Pulse-check with sector leaders on mental health


Christina Palassio


The pandemic has put pressure on all levels of the non-profit workforce, leading to rising levels of burnout, compassion fatigue, and stress. We talked to sector leaders about their mental health, their leadership outlook, and how they’re supporting their teams through this period.

The leader of a women’s health organisation took in yet another list of changing health guidelines and considered how they would impact her staff and the people in her community. After a year and half of these mental calculations, they were becoming harder, not easier. She tried to resist the incessant pinging of chat messages and emails to think about medium-term planning but couldn’t focus, so instead added ‘create an email- and meeting-free zone’ to her ever-lengthening to-do list, then turned to help her toddler, as that uncomfortable sensation of emotional vertigo swelled up again.

‘I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I find it hard to contextualise the good and the bad these days’ is the way she describes how 16 months of pandemic has affected her mental health and ability to lead. She and her now five-year-old have been bubbled with her parents, both of whom have pre-existing health conditions, throughout the pandemic. ‘Like most folks I talk to, I’ve been experiencing mental fog and a time-continuum challenge. I’ve never had anxiety before, but I have anxiety now to the point where I think I’d probably choose to take medication for it for a period of time. I don’t feel like I’m doing enough, but I would argue I’m doing more than I’ve ever done. And I’ve always been somebody who has done more than I probably needed to do.’

She’s not alone. The massive upheaval caused by Covid-19 has destabilised non-profits and charities, disrupted programming, increased the need for services, exposed the fault lines in funding models, and spotlighted inequalities within the sector and the communities they serve. At the same time, for many organisations, the pandemic has also created opportunities for leapfrogging and innovation. The combination of uncertainty and instability, responsibility, and opportunity has put pressure on all levels of the non-profit workforce, causing rising levels of burnout, compassion fatigue, stress, and anxiety.

As growing numbers of Canadians get vaccinated and the country begins to reopen, the heady promise of normalcy, whatever the new normal looks like, has many people breathing a sigh of relief. But with the rapid spread of the Delta variant and the risk of a fourth wave, the coming period of reckoning and rebuilding haunts many in the non-profit world, adding to concerns about how this period of intense stress has affected a sector already dealing with high levels of stress and burnout.

We talked to leaders across the sector about their mental health and their outlook on leadership and the sector, and how they’re supporting their teams through this period. They spoke on the condition that their names not be published.

Working hard to keep staff safe

In May, Nanos released polling that showed that the number of Canadians who felt they were coping well during the pandemic had declined, dropping 10 percentage points, from 41 per cent in April 2020. And the proportion of Canadians who said they were coping poorly or somewhat poorly had doubled, from 8 per cent to 19 per cent.

These wider trends have been borne out in sector surveys. An Imagine Canada survey published in February found that 50 per cent of charities surveyed reported that their staff members’ ability to maintain an appropriate work/life balance and avoid burnout had decreased. And a December 2020 Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia (CSCNS) survey of 292 respondents found that workplace stress and anxiety were major concerns.

Like most folks I talk to, I’ve been experiencing mental fog. I’ve never had anxiety before, but I do now to the point where I think I’d probably choose to take medication for it.

‘We know that burnout was an issue in the sector well before COVID. There often aren’t enough resources to do the work, and people care so much,’ says Annika Voltan, executive director of CSCNS. ‘It has come up clearly in our surveys that people are struggling with anxiety and worry in the face of uncertainty and are dealing with their own mental well-being, as well as their staff’s.’

‘[It feels like] we’ve never moved out of crisis mode,’ says the director at a frontline response organisation in Toronto. ‘It’s hard to stay in that. You get a little too used to it.’

‘The first month to six weeks of the pandemic were without a doubt one of the most difficult periods of my professional career and my home life,’ adds the director, the mother of two young children who were home from school for much of the past 16 months. ‘It was very difficult to be in full crisis mode at work and know that people in the city were in crisis, and that we needed to keep programs running if people were going to access the food they needed, and then to switch off from that and give my full focus to my children.’

She says fear and concern for her staff’s safety compounded feelings of stress and exhaustion. While the organisation carefully followed changing public health regulations and put many safety measures and supports in place, it never felt like enough. ‘You can follow all the policies, but you can’t protect people from all of this. You can’t protect them from getting sick in their lives, and you can’t help them take care of their families. It’s hard, it’s really hard.’

‘I’ve never felt so straitjacketed as a leader as I have in these last 14 months,’ says the leader of the women’s health organisation. While they’ve put supports in place for staff, ‘it just feels desperately inadequate,’ she says. ‘I’m running a women’s health organisation in a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting women. Most of my staff are women. They all have complex responsibilities, and I’m asking more of them than feels reasonable at times.’

While the urgency to act and their commitment to their organisations’ missions powered many through the crisis of the early pandemic, several people said they’ve had to dig deep to find the energy and motivation to keep navigating through uncertainty.

‘In the early days of the crisis, there was an adrenaline high that I and a lot of my colleagues in similar leadership roles felt. There was this kind of moment of just having to step in and lead, and knowing that we needed to act. We couldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is too much.’ We had to keep doing this work,’ says the leader of a multi-service organisation. ‘Now I’m seeing that there is a real deep fatigue in my organisation. It’s been very fatiguing to have to constantly react to changes in health orders, new cases, changes in the way we have to do business – and without the kind of normal outlets that revitalise people.’ She adds that one of the ways the fatigue has manifested itself is through more friction between staff members.

‘I think we’re seeing the cracks in the structures,’ says Voltan. ‘Many organisations [especially the smaller ones] are just barely hanging together in normal times. Leaders stepped up big time to make it happen regardless. But now, we need to turn that focus to the people who have been the caregivers, the supporters.’

