol users communicate with their peers or supervisors instantaneously, to ask for advice about a call, get help finding a resource record, or ask their supervisor to silent monitor a difficult chat they just answered.

It’s important to have connectivity not just between your own staff members, but among peers and colleagues across your industry, especially when your industry may be addressing a common challenge like in the case with COVID-19. The iCarol Community is a place where Admin level users of iCarol, typically leaders and managers at the organization, can post messages seen by their peers at similar services worldwide. Networking with these peers can be a great way to learn best practices from one another, share resources, policies, templates, or just receive support from others who are right where you are and can relate to the challenges you are addressing. This feature was recently expanded with a version now available to all iCarol users within the iCarol Help Center.

Provide Supervision and Coaching

Most employees want to be good at what they do, and serve their clients well. That can’t happen without supervision and feedback from one’s manager. You can still provide supervision and effectively coach your workers even if you are in separate places.

There are multiple ways this is accomplished in iCarol. One can be found in your Messaging (Live Chat and SMS/Texting) area of iCarol. All conversations can be silently monitored by managers with the correct permissions in iCarol. This means they can watch and read the conversation as it happens. If the worker appears to be stuck or is going in the wrong direction with the interaction, the supervisor could use Internal Chat to send them a note and get them back on the right track. People with permissions to silent monitor can also join or take over a Live Chat or SMS/Texting conversation entirely if the situation calls for it. Coaching can occur after other interactions, too. Contact Records have an area for authorized users to give both private or public feedback for the specialist to read and learn from. You can always supplement these iCarol tools with an occasional phone meeting as needed to provide supervision and coaching can also help employees feel guided and supported.

Sometimes supervision is a matter of quickly checking to see that your workers are doing their assigned task, or setting in place reminders for these employees. Admin users have access to comprehensive sign on logs so they can check that remote workers are signed into the system when they are supposed to be. You can also set up a number of notifications for your workers – reminding them when the shift calendar is open for signup, when they have a shift coming up, or when a follow-up task is assigned to them. Volunteers and Staff handling incoming Live Chats or SMS/Text messages from your community can be alerted when a new conversation comes through to the queue. This is especially helpful for remote workers who are multi-tasking and cannot be tethered to their workstation, for example if they are doing field work.

Ensure Quality

Ensuring the people who contact your organization receive excellent service and come away feeling helped is a top priority. There are plenty of ways to evaluate remote workers just as you might if they were in the office. Contact Records, logging any type of interaction, can be read to review the content of the documentation. Managers can also ensure the data collection elements are correctly marked, either by reading individual Contact Records, or running reports in iCarol’s Statistics section. The Statistics area also allows you to filter reports by worker, making it simpler to evaluate the documentation of a single volunteer or staff member.

The Random Sampling Surveys feature in iCarol reminds your workers to schedule satisfaction surveys and other follow-up interactions. The results of these surveys can be evaluated to find any gaps in service quality. It’s also easy to check the quality of data curation done by your Resource Manager. iCarol’s Resource Advanced Search and Bulk Editing Tool provides an in-app, table-style way of finding missing data, or information that is not correctly formatted to your style guide.

Quality assurance is a top priority for most managers, and there are many ways in iCarol to check quality and ensure your community is receiving a high level of service, even when that service delivery is happening away from the office.

Invite Community Interaction

The people in your community appreciate and need your services, but how they want to access them is evolving. More people are opting for self-service options when they are made available, such as exploring available services online, or filling out an intake form or screening rather than making a phone call. When your community has self-service options available to them, they get the benefit or your services while reducing direct staff time needed to serve them, and this can be especially helpful for remote work.

The iCarol Public Resource Directory enables use of an embedded resource database/service provider directory on your website where it can be searched or browsed by your web visitors. Since these resource records are pulled directly from iCarol, your community can rest easy knowing the information is thoroughly vetted and well-curated by your resource managers, and is much more reliable than the results they may get by conducting a generic web search. A Public Resource Directory is especially useful during emergencies or disaster response – when your community has the ability for self-service like this, it will decrease the volume of direct contacts on your staff which reduces wait times or abandoned calls, and lessens stress for your staff members.

Public Web Forms, another self-service option, allows community members to visit your website and complete a customized form that, once submitted, appears in iCarol as a completed Contact Record so you can run reports on the collected data, and disposition and follow-up according to your internal processes. It’s a versatile option that is especially useful in emergencies or disasters when your remote work plan may be activated. If your program needs to screen people for program fund disbursement eligibility, for example, you might expect an overwhelming number of calls about the subject. A Public Web Form would be a suitable replacement to speaking with a staff member. Using the form’s built-in screening tools you can assess and communicate eligibility, then forms submitted by eligible recipients are placed in iCarol for easy assignment and follow-up tasks for your staff.

