Mental health and wellbeing in online communities


Darren Gough & Dr Richard Graham

In this session from DevRelCon London 2019, Darren Gough and Dr. Richard Graham examine some of the main challenges faced by community managers, and consider the impact ‘technostress’ has on the wellbeing of both the community manager and the community members


Darren: Thank you so much for taking the time to join me this morning, myself and Dr. Richard. Christie, thanks for the warm introduction. Although my name’s actually Darren Gough, not ‘Go’, even though I’ve known you for about seven or eight years and we used to be neighbours in southwest London at one point. My name is Darren Gough. If any of you have come to see the cricketer or the Strictly Come Dancing winner, that’s not me. Apologies, and if you wanna leave that’s absolutely fine. But we are to talk about today is mental health and well being in communities. We have a couple introduction slides just to give some context to the type of things that we’ve done.

So as Christie said, I worked with Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert, for the best part of a decade. For those of you are overseas colleagues that might not know Martin or Money Saving Expert, it’s an independent consumer journalistic financial website that’s been going since about 2003. I joined Martin in 2005 and we built a community there from a standing start to about 1.8 million over nine years with a huge amount of traffic and engagement and content. Subsequently went to work for someone called Richard Millington. I’m sure a few of you will be familiar with and the fantastic work he does at FeverBee. And now, as Christie said, I have my own company, and we work with the NHS and with Richard on mental health under the Good Thinking Program.

Richard: Yeah, I’m Richard Graham, and I’m kind of the reverse of what Christie was saying. I’m a psychiatrist who, for a while, kind of did some work on a site called the Big White Wall as a community manager, effectively. But have been, after training in child psychiatry, I’ve been working in digital health for about 10 years now. Currently working on the Good Thinking Program, which we’ll tell you about, but also have worked with Internet Safety Council, so know a lot of the issues around moderation and risk as well as most recently also consulting to the BBC around the Own It app, which I think is a really exciting opportunity to help young people have a good start in the online world when they get their first smartphone. So it’ll unfold a bit more.

Darren’s gonna talk about his experience, and I’m gonna try and bring some of the current thinking from mental health to what we can do to support ourselves and each other in this evolving world. I just thought it would be good to start off with thinking about what mental health is and what we’re even striving for. ‘Cause often we’re talking about mental ill health when we’re discussing mental health, talking about anxiety, depression, not sleeping, and those sorts of symptoms. But actually, I think this principle from the World Health Organization of the things that we should be striving for, that really do make you happier and actually critically help you function better, and we’re gonna come back to that time and again during this keynote. Seems really helpful, I think. It’s quite a positive view. It’s about being able to realize your potential.

So all the barriers and obstacles in our cultures, organizations that block that are not good for your mental health. Being supported and coping with stress and learning things that help you manage that, having that opportunity to be productive and have a sense of efficacy in your work, really critical, and then being able to make a contribution to your community. And of course, that now is online. What I do want to unpack a bit is I think we’ve got a problem in mental health at the moment that a lot of the models we’re still talking about are looking backwards to the last century. And so, although anxiety and depression, of course, still exist and there are biological aspects to those, I think what we’re picking up, which Darren’s now gonna talk much more about, is the degree of stress and burnout that people in your sector are struggling with and beyond.

A lot of the work from burnout comes from air traffic controllers and healthcare workers, et cetera. So I’m going to talk a bit more about that because I think you do need to approach things a bit differently. And this was born of our work with Good Thinking, which was recognizing that one in six Londoners in any one week will be having a mental health problem, but will not want or will not be accessing the support, 2/3 of people will not be receiving support. So we started to dig a bit deeper into why, and here’s a little video that I hope is gonna work to show you what this fresh approach to mental health is trying to do.

[Video plays]

Richard: So that’s the sort of principle of something accessible for everyone, and without a lot of the barriers that you’d find if you wanted to access services in the traditional way. We’re gonna be saying a lot more about the apps and some of the thinking around self assessment after Darren’s described a bit more about this perspective of why this has become such an important part of our program.

Darren: Yeah, I hope the video was worth the wait. I think it’s a fantastic program that we work on there. Just out of curiosity, how many people in the room are community managers, work in community, work in those sort of spaces? Okay, quite a few of you, okay that’s great.

