Subscribers | Charities Management magazine | No. 144 Early Summer 2022 | Page 3
The magazine for charity managers and trustees

Addressing the mental health pressures of charity managers and workers

Working in the charity sector can be challenging, even in buoyant economic times, but after working through a global pandemic, and dealing with its ongoing aftermath, charities – and their people - are suffering.

Even in 2019, 80% of charity workers said they experienced workplace stress and 42% said that their job was not good for their mental health (Unite). By the end of 2021, research documenting the charity sector’s mental health decline showed it was rife and there is no doubt this crisis is continuing.

The Charities Commission published research at the end of last year that found over 90% of respondents were experiencing some negative impact from Covid-19, whether on their service delivery, finances, staff and/or staff morale. It also found that the majority (60%) saw a loss of income, and a third (32%) said they experienced a shortage of volunteers. But is the charity sector any more stressful than other industries?

Charities and compassion fatigue

Charities seem to be in a spiral of stressful post-Covid circumstances, which are bad for the bottom line, but worse for their people. Charity leaders, cited in Ecclesiastical’s Charity Risk Barometer (2021), reported a 34% drop in funding to contend with, as well as 44% of the respondents seeing burnout as a significant threat to their operations. However, the issue is more nuanced than that. It’s not burnout, it’s compassion fatigue that’s at the core of our charity sector’s mental health crisis.

Compassion fatigue, unlike burnout that can be caused by excessive everyday stresses both at work and home, is caused directly by experiences in an occupation. Therapists are often cited as the sole owners of compassion fatigue, but in reality we could class it as charity fatigue.

Charities are packed with empathetic employees. The desire to work for worthy causes has this characteristic as a prerequisite, but the combination of caring colleagues and an emotive cause is the perfect cocktail for compassion fatigue. Add in scarce resources, scarcer recruitment to vacant posts, a likely sharp increase in working hours, thanks to post Covid-demand, and a cost of living crisis not addressed by modest sector salaries, and we are destined for a large scale mental health disaster.

The pace at which mental health has put itself at the top of the agenda is a concern, but would this be the case in any other sector? Is the sensitivity required to care about causes the charity worker’s downfall? In reality are charity sector workers less resilient by their very nature? So, can you be benevolent and resilient?

Charity workers’ resilience

To be clear, here we are talking about personal emotional resilience, not the resilience of your charity to financially weather the Covid storm, or adapt to new technologies. We’re talking about charity sector workers being able to cope with the multitude of challenges that they are facing.

Related sectors certainly seem to suffer with their mental health. For example, the March 2021 HSE report on work-related stress indicates that from an industry perspective, stress, depression and anxiety are most prevalent in the education, human health and social work sectors.

You could argue that the compassion and caring nature often found in people in a charity career could mean that they have a greater propensity to take on the stresses of their role and environment. However, there is little evidence to support this often much touted speculation.

The experiential and anecdotal data testifies to a workforce that has no choice but to be resilient. Often dealing with one emotive situation after another, with limited funding and a skeleton staff, charity workers seriously “rock” resilience, with every right to lay claim to being more buoyant than other sectors.

Taking action on mental health

To move away from competing over who gets the most stress, what can this sector do to take action and prevent burnout and compassion fatigue from extreme emotional labour?

The answers lie at the feet of both the charities, as the employers, and the workers themselves. As a headline both could keep in mind that they do not work in a tech business where it can be left for days and weeks to respond to customers automatically. They work in a people business where the people deliver the service at every level.

If the employer and the employees do not take good care of themselves then they risk not being present to deliver those services and the very people they stepped up to help will suffer. Thus, rather than citing their values as the reason for overworking, taking on too much and burning themselves out, maybe both parties can cite the same values as the reason for taking care of employees and themselves as they would expect others to.

Employers’ responsibilities

Charities are ever mindful that they are not only running an organisation based upon strong values and beliefs with compassion at the heart of them, they are also running an operation subject to all kinds of operational challenges common across various sectors. As such, adopting the practices and being aware of the pitfalls of employment law and employee relations would be wise.