Summary

If your organization is not already offering remote work options, now is the time to consider it. Having the option for your volunteers and staff to work remotely, either on a temporary basis due to continuity of operations planning during an emergency, or on a more permanent basis, offers many benefits to your workers and your organization. And as you can see from reading through this blog, when you use iCarol, you don’t have to sacrifice service quality, proper supervision, or strong communication and connectivity to build a professional workforce that works away from the office setting.

Given the current situation with COVID-19, we can rapidly deploy and offer low-cost, short term options to help with your community response. Contact us for more information and to get started.

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Getting Started with Remote Work

Working remotely, often synonymous with the phrase “working from home,” has become the norm as technology advances and becomes more accessible, and the availability of online or cloud services expand. While some managers and companies remain skeptical of the benefits of remote work, numerous studies have found that many of the common fears—that employees won’t be productive or can’t be trusted to do the job correctly, or at all, when not in the office—are mostly unfounded. According to information gathered by Gallup, as of 2016, 43% of employees worked remotely in some capacity, and this flexibility leads to more engaged employees, which can improve everything from productivity, profitability, and employee retention.1 A Stanford University study 2 of call center workers found home-work resulted in a 13% performance increase, people took fewer breaks and sick days, and 4% more calls per minute handled thanks in part to a quieter and more convenient working environment. Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and their attrition rate was cut in half.

Not only is remote work increasing in normal, everyday circumstances, but it can become a downright essential alternative in times of emergency like natural or man-made disasters, or during health emergencies or pandemic like we are seeing right now with novel Coronavirus/COVID-19 where people are encouraged or mandated to quarantine or socially distance themselves from one another. Now, more than ever, it’s time to research and plan for the option of remote work as either a temporary or permanent option for your workforce.

How do you get started with having your employees or volunteers working remotely if this is not a current part of your operations? Your remote work plan will be more successful if you spend time on the front-end planning. Here are some ideas:

Write a Remote Work Policy

A remote work policy does not have to cover every single aspect of working from home, but it should outline when and how employees can work outside the office, who is eligible, and any particular protocols to be aware of. It can also cover whether or not the practice is temporary or permanent, legal rights, and other Human Resources specific rules and regulations. There are many templates and examples online that will give you a starting point to work from. Start with any professional listservs, email forums, or other groups that you subscribe or belong to.

Set Expectations

Be sure that any remote worker has read your policy, and understands what is expected of them when working from home. Clearly explain what they are to do, and how they should do it. If their work will be evaluated in a specific way related to remote work, explain this to them so they can be clear on what is expected. Also communicate clearly how they can obtain support or guidance from supervisors in the event they need assistance.

Consider Security

Remote workers might need to access sensitive information to complete their work, so think about their home office setting and the digital security they’ll have in place. Will they be using a personal computer, or one from the office? What types of security applications must they have installed, and what protections does their home network and internet connection provide? Consider consulting with the IT professionals at your workplace and ask for their recommendations.

Provide Support and Supervision

While working remotely has many benefits, one downside sometimes reported by remote workers is a feeling of isolation or missing workplace camaraderie. It’s important to make your remote workers feel as connected as possible to each other and the activities of the organization, and provide them with ample supervision or other supports. Remote workers will still need to be evaluated, have quality performance checks, and be able to easily reach a supervisor for guidance in a given situation. This is not only important for their own effectiveness as an employee, but for the quality of your overall service delivery to the people who contact you.

Run a Pilot Program

A good test run can make any new initiative run more smoothly. If you are looking at adding remote work options to your organization, consider running a pilot program first. A pilot of your remote work plan could involve just a few select workers to start, and be limited to a set period of time to test the plan. Have workers follow the policy, and document what worked for them, and what didn’t. Likewise, from a managerial standpoint you can track what elements you found successful, along with which aspects were unsuccessful and why. Conduct quality assurance measures and evaluate documentation or Live Chat/SMS Transcripts to ensure contacts were handled properly. Analyze sign on logs to check that workers were signed in when they were supposed to be. Based on your findings, you might adjust your policy, make changes and run a new pilot, or use your results to launch your remote work program to more employees and/or for extended periods. Of course, it’s possible that the findings from your pilot may help you determine that remote work isn’t a possibility for your agency at this time.