So I wanna talk a little bit about sort of the history of how I got into this and why I think mental health’s so important. So during my time at Money Saving Expert, the first couple of years that we had started the community was really a bolt on. It was a piece of free software and we thought if a couple of hundred people turn up and talk about money that would be great. And over the first few years it was quite manageable. We went through the hundreds and the thousands of members, and that was all great. When we got to about year four, year five, it started to have the hockey stick appeal.

So the community grew quite quickly, and a lot of people, we started to notice, were talking about mental health issues, so much so that I came in one Friday morning to a handwritten letter, which even back in sort of 2008, 2007, was quite unusual. And the letter was from a single parent who had written to tell me that two years previously they’d got to a point where their financial debt was so bad that they actually decided to put their child into care and commit suicide. And this is about a minute past nine on a Friday morning. So at that point my heart’s beating, my blood goes a bit cold. And I have to go out and sort of put this into context. And I was worried about reading the rest of the letter. But actually, the letter was an optimistic letter, and what they said is they’d found our community through a word of mouth recommendation the two years previously.

Come to the community and found not just information and knowledge to help them get out of debt, but also met like-minded people who had been through similar situations who could empathize with them and help them with their emotional needs. When we started to think a bit more about that and we did some work with a group of communities in the U.K., Mumsnet, The Student Room, The Guardian, people like that, and we found that within all our communities mental health issues were being talked about. And not necessarily on the surface, but when you started to delve into the community you could find these substratas of conversation.

One such community is Piston Heads. I wanted to pull this out as an example. So for those of you who don’t know Piston Heads, it’s a sort of car enthusiast community of people that do modifications and race cars and go to shows and that kind of thing. But they discovered there was a subcommunity within the Piston Heads. It was called the Gassing Station in their community, of long distance lorry drivers. And these people were doing considerable distance in their lorries, arriving in places they didn’t know, meeting people they didn’t know, spending a huge amount of time away from family and friends. And they were displaying symptoms of mental health. And not just that, the effects on their bodies was huge. But they’d broken down geographic boundaries and found other people that were sharing similar symptoms and were able to talk about it.

But when we talk about communities, I think there’s two things we need to focus on. The first one is the communities themselves and how we help our members. The type of things that members need and they want. But we know that members can be quite demanding. They expect their thing to be answered quickest. The demands on the community manager are quite high.

And I think also we need to put out the role of the community manager. In my experience there are some great people out there doing work around building community structure, but not enough is done to support the community managers themselves and their mental health needs. Community managers find it very difficult to shut off. They find it very difficult to leave their community alone. And ultimately they’re burning out. And that really scares me. Community in its current form is only a, I would argue about a 10 to 15 year old profession. We can argue about timeline, but it’s relatively new. And these people are not just leaving their jobs, but they’re leaving the industry as well. And that’s a really scary place for us to be, and we need to do more to support these.

And by the way, if any of you are about to start a community or have a small community or are growing a community, invest in community management, one of the biggest paths to failure I always see, is that people spend huge amounts of money on software, and there’s some fantastic software out there, there is, there’s some representatives in the room, and they’ve spent very little budget on the actual training of and support of the community managers themselves. So ultimately the communities fail. If you take one thing away and you just do one thing, if you’re gonna do community, invest in the people that run community, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Richard: I think this is your special moment.

Darren: Oh it is my slide. So anyway, we’re gonna talk to a lot of community managers. This is the kind of reaction we get a lot of the time, is hallelujah. So many community managers feel so isolated, as Christie mentioned. I wrote a blog last year called “The Lone Ranger Community Manager,” just talking about the affect of isolation on community managers. Too often they don’t know where to go, they don’t know where to find the information, and they’re also curious to know whether other community managers are suffering in the same way that they’re suffering. To just have this revelation that there are other people out there that are going through these same sort of challenges. It’s hugely important and it just gets the conversation started.

Richard: Are you gonna talk about the feedback?

Darren: You can do it, you can talk about it.

Richard: Well, perhaps we’ll come back to that. Well, actually no, it is relevant at this point isn’t it, that in your conversations with community managers in some of the round tables that we’ve held with, what we were finding, and this kind of really changed my mind set was that people working remotely, at home a lot of the time, were getting so stressed, finding it so difficult to switch off, and actually finding it very difficult to connect with others in the same situation.