Pre-pandemic the main factors that were cited by the HSE as the causes of workplace stress, anxiety and depression were “workload, in particular tight deadlines, too much work or too much pressure or responsibility. Other factors identified included a lack of managerial support, organisational changes at work, violence and role uncertainty (lack of clarity about job/uncertain what meant to do).”

All of the above causes are within the remit of the employer and an employer has to decide the parameters of their support. As of January 2021, the previously noted Charity Risk Barometer research found most charities were offering some form of support, including flexible working arrangements (75%), a wellbeing policy (52%) and counselling services (46%). But the core questions it’s worth asking yourself as an organisation are do you have:

  1. A wellbeing policy and plan that includes mental health in the workplace?
  2. A culture where mental health can be discussed as openly as physical health?
  3. A management culture where, in one to one interactions, the state of an employee's mental health is always on the agenda?
  4. A way to routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding available data, talking to employees, and understanding risk factors?

More aware charity employers would go one step further and include in their learning and development strategy the chance for their employees to learn proactive, preventative strategies, tactics and behaviours that help them minimise risk and maximise their mental and emotional health. As one might say, prevention not parachutes.

Employees have the responsibility

Employees must take responsibility for their own management of stress. You will always be the greatest influence over the state of your mental and emotional health. If we can seek out, or receive support, to improve our resilience and/or wellbeing, we should take it. Employers take note, by including this call for individual responsibility, I am not removing the accountability of the employer to run a workplace that is as healthy as possible.

The five pillars of stress

There is a plethora of managing stress possibilities but understanding these five pillars or factors of stress offers a start to dealing with your own stress. The pillars are the way we as humans attract, build up and sustain stressful lives. The pillars metaphor is apt because it is us who attracts and supports stress in our lives. They are all about us, they are encapsulated in the choices we make and, as such, they are within our gift to ourselves to make different choices. In other words we can influence these through the choices we make.

APPROVAL. Put simply this is about our desire for validation and for others to approve of what we do and who we are. Put simply, we attract stress into our lives by seeking other people's approval.

PRIORITY. This is not about prioritisation of workload or planning. This is about how much we prioritise ourselves. To put it another way, we attract stress into our lives by not making ourselves a priority. This is likely to be a big issue for the charity sector.

PRESSURE. For many of us this is our super strength that we learn early on in our lives. We learnt that if we put ourselves under pressure we learn more and achieve more. This is true, but it can go too far and be unhealthy.

CONTROL. For those who are continually seeking to control their environment we label this pillar as not letting go of control. Notice how clear I am with the language. It is about responsibility and reflects the choice I may be making to try and hold on to control even though it may be apparent I have little or no control anyway.

TRUST. This covers both our relationships with others and with ourselves and thus we have two areas in this pillar. The first is not trusting others and the second is not trusting ourselves.

For any situation that you are facing where you are finding it to be unhealthily stressful, take a moment to consider which of the pillars are impacting this stressful situation. If there is more than one pillar involved, and there often is, prioritise thinking about the pillar that feels like it is of the biggest impact. Then ask yourself this: “what choices could I make that would lessen the impact of that pillar for me?”

You may not come up with specific actions immediately. You have taken years to develop your current relationship with stress. You won’t change it overnight. If, however, you continue to ask yourself those questions – “which pillar is it and what choices can I make to lessen its impact?” - you will, over time, gradually, gently start to change your relationship with stress.

As you start to challenge yourself in this way, your behaviours will change. As your behaviours change, your impact will change, and others will notice. The impact of simple role modelling is powerful.

If you’re a leader, it’s tempting to think you are exempt, but that’s not the case. In a June 2021 follow up to Ecclesiastical’s Charity Risk Barometer, the survey concluded that cases of anxiety, stress and depression rose, over the six month period, for more than two thirds of charity leader participants, while a quarter said they had seen an increase in self-harm (25%) and suicidal feelings (27%).

For management and leaders, looking after your wellbeing could result, not just in changes to you; it will likely have a knock-on effect that could run deeply through the whole charity.


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