Choose Technology to Support Remote Workers

All of this careful planning will be worthwhile once you launch your remote work program and start to see the benefits it brings. However, one of the biggest pieces of your preparation plan is making sure you have the tools–more precisely, technology–in place to execute your plan effectively. Processes based in paper and physical files, or in desktop applications that aren’t cloud-based, are very hard to duplicate remotely. How will workers accept and document contacts from their home? How will you provide supervision and coaching when your employee is 20 or more miles away and not at the cubicle next to yours? How will you monitor their work and ensure they are completing their assigned tasks?

Get Started

If you are not currently set up with technology to make your remote work program a success, it’s not too late to get started. In Part 2 of this blog series, we share information about how the tools and features of iCarol not only enable remote work, but enhance your service delivery, improve workforce connectivity, reduce employee attrition, and more.

Sources:
1 Gallup
2 Does Working From Home Work?

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Helplines and Contact Centers Preparing for Coronavirus Response

image of coronavirus

Like many of you, we are closely watching developments related to novel Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, while cases emerge around the world and concerns about the virus intensify.

We recognize that many of our customer organizations have a critical role to play when incidents like these arise. Because of their earned reputations as trustworthy sources of information and support, local helplines and contact centers are often relied upon to engage with their communities and provide reassurance, emotional support, reliable information, and referrals to resources.

Based on our experiences working with our customers during past natural and manmade disasters, you may consider some of the following actions for your organization:

  • Keep relevant, accurate information readily available to give out to your clients as needed. The best sources of information at this time are:
  • Review your own internal disaster/emergency incident policies and procedures to maintain continuity of operations.
  • Familiarize yourself with your local and state agencies that may provide direct services and assistance, such as local Departments of Health and Human Services, and ensure that referral database information is up-to-date for these agencies.
  • Network with your contacts at the aforementioned agencies to remind them of the services you provide and request that your organization be kept abreast of any developments or actions they plan to take, so you can assist in their efforts to inform the public.
  • Consider what data collection elements should be added to your iCarol Contact Form so that any contacts about Coronavirus can be tracked and documented in case you are asked to report on this information.
  • Enable client self-service by including information about your agency’s role, as well as links to official sources of information, on your organization’s website and social media presence.
  • Direct callers to the right extension or audio message containing Coronavirus information by setting up an option in your IVR/Phone tree within your phone system.

iCarol is here to help you with any initiatives you might become engaged in related to Coronavirus, so that you can respond to your community’s needs quickly and efficiently. Options like:

  • Sharing your database of resource information with partner
  • Sharing Contact Forms within your network
  • Providing after-hours or collaborative Call/Chat/SMS response or reporting
and many other partnership options and integrations are readily available.

As community service, iCarol can turn on Contact Record and Resource Database sharing for up to 30 days during a qualified event for no additional cost.

Potential use cases for these kinds of partnerships are:

  • Several contact centers within a state or region need to share a single Resource Database, or view one another’s databases, so they can provide seamless referrals regardless of where in the network the client contacting them is located.
  • Collaborators share Contact Forms so they can all collect consistent data related to the disaster or event, and complete consolidated reporting.
  • When one center must shutdown services at their location and transfer their calls to a partner, their partner can access their Contact Form and Resource Database, to be sure they can fully function as that closed center’s backup until the center can reopen and resume services to their community.

The following iCarol resources may be helpful to you as you research and plan partnerships during an emergency:

ata Exporting, Sharing, and Integrations Options in iCarol

Data Exporting, Sharing, and Integrations Options in iCarol
View
iCarol eBook Do More Together A Guide to Collaborations

Do More Together: A Guide to Collaborations
Download
Using iCarol During a Disaster or Emergency

Using iCarol During a Disaster or Emergency
View

We want to take this opportunity to thank our customers for all their current and future efforts in responding to Coronavirus/ COVID-19. Your dedication to the health and wellbeing of your communities is remarkable and does not go unnoticed by us. Please do not hesitate to reach out to the iCarol Team should you have questions about using your iCarol system to respond to this incident, or need help enabling partnerships and integrations, and we will be happy to assist you.

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January is Stalking Awareness Month

CW: This blog post discusses stalking, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.

January is National Stalking Awareness Month (NSAM), and though millions of men and women are stalked every year in the United States, the crime of stalking is often misunderstood, minimized and/or ignored.


What is “stalking?”

Stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that causes fear. Many stalking victims experience being followed, approached and/or threatened — including through technology. Stalking is a terrifying and psychologically harmful crime in its own right as well as a predictor of serious violence.