So these are some of the quotes that we got from the community managers talking to us about these challenges. As I say, it led me down a particular path of thinking about what we can do then. So coming together was really helpful, just talking about out loud that becoming more self aware of what’s happening, burning out massively, looking for resources to assign most people to or try to use themselves and then looking at how to get support in other ways.

So I got interested in this. And you’ll be very familiar with type of model of how the working world has changed. And lots of things should, in theory, make working life easier at working remotely and having greater flexibility, and of course in many ways it does. But there are challenges. Now a lot of the work on stress has focused on organizations, working relationships and practice.

We did, at Good Thinking, partner with Fresh Egg who did some social listening, they’re Google Partners. Obviously, there are lots of other things that are stressful. These were just from Londoners searching for mental health support online, often issues about work, being unemployed, money worries, so a money savings expert absolutely in the right place. Lots of issues about the local community and the stress of living in London with its different challenges, and then relationship issues. So not everything is about work.

But what I was thinking about was this sort of, and I’d done some previous work working with gamers, teenagers who would be playing World of Warcraft 36 hours at a time and so on, about how we understood that. And the model of addiction kept being used, but in a conversation with Nicola Millard, at British Telecom, who is a fantastic person, if you ever come across her, she introduced me to the concept, an old one, of technostress and how the way we’re interfacing with the technology itself may be playing a part in terms of some of the stress of the work.

So there’s techno-overload, being forced to work faster and do more work. Being able to, the techno-invasion being reached everywhere you are at any time. And then of course working with teams across different time zones adds to that. The complexity of the technology, learning, and understanding new applications, the insecurity, short-term contracts, not knowing really at what point technology might replace the work you’re doing, and then this uncertainty about how this whole space is evolving that keeps us all sort of on edge, not really knowing what will happen next. And that took me further down the road, then of thinking about burnout.

And as I said, burnout was something that was first described in the 70s following research, first of all, on air traffic controllers in the late 60s when people were traveling much more. The air traffic controllers really, and a lot of these were ex-military, had experienced a theater of war, were being stressed out by the work, and until there was midair collisions there was no change to their working practices, and it related to a massive increase in traffic, to new technology, also monotonous automated processes that were actually not satisfying yet very challenging and risky if you didn’t complete them.

So lots of things came together to really stress out those individuals, and they developed sort of, they changed, in a way, three particular ways that seems to be core to this concept of burnout, which is now thoroughly researched, and it might be something that you will recognize in yourself or others. There’s the – well, often, the first one is to feel exhausted. Often emotionally exhausted. And that kind of tips into the first one of being disengaged. Kind of, being a rather automatic sort of person in response to your work, and cynicism entering through, being quite cold and brutal and we’ve certainly seen community managers who were just so stressed they kind of start to lose that empathy with their members and then feeling ineffective. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, that you become less good at your job because you’re just exhausted and detached and really unable to connect.

One of the things I wanted to bring, I thought, I don’t know how many of you when thinking of the phrase self-care will be thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow or so on, and I know it’s one of the most searched terms on Instagram, but there is actually a lot more research coming now from Scandinavia. I think this is tentative, and I don’t think as yet this is so sort of, sort of repeating through research around the world. But there are some pointers to the fact that both stress and burnout can lead to brain changes. And one of the interesting examples from Scandinavia was that the part of the brain, the amygdala, which is strongly associated with fear and sort of aggressive emotional processes is enlarged with people who have burnout. And so if anything unpleasant happens and psychologists like to do these sorts of tests where they kept playing them loud noises to startle them, they would stay distressed for much longer, and that wasn’t something that they could control. And if one looks at the world of online communities and the hate and the trolling and so on and maybe some of those people are stressed out in quite a different sense and just not able to moderate their responses.

More worrying, perhaps, is those connections in the grey matter, also thin with stress and burnout. So you actually are changing your brain in a way that is going to be less productive. So there’s accumulating evidence that stress is neurotoxic, that it actually reduces those connections in the brain, enlarges certain areas that makes it more difficult for you to control yourself and probably makes you more cynical at quite a biological level.

It’s not all bad news, though, because in the same part of the world, Scandinavia where you can go to your doctor and get treatment for stress and burnout, there are studies using psychological therapies, CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the most common ones now used, and that underpins our work at Good Thinking. What’s really interesting about the therapy was that the therapy that improved your sleep quality and sense of effectiveness was actually better at treating burnout than behavioural activation, which is kind of doing the rewarding things that make you feel better. And actually the relationship with the therapist didn’t seem to matter much at all, which is always a downer for therapists.

