After many years of living and working in London as Director of the Attlee Foundation and before that, St James’s House, a vocational training charity for people with mental health problems, Helena returned home to Devon to become the CEO of Devon Air Ambulance.

Although to many it might not seem like long ago, in 2007 the climate in many organisations was very different. Many people will have struggled to fit into a work environment shaped by a culture of presenteeism, but a lot can happen in a decade. From a career that focused so much on tackling barriers to employment, Heléna brought with her the empathy and insight that was also forged in her own adverse experience to help move things forward positively for her team.

Small changes for a better balance

As a single parent to a little autistic lad (now 15) who is also deaf, and beginning school just at the time Heléna was taking the helm of a busy and demanding charity, some simple, yet transformative, adjustments were clearly necessary. Helena says,

When I joined Devon Air Ambulance, management meetings were at 8.30am, which is ambitious for most parents to achieve when juggling the school-run anyway. Rather than struggling against the traffic and the odds to get to an impossibly-timed meeting, it made sense to simply move that meeting to a little later in the day.

Helena acknowledges the receptiveness of the then Chair of Trustees, Doug Shopland, in adapting the existing structures. It's clear that many routine meetings can easily be adjusted to better accommodate the realities staff face, and these adjustments can benefit the whole organisation.

Strength from adversity

For Heléna, with frequent interruptions from the school that was struggling to handle her son’s needs and required her intervention, as well a protracted education-free period for her son while more fitting solutions were sought, flexible working was imperative if the charity were to benefit from the significant skills and experience she offered.

‘I was lucky,’ says Heléna. ‘I had a great deal of support from my mum, who could step in and offer childcare on dates that were very much ‘non-flexible’. We also received a great deal of essential support from CEDA (Community Education Disability and Action), a charity that provides learning, enabling and social opportunities to disabled adults, children and young people across Devon.

Without these allies, and like so many women, I would most likely not be able to work in a capacity beyond occasional shift work in a context in which my skills and experience couldn’t be fully used.

Indeed, Heléna’s obstacles were significant, but as CEO she was also in a position to help shape the culture of the environment she was responsible for managing.

‘A family-friendly culture is very important,’ says Heléna. ‘Not only for women, but for men too. This is a societal issue, but in my role there is scope to help influence that culture to better suit modern life.’

Heléna implemented options for staff to be able to work from home if necessary and at short notice. In the digital age it’s a lot easier for many workers to work remotely. This is less easy, of course, for staff who work across the 19 shops, but Heléna understands the importance of being accommodating of staff who, for whatever reason, are obliged to accommodate long-term sickness, or significant personal setbacks.

‘Staff are already highly committed to their work at Devon Air Ambulance. It is a cause that unites us all and there are those among our team who have themselves had need of the service,’ says Heléna. ‘From my point of view there’s never been any need to compel people to ‘give their all’ as it is very clear they already do, and are very keen to ‘play their part’ - especially in the event that they are faced by personal adversity at some point.’

At the charity the preferred approach is to give staff access to the options that will help to keep them on board. Not only is recruitment a very expensive and time-consuming process, but it’s important for the charity to hold onto the talent, knowledge and skills it attracts to help it to flourish. Therefore, flexibility and understanding of mental and physical health needs are essential to enable people to be good at their job and remain committed to the organisation.

Investing in skills is also very important,’ says HR Advisor for the charity, Melanie Stevens. ‘A number of staff who now occupy senior positions have been nurtured from within the organisation through training that helps individuals to execute and develop their role.

Melanie herself was supported in working towards her current position in the Office Management Team, having begun her time with the charity in reception.

‘The organisations that invest in training for their staff will understand the value of holding onto them,’ says Melanie. ‘Flexible working, empathy and some insight into the realities individuals face beyond work, helps to ensure people use their abilities and their training productively. Importantly, this approach directly benefits those we serve as a charity.’

For Heléna this is good business sense. Nevertheless, she feels there is still some distance for the charity to travel, in part due to the nature of some of the higher paying roles.

‘We still have a disproportionate number of men to women at the top of the payscale, says Heléna. ‘For example, aircrew work shifts that don’t always finish ‘on time’ and most parents have childcare arrangements in place that are often immovable. We are interested in offering part-time options for roles such as these because often childcare still befalls the mother, though increasingly, we hear from fathers who would also like to fit work around family life. Our aspiration is to ensure parity between men and women in the workplace by offering the flexibility that can help assist with that.’

Rather like the charity itself, which has been created by and for the people of Devon, there is a clear symbiosis between the organisation and its staff: they serve one another and by being accommodating of the needs of the individual, important work is done.

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