Facts about stalking*

injured person with a bruise on their face
  • In 85% of cases where an intimate partner attempted to murder their partner, there was stalking in the year prior to the attack.

  • Of the millions of men and women stalked every year in the United States, over half report being stalked before the age of 25 and over 15% report it first happened before the age of 18.

  • Stalking often predicts and/or co-occurs with sexual and intimate partner violence. Stalkers may threaten sexual assault, convince someone else to commit assault and/or actually assault their victims.

  • Nearly 1 in 3 women who were stalked by an intimate partner were also sexually assaulted by that partner.

  • Stalking tactics might include: approaching a person or showing up in places when the person didn’t want them to be there; making unwanted telephone calls; leaving unwanted messages (text or voice); watching or following someone from a distance, or spying on someone with a listening device, camera, or GPS.

What is the impact on stalking victims?*

packed bag
  • 46% of stalking victims fear not knowing what will happen next.

  • 29% of stalking victims fear the stalking will never stop.

  • 1 in 8 employed stalking victims lose time from work as a result of their victimization and more than half lose 5 days of work or more.

  • 1 in 7 stalking victims move as a result of their victimization.

  • Stalking victims suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social dysfunction than people in the general population.

How you can help

Helpline staff and volunteers can do a number of things to help people who reach you and talk about being stalked:

  • Provide validation and empathy.

  • Don’t minimize behaviors that are causing the person concern (e.g. “I wouldn’t worry.” “That doesn’t sound harmful.” “They’re only text messages.”)

  • Encourage the person to keep keep detailed documentation on stalking incidents and behavior. More information and a template can be found here.

  • Use Stalking Harassment and Risk Profile (SHARP) Risk Assessments at your organization. More information and a template can be found here.

  • Empower and help the person develop a safety plan that is flexible, comprehensive, and contextual. More information can be found in this guide for advocates.

  • If your organization does not provide direct services to assist with the issue, provide helpful resources such as a local domestic/intimate partner violence helpline, sexual assault helpline, legal resources, law enforcement, etc.

We all have a role to play in identifying stalking and supporting victims and survivors. We encourage you to learn more from the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center at www.stalkingawareness.org.

*Source: Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC)

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7 helpline interactions you’ll have on Christmas (or any major holiday)

If you want to witness one of the most challenging yet also most rewarding aspects of helpline work, look to the major holidays. Centers that operate 24/7/365 experience the challenge of staying open all the time and being there for help seekers even on major religious and civic holidays. It can be tough to staff these days, and hard for staff and volunteers to spend a special holiday away from friends and family, but ultimately knowing that you helped someone in their time of need makes the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile.

So what kinds of calls (or chats or texts!) do such services receive on these major holidays?

Hello from a familiar voice

    At any given hotline it’s fairly common to have a population of people both in and outside their communities for whom the helpline is a part of this person’s support network. These folks rely on the helpline as a support system for a number of reasons; limited social and familial relationships, daily coping with mental illness or disabilities, loneliness, or someone simply had a very successful interaction that keeps them coming back for support. Regardless of the reason, helplines should take this caller loyalty as a compliment and endorsement. And you’ll likely hear from these same people on the holidays as well, either to check-in and talk like they normally would, or often with an added “Thank you for being there.”

Surprise!

    More than a handful of times I can recall answering the phone on a major holiday and the person on the other end was baffled by the sound of another human voice. “Oh…hello? Are you a real person?” or “Oh wow, you guys are there today!” Often they were prepared to have to leave a message or were just testing the line. It was nice to hear someone pleasantly surprised that they could speak to another person on a day where so much was going on and so many other services are closed, and it usually made me feel like I was in the right place that day.

I need a meal/toy for my child/counselor/shelter/etc.

    These calls can be a challenge because for many situations, the help seeker isn’t going to be able to get help that day. As mentioned above, many services are closed and it can be tough to give a person referrals but know that their situation may remain in limbo until the holiday has passed. Thankfully in my experience there were at least a handful of non-profits or religious institutions who were open and providing things like hot meals on many holidays, and even those who had last-minute toy giveaways for families with children who hadn’t signed up for such programs in advance. And, even when the referred service isn’t open, you’re able to at least provide empathy and hope which can make a world of difference.

Crises don’t take a day off

    For many people, holidays are more stressful than they are delightful, and actually present a recipe for crisis. Tensions that were simmering below the surface can easily rise up when a person is under stress. And while for most people family gatherings are a happy occasion, for others these get-togethers can easily result in outbursts or even violence. Of course this can happen in a group setting or to someone who is alone. After all, a holiday is just another day, presenting all the same hardships as the day before. There is nothing special about a holiday that can create a foolproof barrier against a crisis or suicidal thoughts — making it all the more critical that someone be available to help talk things through or intervene in some way.

