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The other side of the heroic nonprofit pivot to provide COVID-19 services? The toll on the mental health of staffers

September 17, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
COVID is not just a health crisis that has laid bare the vast economic disparities and social injustices of the United States. It has also uncovered the fragility of the country’s anemically resourced nonprofit sector.

There are an estimated  1.5 million nonprofits organizations in the United States, and 65% have budgets under $500,000, according to the Harvard Business Review. This means even before the pandemic, nonprofits were under resourced, understaffed, underfunded.  Now, COVID-induced death, economic chaos and social disruptions has sent client need escalating and revenue has failed to keep pace.

The resulting uncertainty and drastic changes are also taking a severe toll on the mental health of nonprofit staffers, many of whom are becoming as vulnerable as the clients they serve.

On the other side of the heroic agency story of staff pivoting to provide COVID-19 complaint services in record time is an uptick in staff stress, anxiety and depression.

“At some level everyone is not OK. You can’t be 100 percent,” said Shanell Ransom, program officer for the Social, Racial & Economic Justice portfolio at the Samuel S. Fels Fund.

Shanell Ransom. (Courtesy photo)

Ransom also manages the Fund’s Beyond the Grant program for its grantees. Beyond the Grant provides resources (however, not direct cash support) for grantees to help them better manage their grants and their programs. In that capacity she has been fielding a growing number of grantees’ calls concerned about their employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

It’s a growing concern for the nation’s nonprofit leaders.

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“Staff shared with us that they were feeling pressure between coming to work in order to earn a paycheck (but putting their health at risk) and staying at home (but not being able to pay their bills),” Healing Transitions Executive Director Chris Budnick wrote in Nonprofit Pro. “As a leadership team, we felt it was important to make sure our staff didn’t have to choose between their health and their paycheck.”

About 60% of nonprofits are faced with a situation that threatens long-term financial stability, and 64% expect those threats to continue, this according to the Nonprofit Finance Fund. In addition, the COVID-19 Nonprofit Workforce Trends Report showed that 90% of organizations had experienced revenue losses and 13% had suspended operations altogether.

“With mental health, it’s hard to know how to address folks because everyone is different,” said Crystal Spraggins, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit human resources consultant and co-host of the podcast Nonprofit Leadership NOW.

“I don’t think that that many organizations have a great handle on mental health and how to engage their folks. I don’t know if it is so complicated or nonprofit leaders are shying away from having to acknowledge staff are more than work performance but a combination of mind, body and spirit. We don’t turn off those elements when we come to work,” Spraggins added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a list of the people who may be most at risk for suffering from high levels of stress. They include those most at risk of contracting COVID because of underlined health conditions, children and teens, caregivers, the socially isolated, frontline workers, those with existing mental health conditions, those with substance use disorder, the homeless as well as those who live in group settings, the unemployed, and minorities.

If people are an organization’s most vital asset, a troubled workforce doesn’t bode well for the future of nonprofits. At stake is the ability to carry out the mission. Mentally healthy staffers equate to organizational wellbeing and ultimately greater social impact, according to research from The Wellbeing Project (TWP).

Ransom — who believes small shifts can yield results — is pushing a worker-centric approach to wellness that begins with asking staffers a simple question: “How are you?”

However, instead of a superficial question asked in passing, Ransom said “How are you?”  should be used routinely as a first level check-in to assess how staff are negotiating the professional and personal turbulence of this moment.  “You have to ask the question intentionally and actively listen for the answer. You also have to trust that your people know what they need.”

"Small acts of kindness matter to people."
Shanell Ransom

“I assume you are stressed even if you say you are not stressed,” Spraggins admitted. She added,  “I know nonprofit companies are making a more conscious effort to deal with morale building, showing appreciation for staff, thanking staff, having more frequent discussions about rewards, being flexible with schedule so people can manage personal responsibilities, work responsibilities — and all that helps.”

As the pandemic continues, another thing that experts are suggesting is encouraging workers to use their vacation time. “You don’t want to make people feel guilty for taking time off even though some are working at home,” Spraggins said.

Taking time off is one way of helping staffers develop healthier coping styles. “I’ve gotten several email messages from vendors ramping up their offerings whether it is the traditional employee assistance programs or things like offering mindfulness,” Spraggins added.

Ransom described one nonprofit in Philadelphia that began offering online yoga classes for staff. Fels itself will help its grantees host a lunch for staff — by picking up the tab — to facilitate COVID-19 complaint get togethers.

“Small acts of kindness matter to people,” Ransom said.

One growing source of stress is the use of technology. The COVID-19 Nonprofit Workforce Trends Report also showed that over 80% of respondents said their operations had moved to a work-from-home arrangement. Shifting to a virtual environment and working remotely can uncover the digital divide right within the offices of a nonprofit organization.

“There are many people who do not have the internet at home and do everything on their phones,” Spraggins said. “Now you are asking them to pay over a hundred dollars each month so that they are able to do their jobs.”

“Nonprofits are going to have a find a way to help their staff with technology,” she added.



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