So really, making sure you’re getting a good night sleep is a really good way of approaching this if you are starting to feel tired and exhausted in a way that’s beyond sort of ordinary fatigue. The CBT was also, there’s something fundamental about losing contact with yourself and your own needs that is core to this experience. You kind of robotically continue regardless. Like we don’t know what the right phrase is, but it’s kind of like overclocking yourself, I guess.

So, monitoring your activities and moods and that sort of self assessment is helpful. Prioritising and scheduling tasks and making them small and manageable, of course, so you can get that positive feedback. And really, staying in touch with how you’re feeling. Again, not ignoring yourself. And some of the positive things that we were seeing in the last presentation that you can do are also good for challenging ’cause people often struggle with feelings of guilt and anxiety about caring for themselves. I won’t go on for much longer here, but there are other bits of research.

So there’s CBT, mindfulness CBT, that we’ll come back to shortly, and things like yoga could all equally improve. So we’re still learning. And I suspect all of us would have different sort of approaches to what would really help us, but you need to put the time in. And if you go back to the thinking about what’s happening to your brain, you might want to prioritise that as much as you do going to the gym. The other thing that might be helpful, it doesn’t have to be all massive amounts, though. These micropauses where you’re in touch with how you’re feeling, just each day for a bit, is something that can still make a difference. So that’s where perhaps apps like Headspace do have a role.

Darren: Yeah, I just wanna talk a little bit at this point about big data. Now, I’m in a room full of people that I assume understand big data far better than I do. And big data’s been incredible over the last sort of 10 to 15 years in terms of the way it’s allowed us to interact with our audiences, with our customers, with our members and give us insights we’ve never really had before on a large scale. And it’s shown a lot of trends and things that we’ve learned from, we’re able to do incredible things. In my view, I think big data’s gone a little bit too far the other way at the moment. And I think in the last couple of years we’ve actually lost touch with the value of connecting people on a one-to-one level. I think there’s a tendency sometimes, when we look at our communities especially, that we treat people as numbers and not individuals. The NHS have a term, which I think was more prevalent in the 80s and probably 90s called “bedside manner”. And I think just remembering sometimes that the value we put on members, when we interact with them on a one-to-one level, needs to be blended with the approach, we have the data when we look on a larger scale.

So I wanted to pull out an example of this from my days at MSE. This is a personal message. It’s pretty standard. It’s not new technology. It’s probably baked into most of the platforms you all use. But when we notice people in our communities getting either upset or irate or behaving, or giving behaviours we thought were out of kilter with the usual.

Before we go into moderation I started to go through that process. We would send them a personal message. And the personal message was pretty much the same thing every time. And it just say, ‘Hey, we’ve just noticed you don’t seem yourself at the moment. We want to make sure you’re okay, and is there anything we can do to help?’ I reckon in about 80 to 85% of the time we sent this we got a reply along the lines of, ‘Hey, Darren’, or whoever the team member was, ‘thanks for reaching out’, and then there’d be an issue, ‘my dog’s in the vet, I’m having trouble at work, financial problems’, whatever it might be. ‘Just thanks so much for actually reaching out to me and connecting’.

And we found that the result of that was the behavior almost instantarily changed on the community in the positive. And also these people became brand ambassadors for us. Overnight, they would pretty much be the people that would, through word of mouth through the community, were talking about the good work that was being done on the community. I think also what it does is it removes the community manager facade, that avatar that we have, that actually we come some sort of automated chat bot behind the scenes, it’s important for people to remember also that we are real people, we have emotions. And connecting on a one-to-one scale is something I think we need to do a lot more in our communities. And I think the value you’ll find from doing that and blending it with a big data approach is really gonna help move your communities forward.

So just very quickly about the Good Thinking program and what we’ve done so far. So as Richard mentioned, we ran our first round table back in Easter, March, April time, and we brought together about 30, 35 community members, sorry, managers, excuse me, from various community sizes and spaces. And by the way, the work we do isn’t just focused on big brand communities, big business, we also do a lot of hyperlocal work. So whether you are running a brand community, and I imagine most of you in this room probably are, or whether you run a community of 15 people that enjoy yoga in West London, these things are all relevant as well.