I want to help

    Holidays that put a focus on gratitude and generosity will bring out the best in people. For many, the spirit of giving is coursing through them so much that they’re looking for a last minute opportunity to volunteer somewhere so they can give back to others in need. Unfortunately for these generous people, most organizations have long since filled their need for volunteers on the actual holiday, plus there are application processes and/or training that make it infeasible to accept these spur of the moment offers of volunteerism. Luckily these folks are usually willing to accept referrals to the many organizations in their area that need volunteers year ’round, not just on the holidays, and would hopefully follow through with their plan to help after going through the proper processes.

Holidays are a painful reminder

    For many people the holiday itself can be a cause of negative feelings, and they need someone to vent to. Perhaps they have a particularly bad memory associated with the day or time of year, and pain surfaces as a result. This may be a memory from long ago or something that happened much more recently, but anniversaries tend to make us recall these past events and relive the emotions experienced, good or bad. Some people are grieving a lost loved one, and holidays remind them of the empty seat at the table. For others, seeing people enjoying get-togethers with family and friends shines a painful spotlight on their own loneliness or broken relationships. Being the person that was there for them when they needed it most can be very rewarding.

Thank you

    Perhaps the most heartwarming interaction you can have is with the person who calls just to say “Thanks.” Sometimes they’re people who have used your service in the past. Or, it may just be a person who finds out you’re there on a major holiday and recognizes that by sacrificing some of your time, you’re making a positive impact on others. A simple “Thank you” goes such a long way.

During the holidays we know many of you out there will be spending some time apart from your families as you work to serve your communities. On behalf of all of us here at iCarol, thank you for all you do and we wish you a happy holiday season and bright New Year!

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Breaking Down Employment Barriers

Guest Blogger Elizabeth Hassett Schmidt, M.S., is Director, Workforce Development at VIA. Elizabeth oversees the programs and staff in VIA’s workforce development department in collaboration with our local, state and national partners.

Guest blogger views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CharityLogic and iCarol.

Since 1907, VIA, formerly the Olmsted Center for Sight, has remained the leading organization providing comprehensive vision rehabilitation, education, and employment services to individuals of all ages throughout the eight-county region of Upstate New York.

Our Mission: To help people who are blind or visually impaired achieve their highest level of independence.

Our vision is to be recognized as the Center for Excellence for blind and visually impaired (B/VI) children and adults by promoting independence, empowerment, inclusion, and hope. Each year, over 2,500 people benefit from vision rehabilitation, education, and employment services provided by VIA. We are the only Western NY organization providing a full spectrum of services with trained/certified vision rehabilitation professionals. We are located on part of the larger Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a 120-acre world-class collaboration of medical providers existing to better the community we live in.

Our vocational training and workforce development programs have a statewide and national reach supporting students from over thirty-seven states who seek our training for employment. Our hospitality curriculum was the only program of its kind at inception in 1998, and today we remain a leader in vocational programs for the blind and visually impaired with curriculums ranging from Telecommunications, Customer Service, Office Software, Transcription, to Food Service Preparation. In 2017, VIA invested in, developed and implemented a distance learning platform to allow potential candidates the ability to participate from anywhere in the country. This interactive platform now houses all of our traditional in-house training to offer more flexibility for clients especially those in rural areas and to graduate more employees to meet workforce demands.

The purpose of VIA’s “Breaking Employment Barriers” initiative is to convey to employers the benefits of hiring people who are B/VI not solely to celebrate diversity and inclusion, but because it makes sense to their companies’ bottom line.

The 2019, State of the Workforce, Labor Market Snapshot provided by NYATEP (New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals), examined workforce needs and training/educational output to understand who is working and who isn’t and the “number of potential workers produced by New York’s education and training systems.”1

Among the key findings of this report were:

  • New York must grow its labor force by maximizing underutilized labor such as young adults and persons with disabilities.
  • Workforce development is a core aspect of the State’s economic development and programs that promote education and skills development directly correlate to wages and therefore an increase in skilled labor directly affects the overall incomes of New Yorkers.

