2023 wellbeing journey: AVID Detention

Written by Miranda Reilly, Co-Director for Membership and Operations at AVID Detention

December 1, 2023
5 min read
Murmuration of birds behind Blackpool pier in the evening sun

Photo by Paul Berry on Unsplash


This time last year we took part in the Refugee Action Discovery Project on how to improve the wellbeing of people working in the migration, refugee and asylum sector.

This question was pertinent for us at the time, and continues to be so, with many of the findings from the report resonating with the team including:

  • The need for connection in a predominately remote working environment and as a fairly young team with half of our team of four - myself included - having joined less than six months prior to starting the project.
  • Challenges maintaining boundaries, switching off from work and overwork in response to an ever-increasing demand as we grappled with immigration detention expansion. 
  • A sense of powerlessness whilst facing constant crises and the overwhelmingly hostile political climate.

Where to start

Having taken part in the project, Aminata (another member of the AVID team) and I met and discussed some of the wellbeing ideas and what might work in the context of our small and remote team. Amongst other things, we discussed options including rest and recharge days, regular in-person meetings and training on vicarious trauma. 

I confidently went away to draft a wellbeing policy to propose to the team and get input from the Refugee Action working group. However, I quickly came unstuck. The wellbeing policy was becoming increasingly unwieldy as I tried to capture the multi-faceted nature of our wellbeing needs across accountability mechanisms, flexible working and mental health resources.

A system approach

This was an important first lesson – individual wellbeing cannot be viewed separately from the wider organisational systems. I was reminded of a recent training session I had been on, through NEON’s OrgBuilders programme, on conflict and decision-making. The trainer had started the session by showing us an image of a starling murmuration in which the starlings seamlessly move through the sky from one place to the next. Likewise, he explained, a healthy organisation will work as a functioning whole with its members working together, connected by various organisational systems. A related analogy is to consider a wilting plant. To support the plant to grow we might try to prop it up with sticks or tape. Or a more successful approach would be to look at the conditions that have led it to wilt and focus on improving those conditions.

In the same training session, the trainer explained that within our own organisations there will be many systems at work, some informal (e.g. unofficial norms and practices, social networks and culture) and some formal (e.g. organisational policies, structure and communication channels). If we are not purposeful about these systems, then they will develop organically, and this might not be in the way that we want them to. For example, skipping lunch breaks could be something that gradually seeps into the organisational culture.  

Our systems

At the same time as being part of Refugee Action’s working group on wellbeing, we have been going through a number of other organisational changes including a strategy review and team restructure. The journey has not been linear and as neat as I am about to make it sound, but this has enabled us to look at wellbeing in conjunction with our wider organisational systems. 

For example, as outlined in the Wellbeing Discovery Report, it is extremely important that people’s values align with their work, especially in a sector people have joined because they care deeply about the cause. Our strategy process has provided us with the opportunity to reflect on our mission and values. In one session, and as part of this process, we all drew the world that we wished to be part of, using this to consolidate our organisational mission. Working in a context which can render you feeling powerless, this was an important exercise to instil hope and alignment. Throughout the process we have invited feedback at every stage, from the team, trustees and our wider network. Whilst this has taken longer, this has been important both as a team building exercise and to make sure that we all feel connected to the organisational strategy and can see ourselves in its mission. We have now finalised our strategy and, marking our commitment to wellbeing, we have incorporated the need to develop our internal infrastructure in a bid to promote wellbeing as one of our five strategic goals. 

Another big change for us in this period has been an organisational restructure to a co-director model. This has only recently come into place, but the process first started last year. An ongoing wellbeing challenge for us has been clarity over roles, responsibilities and decision-making processes as we have established working dynamics in a new team and whilst working remotely. The move to co-directorship is one that has enabled us to enhance leadership in the organisation and work in a way that is true to our values. It has also provided the opportunity to invite further feedback from the team and be intentional in regard to our working dynamics. Prior to the restructure, we set out the principles by which we want to lead. One that is particularly pertinent in this context is the commitment to ensure that everyone is able to take ownership of their role in AVID, whilst remaining connected and accountable to our broader mission and one another. 

Alongside these processes, we have also established regular in person team-days which now take place once a quarter. This has made a big difference to feeling connected to one another, building relationships and giving space for reflection and to reconnect with our mission. One of these days happened to fall the same day that the Illegal Migration Act came into law. I was particularly grateful for the space as we threw all of our plans out of the window and focused on simply being together in this moment. At our most recent team day, to acknowledge the cultural diversity of our team, we all shared three things that make us proud of our culture (defining culture in the way that felt most true to each of us) and one that concerns us. This had surprising results and gave a window into the way that our cultures have influenced how we approach work, leading to greater understanding amongst the team.

Over a six-month period, we have also piloted team supervision with each member of the team being offered 1:1 supervision alongside two group supervision sessions with a trained facilitator in restorative practice. The group sessions took some adjustment to get used to, moving from the rush and responsiveness of our day-to-day work to a space to decompress, reflect and imagine. In one of the sessions we were asked - using a dot on a large piece of paper to represent each of us - to connect the dots with a piece of string in order to envisage the lines of connection amongst the team and how these change as the team grows. 

From here, we discussed our relationships to one another including the power we hold, what is working and what barriers there are to connecting with one another. Having these spaces has not only opened up dialogue within those spaces but – I believe – has also led to more honest and ongoing feedback amongst the team in general. This has meant greater awareness of where there are challenges to be resolved, even if they are not immediately solvable. 

Where are we now?

So, what happened to the wellbeing policy you may ask!

Only now am I returning to the wellbeing and mental health policy, having looked at it alongside other, related organisational policies including our flexible working policy, leave policy and appraisal process. In our wellbeing and mental health policy, we have consolidated our ongoing wellbeing commitments to the team including an annual survey, role modelling from line management, supervision, and a trustee wellbeing sub-committee. 

I have learnt through this year that there is no easy fix to enhance wellbeing in our organisations. But, whilst a policy won’t provide all of the answers, it was at least a way to start! 

On one final note, an interesting reflection for me when writing this blog is that I felt a sense of guilt when describing some of the work that we have done. It crossed my mind that when reading this someone might think “why are they spending their time doing this with everything that is happening in immigration detention?” And this is exactly the point of the original discovery project – we must move away from the idea that it is us or the cause. If we are to sustain efforts in a way that work towards a longer-term vision, wellbeing must be at the heart. And, in doing so, we can create the types of communities we wish to see – by doing so within our own organisations, however small.