Richard and I met someone at a Facebook event, I think wasn’t it? Back in January. Was running a beauty group on Facebook. And it was just a passion project. And it had grown to about 35,000 people. And she was finding that a community she never thought would be controversial, volatile, argumentative, as cliches started to form, and most people in the room will probably identify with cliches happening in the community, people that were formerly just sharing tips and being positive were now arguing with each other. And for the community manager she was now having to deal with these things out of hours. She was waking up at four in the morning. And it’s a great example again of how we need to apply this stuff to every type of community, not just big branded communities, but to learn, and for Richard and I to get insight from the stuff that people do.

The other thing we’re doing is we’ve got a community manager association. It’s a private space with our partners, Giants Technology, and it’s just a space where people can come, the community managers, to meet other like-minded community managers, to share stories, to share problems, hopefully to find solutions. And for the work that we do at Good Thinking it’s really important for us to be able to learn directly from people that are doing this work. So if anyone’s interested in joining, there’s nothing in it for us other than we wanna hear from people. It’s free to join, completely private. We’d love to see you there. We’ll put the link up in the deck.

Yeah, so just going forward, what we’re doing with this information that we’re taking is, we’re building resources that can help community managers. We want to train community managers in how to deal with mental health in their communities. We want to give them things they can do to assign post members towards the right resources, and these are all things that we don’t think exist currently. That’s what it looks like, in case you’re curious.

Richard: So some of those tools, going back to the thinking about burnout and self care are also about understanding yourself and how you’re doing. And so one of the most popular aspects of Good Thinking is being self assessment. And these are based on clinically approved algorithms that have been in existence for 15 years or so. So it’s not some new artificial intelligence driven sort of product. And one of them is the stress assessment. It’s a bit organizationally sort of focused. But it does give you ideas, and we are finding that when people do that, and it’s almost like a micropause where you are doing something for yourself, giving yourself a checkup. It’s a helpful way. You can also do this for someone else. So that could be someone in your community or it could be a colleague, and the assessment, or partner for that matter, ’cause lots of people go online looking for help to support partners and family members.

We’ve also been working with a mental health foundation to look at what the modules of self care should look like and then what, should I speak to this? One of the round tables we did we asked the community managers out of these things about talking about how you’re feeling, being physically active, eating and drinking sensibly in terms of water and food, keeping in touch with important people and asking for help as well as making sure you do take breaks to refresh. And those were the three that came out on top of what they were going to prioritize for the next week. So, those are some of the things, I mean, we can’t get through everything now, but I guess that’s also something Darren recommends, and you can join him later today on the South Bank, possibly.

What I did want to say, one of the things about Good Thinking as well is we’re trying to curate some of the best quality apps out there that touch on those areas that the Scandinavian therapists were talking about. And these are free for Londoners or people who work in London, live in London. One of the most interesting ones is MyCognition. And we’re gonna introduce a cognitive fitness test into Good Thinking. It’s kind of like a brain training, but it does assess you because sometimes people can’t concentrate on these things to actually even start that journey to feeling better. If you want the gold standard, I think Be Mindful is a mindfulness CBT app. You have to put the work in. It’s an hour or so most days for when you start, but once you get into that practice of focusing and looking after yourself, My Possible Self and Sleepio are great for positive psychology and sleep, and that brings us pretty much to the end, really.

I like this quote from Jay Miller at the Self-Care Lab at the University of Kentucky. I think we have sort of commercialized self care into what sounds like a sort of beauty practice or something, but it isn’t. I mean, it is treating your brain, your mind. The thoughtful is you may well be treating your body at the moment and it is a discipline. And to do something every day that actually enhances how you feel. All the connectivity with others and understanding relationships are really important, but there are things you can do yourself to make sure you’re ready to take those opportunities as well. And it’s not just about optimizing yourself and being able to do more. It really is caring for yourself in the most basic way.

Darren: We just wanted to leave you with this really, just as a sort of statement of where we think Community Management is. Whether you do this as a hobby or whether it’s your job, Community Management does have boundaries. It’s really important to understand a bit more about how it fits in with the rest of your life. It does have a start, it does have an end. You’re not expected to be on there 24/7 and hopefully what we can do as we start to learn together and deal with mental health and communities is find strategies and tools and resources that can help people deal with these things better, and I just wanna really hammer that home as a last point. If you take something else away with you it would just be that slide. We’ve actually, amazingly, come in on time. I’m really chuffed about that.

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