Nationwide, individuals with disabilities have an unemployment rate of 67.9%2 and individuals with blindness or vision loss have an unemployment rate of 63%3, yet we know that with education and skills training, the complete inverse of these numbers is possible. In fact, OCS boasts a placement rate for graduates of our vocational programs of 82% employment in competitive, integrated employment in New York State and 77% employment in competitive, integrated employment for graduates nationally. We know from experience that the complete inverse of employability is possible when skills training occurs and when employers are knowledgeable about the B/VI population as an underutilized workforce. In New York State alone, the population of working-age persons who report significant vision loss or blindness is 410,103, with the number of working-age B/VI persons between the transitioning ages (10-18) group and 18-64 years old group at 19,6704. These numbers do not even include already employed workers who may be experiencing significant vision loss on the job with no knowledge of how to stay employed and an employer who may not know what simple accommodations could retain an already trained employee. We believe those numbers to be significant.

In order to address the need for a skilled, trained workforce, VIA seeks to match employers to this underutilized, able workforce by breaking barriers of common misconceptions or lack of knowledge of what it means to “hire blind”.

We understand that most hiring managers are not aware of the abilities of people who are blind or visually impaired because they simply have had no exposure in their own workplace or careers. The occurrence of blindness and visual impairment among people of typical working age is approximately 1.1%5 with extremely low employment presence in the general labor force.

However, the lack of blind and visually impaired in the workplace has nothing to do with talent, skill or ability – more so, it’s a reflection on the difficulty associated with finding employment and eliminating the barriers of an employer’s lack of exposure and knowledge.

The BEB focuses on answering typical questions about hiring the blind and visually impaired such as:

  • How does a blind person use the computer?
  • How do they get to work on time?
  • How do they find their desk or the breakroom?
  • What will my staff say?
  • How much will it cost me to hire someone who is blind?
  • WHY should I hire someone who is blind?

In reality, there are very few jobs that are not able to be accommodated for a blind or low vision person— simple accommodations such as screen reading software, magnification, color contrast, lighting, and other adaptations can open up the door to a pool of potential employees with natural skill set that in some ways outperform sighted counterparts.

For example, a skilled screen reader user may navigate digital content with higher speed and accuracy due to the ability to use keyboard commands to search and answer specific content areas and, because the auditory skill allows a screen reader user to access a greatly increased speech rate thus cutting down on listening and response time in a call center — allowing for higher productivity and performing rates. The use of dual headset technology- screen reader in one ear and caller in the other – is something that most call center hiring managers have never seen in action and when they witness the speed, accuracy, and performance of a blind CSR agent, their understanding of labor market is never the same again!

There are different assistive technology tools that B/VI might use in the workplace. Assistive technology (AT) refers to hardware and software that enable people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of the job. For those who are blind, the main AT are screen readers, screen magnifiers, braille displays, and speech recognition software.

Screen readers

A screen reader is a program that analyzes the layout and content of a website and provides a text to speech translation. The playback speed rate can be set by the user and keyboard commands allow them to skip from heading to heading, click links, and complete other important tasks on the computer. Much like how a sighted person can visually skim a website to find the section they want to read, a person who is blind can do the same with their screen reader—as long as the content has been coded properly.

Screen magnifiers

Have you ever pinched to zoom on a touchscreen device? If the answer is yes, you have used a small part of assistive technology. For individuals with low vision, it is helpful to magnify a section of the screen so that they can read easily.

Screen magnification can happen by using in-page controls, system setup tools, and accessible level zooms.

Refreshable braille displays

A braille display is a flat keyboard-like device that translates text into braille and enables blind individuals to interact with digital platforms using only their fingers.

Speech recognition

Dictation software allows a user to navigate, type, and interact with digital content using their voice.

WHY should I hire someone who is blind?

Because it makes smart business sense and there are no additional costs to hiring a B/VI person versus a sighted person. Blind and Visually Impaired employees have: Low attrition rates. Hiring blind employees can actually improve staff stability for your company. Because hiring barriers are so difficult for a blind person to overcome in the first place, blind persons tend to be “company people” in that they are very loyal and tend to be long term employees with very low attrition rates and very low absenteeism.

Creativity/Problem-Solving – The world in which we operate is a visual world- this puts those with vision loss at a disadvantage. In order to overcome daily obstacles and challenges, the blind and visually impaired have to problem solve and create workaround solutions to encumbrances they face every day. This type of problem-solving and the ability not to get “ruffled” is a huge asset when looking for behavioral-based responses in screening potential employees.

For Federal Contractors – it’s the law – Section 503 of the 2014 Rehabilitation Act6, applies to all federal contractors and established a 7% hiring goals for companies to hire persons with disabilities and data collection on the number of persons with disabilities who apply for hire. Hiring blind or visually impaired can help federal contractors meet this requirement.

