Why staff wellbeing is mission critical for the Internet Watch Foundation

When employees spend their days preventing child abuse by viewing the internet's most horrific images, looking after them is top priority

Heidi Kempster, chief operating officer, Internet Watch Foundation
Heidi Kempster, chief operating officer, Internet Watch Foundation

The problem

Few organisations are doing more to protect children than the Internet Watch Foundation, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s a joyous task. Since 1996, the Cambridge-based not-for-profit has had an unenviable remit to monitor reports of child abuse images and videos, as well as dealing with concerns from members of the public about what they have seen online.

In 2018, that meant viewing and cataloguing almost 230,000 reports, which could contain multiple pieces of distressing media. More than 105,000 instances of child sexual abuse imagery were passed on to the authorities or tech companies to ensure they were removed and to prevent re-victimisation.

At the heart of this effort is a team of 13 analysts who must view and assess horrific material. It’s been called "the worst job in the world" and takes place in a strictly regulated secure "hotline room". But arguably the hardest part is keeping the team psychologically healthy and engaged – an HR-led approach the IWF has had to build from scratch, since barely any other organisation in the world does comparable work.

The solution

Finding the right people is of paramount importance. "The misconception is that our analysts must be incredibly technical people, but they come from all walks of life," says COO Heidi Kempster. "What we’re looking for is that they have the emotional resilience to see these images, then leave them at the door when they go home at night."

The recruitment process involves an in-depth personal interview that delves into an individual’s background, childhood, emotional attachments and support network, conducted in conjunction with a psychologist. 

"We would say no to anyone we felt didn’t have the resilience we needed," says Kempster. Those that progress are gradually introduced to a range of abusive images before they are hired, from those deemed non-illegal to Category A photos of the most serious kind. "We thought very carefully about whether it is the right thing to do, but this is the job we are asking them to do and they have to be resilient enough to say ‘OK, I think that’s something I can cope with’." 

All new recruits are put on a six-month desensitisation programme during which they are shadowed as they are exposed to material, with monitoring of their psychological wellbeing and a strict system of enforced breaks. Employees are encouraged to talk openly about the effects of their work, and take part in monthly counselling sessions and annual psychological assessments.

"We don’t want people to compartmentalise what they see, because storing it up wouldn’t be a good thing," says Kempster. "There’s no shame in saying ‘I found that image really distressing’ or asking to see a counsellor. We’ve worked hard to facilitate that culture." 

The outcome

The IWF’s success can be measured in the fact that just 1 per cent of all child abuse material is now hosted in the UK, a dramatic improvement over the course of the last two decades. "We get feedback from our law enforcement partners to say the intelligence we provided on a particular image means they have found a child and they are safe," says Kempster. "That’s the moment when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you can feel pride in the team: we know what we are doing makes a difference."

The organisation’s deep psychological insight into its employees also means it understands the external factors in their lives that might affect their wellbeing and can offer a holistic approach to engagement. But perhaps the biggest achievement, says Kempster, is that despite the disturbing subject matter its people deal with, it is essentially a normal workplace: "Our people have a wide age range and a gender mix. It makes for a great office because they can all bring different outlooks to the table. It’s difficult for people to understand how anyone can do the job – but what’s surprising is that it’s just a regular office."

This piece first appeared on Third Sector's sister publication People Management

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