Reframing the Role of the Service Provider: We are All Designers.

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In brief: In the post secondary setting, the work of the institution is often framed within the context of customer service and student-centeredness. While these terms are helpful in focusing and re-focusing our efforts on students, we can often lose sight of the fact that a large part of our work and job responsibilities is about serving each other — that is, our very own colleagues and peers. In order to work together and encourage people to see mental health as a part of their everyday job responsibilities, I suggest that we reframe our jobs titles, positioning ourselves as designers, first. As designers, we act as ‘problem’ solvers on campus, approaching issues like mental health with empathy, understanding, critical insight and importantly a systems perspective. This reminds us of the greater contexts in which we work and people we need to work with in order to serve students.

As staff and faculty in the post-secondary setting, who are we serving? 

The automatic answer: We are serving students, of course! The student experience is built around a model of “customer service” and student-centered service development and delivery. This framework positions what we do within the context of service provision. This can be helpful in terms of grounding our roles and responsibilities around services we offer and reminding us that it is the student who is our ‘end user’ and whose interests we need to be mindful of.

The emphasis placed on students and services, however, can be less helpful when we lose sight of our position within the greater service system. There are often multiple departments, groups and individuals that work to create positive experiences for the end user. More often than not though, we design only within the context of our service space. This is further exacerbated with departmental silos, lack of trust, divergent perspectives, and organizational conflict. When the people who are in charge of creating the architecture and systems that will shape the student experience are not working collectively to complement each other’s efforts, it is the students themselves who end up losing out. As providers on campus, it is important to remember that we are serving students in so much that we are serving each other.

Designing a mental health strategy is largely an internal effort that requires buy in and support from all levels of an organization. Recognizing the provider’s role as one that is highly collaborative is a necessary step to ensuring greater flow in the student’s journey as she/he is seeking mental health supports and resources, enhancing complementary offerings and reducing replication. And while working with those internal to the organization seems like an intuitive and necessary practice, we tend to lose any formal association of our roles as being about building relationships with our own colleagues. When we lose sight of our colleagues, communications start to break down and we start to impose our own practices on each another as opposed to with each other.

Our job titles define what we do (and think we ought to do), how we do it, and why. I’ve been thinking about how to conceptualize our titles so that we move closer to an understanding that we all have a shared job to play, institutionally, when it comes to mental health. This brings me to ask, how do we position mental health as being an integral part of everyone’s job? While this can be established more concretely through policy, it is only meaningful when people genuinely consider themselves accountable, are able to contribute to a greater change making process, and feel that it is a part of their mandate.

So, what would happen if we reframe our roles in a bigger way?

An idea –> On campus, let’s say we’re all “designers”…and by designers, I refer to social problem solvers: people who bring compassion, empathy, creativity and understanding to a ‘problem’ situation and frame these situations within the context of the systems from which they emerge. Thus, from a teacher to a janitor to an administrative assistant to a dean, we are all hired designers. Our first and foremost responsibility then is to use a designer’s mindset to address the problems we see around us. This involves recognizing that we have a direct role to play in the design of structures, services, and spaces around us…this also means we are responsible for their re-design in order to meet changing and unmet needs. Even if we have specific and diverse areas of design focus/craft/skill (e.g., administration, teaching, coordination, counselling, etc.) the designer’s lens reminds us that we are playing our part within the greater organization to help us function as a whole — hopefully one that is coordinated, adaptive and healthy — in order to promote student success. As designers, it would be difficult to do our work without appreciating the greater context in which we work and without connecting with our fellow designers in order to affect change, particularly when the issue at hand is complex, ambiguous and systemic. As such, it becomes everyone’s job to improve designs that we recognize as weak and concerning as well as celebrate beautiful, delightful design we’ve created together.

This reframing helps me elevate my understanding of the greater roles we play in an organization. Using the title of designer in no way aims to diminish the talent and skill set of the many design specialities that exist, but rather is meant to suggest that we all possess elements of design thinking and doing that enable us to respond in more adaptive and empathic ways to issues we see within an organization, including mental health. When we are all considered designers of the student experience, we all have something to offer when it comes to creative problem solving on campus. Whether it is demonstrating empathy through a conversation with a student around her experiences with depression or working with student groups to re-design a policy that promotes anti-stigma through institutional practices, there are small and large ways we can demonstrate design in order to improve health.

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