Tax Credits – the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides a tax credit for each new employee hired who was referred by their state vocational rehabilitation agency- this arm of each state government exists to provide employment services to people with disabilities. Most states have additional tax incentives for hiring persons with disabilities. Working with your state’s VR agency that serves the blind and visually impaired can introduce your company to a host of different training and try-out incentives to support the hiring of that individual including salary compensation during the try-out.

Customer service/Conflict management – It is true; when one sense is impaired the other senses are heightened in skill. For blind and visually impaired, this can mean an increase in auditory skills— not just the speed at which a BVI person can listen to screen reading materials but also the ability to really listen and pick up on personality and emotions expressed by a customer. Often times, in the areas of customer service and conflict resolution, the blind are quickly able to pick up on a caller or customer’s tone and quickly diffuse a potential conflict.

Increase your Consumer Market – Businesses that are in tune with diversity and inclusivity are not only opening the door to a potential workforce but also opening the door to a new population of customers. Once a company has the barrier of accessibility within their purview of hiring, they open up the door to attracting a consumer base that is able to access digital media and interact with the company which will grow the customer base. Find out about the demand occupations in New York State and how you may need needs by hiring diverse by accessing the NYS Department of labor site here: https://labor.ny.gov/workforcenypartners/lwda/lwda-occs.shtm

So, how do I go about finding potential employees who are Blind or Visually Impaired in my state and what supports are available to me?

By contacting your state VR agency. Under the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), state VR agencies are required to provide services to businesses in addition to the services they provide to persons with disabilities. This is meant to bridge the gap between participant and employer at no cost to an employer. In this way, your state VR agency can learn more about what your workforce needs are and provide qualified applicants. In addition to this, the VR agency can assist with:

  • Work Try-Outs, On the Job Training Support, Internships at no cost to an employer
  • Disability awareness/sensitivity training/etiquette in the workplace for staff
  • Jobsite assessments for accessibility
  • Job analysis of skills required for potential referrals
  • Education about financial incentives for hiring BVI
  • Assistance with accommodations for a new hire
  • Assistive technology evaluations to determine what software may be used to accommodate for a new hire
  • Post-hire follow up and ongoing employer relationship to a pipeline of talent

In NY State, you can contact the New York State Commission for the Blind- https://ocfs.ny.gov/main/cb/employers.asp

In other states, you can find your state’s VR agency listed here7: www.ntac.blind.msstate.edu/information-and-resources/ncsab/

And, of course, you can contact non- profit agencies such as the VIA (www.olmstedcenter.org) to ask about our free Breaking Employment Barriers initiative and our trained graduates who can meet your company’s needs.

The Breaking Employment Barriers initiative will:

  1. Make you aware of the advantages that hiring B/VI bring to the organization
  2. Show you how BVI perform customer service-based jobs as any other person
  3. Challenge myths about B/VI by answering questions you may have

Learn more about our Breaking Down Employment Barriers by clicking here: https://olmstedcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/BEB-Pamphelt.pdf

To Contact VIA or to arrange a BEB, please email us at Breakingbarriers@olmstedcenter.org or call us at 716-878-0543.

1 NYATEP.org; State of the Workforce- A labor Market Snapshot for New York;2019
2 Mississippi State University; National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision; blind.msstate.edu; “Blind People Can’t Perform This Job…Or Can They?”
3 Ibid.
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016) (Unpublished data tables of specific disability questions in Current Population Survey, 2015 Annual Averages). Washington., DC
5 Mississippi State University; National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision; blind.msstate.edu; “Blind People Can’t Perform This Job…Or Can They?”
6 US Dept. of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (2014) ; Section 503
7 Mississippi State University; National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision;blind.msstate.edu;”blind People Can’t Perform This Job…Or Can They?”

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Stronger Together: iCarol Supports Collaborations and Integrations

In the industry we serve, collaboration is key. iCarol customers often need to join together with partners — another helpline, Community Based Organization (CBO), funder, or government office — to provide continuity of care to people in need, obtain funding, and enhance their relevance and marketability as a community partner and vital provider of services. At iCarol, we see it as part of our mission and stewardship of that data to help our customers harness it to do more.

What types of collaborations do our customers engage in?

  • Sharing Resource Databases or Contact Forms with other contact centers in their statewide or regional network
  • Making warm transfers to other service providers
  • Engaging in after-hours call handling agreements
  • Sharing service inventories/resource database records with local libraries, hospitals, and other interested entities
  • Dispatching Mobile Crisis Teams or other services to people in need
  • And much, much more!

