National Post: Championing a gentle approach to culture

Championing a gentle approach to culture

When Amanda Clarke joined Creative Options Regina (COR) to take on the new role of director of people and culture in 2019, she knew there was something special about the organization. “I discovered I can go to work, have fun, and know at the end of the day know that I am working on something more meaningful,” says Clarke, who is now chief culture officer. COR is a winner in the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Awards’ Non-Profit and Broader Public Sector category.

Launched in Regina in 2009, COR serves a distinct role in the non-profit sector. It develops personalized support services for people experiencing disability. Rather than running group homes or placing individuals into programs, COR supports people living in their own homes, where they can discover their own talents and interests, live according to their own values, and strive to reach their personal goals.

What stood out for Clarke from the outset is the culture, she says. “The biggest change for me is the support of the people we work alongside day to day. That makes a huge difference in today’s workplace. While I am not on the front lines, our culture is also about serving our employees, bringing people together in a meaningful way, and building future leaders.”

Since its inception, the organization has embraced the philosophy of gentle teaching as an alternative approach to supporting people with disabilities. This culture of gentleness — which focuses on nurturing, teaching and sustaining the experience of connectedness, companionship and community — is woven into all aspects of the organization, from the people it hires and mentors, to the people supported and their family members.

“Gentle teaching is not just for the people we support, but for everybody,” says Clarke. “At the heart of it all is the connections with people. Our team is making a difference for each other and the lives of the people we support. That’s why we are all very passionate about what we do.”

COR also prides itself on its diversity. Currently, its employees represent upwards of 50 nationalities, many of whom recommend friends and family members to apply. “We have never had to advertise a position,” says Casey Sakires, employee experience advisor. “Our hires have all been by word of mouth. In fact, COR has never posted a frontline caregiver position. In the past year alone, we have received more that 450 applications.”

Diversity is recognized and nurtured in the form of panel discussions, special luncheons and celebrations of festivals near and dear to employees, such as Ramadan, Diwali and Indigenous rituals. As Dhwani Purohit, a team leader, noted, “I was never able to share or experience Diwali in Canada. The way COR has celebrated Diwali — including support with lights, decorations, food and, most amazingly, all the guests participating in traditional dance from my (Gujarat side Garba) — was an experience which I would never be able to share without COR.”

“The events highlighting people’s journeys are eye-opening and educational for everyone,” notes Clarke. “We can see the joy in them being able to share their stories with an audience. It’s the culture that makes it possible. Hiring for fit is integral to sustaining COR’s culture, says Sakires. “A culture that makes people feel safe is so important in building relationships.”Understanding individual personal values and how they align with COR’s values is the primary focus of the first interview, he explains. “We are looking for that value set — in essence people who want to make a difference in someone’s life and be that consistent person for the people we support and serve. Most of the people we do hire don’t have care experience but do have the heart and the values that make COR a success.”

Every new hire’s journey starts with 30 hours of shadowing and up to three months of mandatory training in the fundamentals of gentle teaching, working with people with complex health needs, and learning about critical areas such as mental health support and suicide prevention.

Within the first three months, employees also participate in a full-day orientation led by the CEO and COO to deepen their understanding of the history of COR, and the culture in which it embraces. During onboarding, employees are registered for training programs emphasizing health and safety, including mental health, stress management and coping skills. COR’s train-the-trainer approach delivers over 20 nationally recognized trainings offered in-house to all employees on paid time. COR also offers incentives throughout the year, from bonuses and swag to personalized notes and appreciation days.

In 2023, the organization launched the COR Academy, an initiative that focuses on COR’s renewed vision to influence care more broadly. Through the COR Academy, training and development programs are offered to the broader community, alongside COR employees. The initiative also focuses on individual and organizational mentorship, offering both internal and external mentorship from experienced leaders. “People feel valued when we invest in developing their potential,” says Clarke.

“We are just at the initial stage of developing the academy,” she adds. “There is a lot of potential to reach a lot of people doing a lot of great things. We have an opportunity to influence others in a different way of thinking about care.”

Another critical element of its culture is the health and wellness support. “Psychological support in our field is important,” says Clarke. “Because caregiving is an emotionally demanding role, sometimes they may need to reduce hours or have additional access to mental health resources. We understand that if we treat our caregivers well, we know the people we serve will be well cared for.”

The numbers tell a compelling story. COR’s yearly annual turnover rate has remained between four and 10 per cent since its inception — an impressive feat considering the average for the sector exceeds 35 per cent annually.

COR is also a consistent presence in the community at large. “A great deal of the team’s efforts are spent connecting with community,” says Sakires. He stresses that all charitable programs are employee-driven and based on interest, which drives strong participation and engagement. In the past year alone, COR employees have supported over 20 different non-profit/community organizations.

Community relationships include COR’s 4to40 inclusive employment initiative that works with businesses to champion the inclusion of people experiencing intellectual disability, a joint venture with the University of Regina in supporting diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) strategies of fellow Saskatchewan businesses.

In 2020, COR launched a “Short Breaks” initiative with Inclusion Regina and the City of Regina to address the need for quality programming in a safe, supportive environment for family care providers. The organization also partners with Indigenous educational programs, band offices and cultural groups. In 2021, COR developed an Indigenous culture advisor position, and all employees are enrolled in both Indigenous awareness and diversity training.

“All of these efforts strengthen our diversity and enrich our community connections,” says Sakires. Tara Osipoff, vice chair of the Creative Options Regina board, notes “I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound impact of the gentle teaching practice at COR. It’s a practice that illuminates the culture with compassion and understanding, fostering an environment where both the people we serve and our dedicated employees feel valued, respected and loved. This nurturing atmosphere not only supports growth and healing but also empowers everyone involved to reach their full potential. It’s truly heartwarming to see the difference the gentle teaching philosophy makes through kindness and patience, reinforcing our belief that caring for one another with gentleness is the most powerful tool we have.”

Read the Article on the National Post Website.