We’ve helped so many customers with such a variety of collaboration project, we even wrote an eBook to share our knowledge and help organizations get their projects off the ground.

Explore the many options for collaboration and integration using iCarol

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iCarol at the National Crisis Center Conference

Salt Lake City skyline

This week, Polly McDaniel, Director of Business Development, and Veronica Ross, Solutions Expert, are joining crisis center directors and staff from across the US at the National Crisis Center Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Reaching the Summit: Innovate to Elevate.” Of the theme, organizers say, “During times of division and uncertainty, crisis organizations are needing to use their collective creative energies to remain relevant and sustainable. But challenging times can bring out the best in crisis organizations. We are excited to hear what innovative and creative programs and approaches are being implemented by our crisis organization colleagues.”

At iCarol, we are strong proponents of innovation as a means for a crisis center’s growth, improved efficiency, and better outcomes for the people they serve. We’re very excited to partake in the conversations at the conference this year, and to see how we can help crisis centers innovate to elevate their service delivery.

The two entities presenting this conference, CONTACT USA (CUSA) and the National Association of Crisis Organization Directors (NASCOD) have a phenomenal history of supporting crisis work and we recommend considering membership for your service if you are a helpline, warmline, crisis center, suicide prevention service, or similar organization. By joining them you’ll discover fantastic networking and knowledge sharing from caring individuals who can relate to your day-to-day joys and challenges as a manager or executive director of a not-for-profit. Find out more about CUSA membership here and NASCOD membership here.

Our history with this group and conference is our longest association, going way back to iCarol’s earliest days, and many of the helplines and crisis centers who host this conference were some of iCarol’s earliest users. It’s a long standing relationship that we value and we’re proud to not only attend but are also long-term sponsors of this important gathering organized by pillars of the helpline industry.

As with all conferences we attend, we welcome the opportunity to connect with old friends and new ones. We’re eager to hear about your latest projects and discuss ways iCarol can support you and the needs of your community. Both Polly and Veronica will be on hand throughout the conference to answer questions and talk about how iCarol can help. We look forward to seeing you!

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“Shredding” Personally Identifiable Information from Contact Records

shredder shredding paper

Paper-based files of all sorts—bank statements, tax records, pay stubs, receipts—can typically be destroyed after a period of time when they will no longer be needed. Depending upon an organization’s internal policies and the laws and regulations by which they must abide, not-for-profit organizations may choose to shred some or all client files after a period of time as well.

With paper files now being digitized, and new data usually collected electronically, the concept of “shredding” takes on new meaning. Instead of literally shredding paper through a machine, electronic files are permanently deleted and erased from storage, whether they be on a hard drive or in the cloud.

One of the best practices seen highlighted within regulations such as GDPR is that an organization should only collect the data that is absolutely necessary for service delivery, especially if that data could be used to identify someone. So, unless it is essential for your organization to collect data such as a person’s name, phone number, social security number, etc. in order to carry our your work, it’s best to never collect it at all.

When you’re speaking over the phone with a person in need, you have control over whether or not to record information shared during the conversation inside your contact management system. However, if you’re communicating by Live Chat or SMS/Text Message, the person in need may share personal information with you that’d you’d prefer not be permanently documented, and if transcripts are automatically generated and stored, that private and personally identifying information may be stored whether you like it or not.

In iCarol, you have the choice whether or not your Live Chat and SMS/Texting transcripts are brought into your contact management system, or if they disappear immediately after the conversation ends, protecting personally identifiable data and allowing your organization to align such data collection and storage with your own internal policies. Further, organizations who wish to keep this information long enough for supervision purposes, but do not wish to retain it long term, have many options within the system to decide when to destroy the information. The capability to electronically “shred” potentially identifying information from your iCarol Contact Records is applied to any documentation recorded in your forms, whether it be data from calls, walk-in visits, chats, SMS/text conversations, public website intake forms, or any other interactions you document.

What gets “shredded?”

We understand that most organizations will wish to keep the data that isn’t classified as personally identifiable information, for instance demographics, issues or needs, and other non-identifying data that is important for reporting purposes. If you choose to utilize the automatic shredding function within iCarol, only certain areas of your Contact Records are effected. Text-entry fields where you might enter names, addresses, phone numbers, contact notes, etc. are deleted. Drop-down, check box, and other pick list type data is retained. For a full explanation of how to set these preferences, as well as more detailed information about what is deleted or retained, customers can sign in to iCarol, navigate to the “Help” section, and search for “Shred” within our help articles. If you’re not yet a customer and interested in learning more, please contact us!

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