The double-edged sword of opportunity

When the pandemic hit, many organisations were forced to pivot quickly, abandoning strategic and annual plans to chart new directions in a moment of uncertainty.

‘At the beginning, there was a real sense of grieving,’ says the leader of a cancer charity. ‘We had just launched a new strategic plan, and I felt like we were in such an amazing place. Then, suddenly, everything stopped. Having to get over that grief as quickly as possible was really hard. That was one of the biggest challenges. You had to look forward and find a way to be determined and be positive, even though we felt really sad about the state of the world and the team and everyone’s plans being disrupted and shut down.’

The leader of the women’s health organisation says she and her team re-did their entire annual plan in two weeks. ‘[We’ve felt] the pressure to be opportunistic to ensure we don’t lose these windows of potential,’ she says. ‘Yes, the resources are depleted and the challenges are quite acute. But we’ve never been more relevant. Our work has never been more important or meaningful. It’s that push and pull that I’d argue most of us are feeling.’

It has come up clearly in our surveys that people are struggling with anxiety and worry in the face of uncertainty and are dealing with their own mental well-being, as well as their staff’s.

‘If there’s a silver lining in the pandemic, it’s that we’ve been spinning on all wheels. I’m blown away by what we’ve been able to accomplish,’ echoes another sector leader. ‘But continuing to work at this speed or level and intensity in the longer term is not possible. [We have to think about] how we set ourselves up so that this is not the norm going forward.’ She says that closing the door to her home office and being able to go out for a walk with a friend has been key to creating some balance during stressful times. But it’s not enough.

The CSCNS, the Alberta Nonprofit Network, and other organisations have been trying to respond to sector needs by offering sessions on managing burnout and building resiliency. While building up a toolbox of coping skills is helpful, there’s a limit to how much people can cope with. Some who see calls for increased support still going largely unheeded wonder how much more the sector can reasonably take.

‘When you think about things like funding models, the granting system, how governance is structured, and the amount of time it takes to keep those wheels turning and the layers of demands, it feels to me like a system that’s starting to crumble in terms of sustainability, not just from a financial standpoint, but from a mental health and well-being standpoint,’ says Voltan.

Expressions of praise for the sector for its resiliency, innovation, and ability to overcome challenges and advocate for change aren’t sitting well with some, especially as ‘build back better’ optimism frays and a period of scarcity looms on the horizon.

‘The issues of inequity that we face in the city need to be solved by systemic change. We need to be advocates and we need to be loud. I believe that now more than ever,’ says the director of the Toronto-based frontline organisation. ‘But the things that are causing the most harm to our community members are beyond our ability to solve. And it’s very frustrating when we’re congratulated on doing something that somebody else should be doing. We can’t just keep patting ourselves on the back for burning the candle at both ends. It’s a way so many of us operated in the best of times. We just can’t do that anymore. Burnout has always been a thing, and now we’ve turned that up to such a ridiculous degree. There have to be systemic changes, policy changes, that support our communities and support our workers.’

Increasing equity within organisations

The focus on advocacy comes at a time when many organisations have also been trying to address systemic inequities within their own walls.

‘We’d started doing focused equity, diversity, and inclusion work in the organisation before the pandemic,’ says the leader of the multi-service agency. ‘When George Floyd was murdered, there was this real groundswell of demand on the organisation to do more around racial equity.’

It was very difficult to be in full crisis mode at work and know that we needed to keep programs running, and then to switch off from that and give my full focus to my children.

‘Trying to do this kind of really deep organisational change work on top of all of the other changes that the organisation has faced has been challenging. The combination of the anxiety, the sense of disconnection and isolation in general, and the challenge of meeting those expectations from our community and our staff of becoming more diverse, more inclusive, more aware of equity issues – they fuel each other. Maybe in a good way, because we need to address this, and to address it properly.’

A sector leader who identifies as a BIPOC woman is hopeful about the changes she’s seeing. ‘Who was leading these organisations has always been inequitable. I’ve had the opportunity over the past year to have some really important and courageous conversations with other sector leaders about this. The pandemic has revealed [inequality] in harsh ways that we can’t not see and hear. What does this mean for us? How do we address this so that we’re not taking the same set of normal behaviours and practices post-pandemic?’

Building capacity to lead through change

As leaders try to find a way to manage through compounding issues, some are struggling to maintain confidence in their leadership and have sought out resources to support themselves and their teams.

‘The impact I’m seeing for me as a leader is that I find myself second-guessing my leadership a lot more than I did a year ago – probably more than I have in the past. Recently, I’ve felt a growing sense of ‘Oh my god, I’m in over my head.’ What I’ve been really trying to do is go back to my leadership practice and reconnect with what I believe about the work I’m doing and why I’m doing it the way I’m doing it.’

The leader of a wellness charity sees this period of upheaval as a way to reframe expectations of his team, his organisation, and the sector. ‘I’m trying hard to not get into the problem-solving approach as the only way to go. I’m doing some work with our team on this. We brought in some people to help us to recognise that there isn’t going to be a right answer. There are tensions: being optimistic and being realistic, embracing change and preserving stability. There are all of these continua that show up every day, and to say that you’re going to fix one of them is not [realistic].’

Several leaders said their boards have been helpful in providing additional support on leadership and financial planning, HR, and crisis planning. A few have made it a priority to check in on the mental health and wellness of leaders and their staff members. But having productive conversations at the board level about the health of the workforce has been new and challenging for many, exposing underlying power imbalances.

Burnout has always been a thing, and now we’ve turned that up to a ridiculous degree. There have to be systemic changes, policy changes, that support our communities and support our workers.

‘The biggest fear about leading in the middle of something like this is the potential appearance that you can’t,’ says the leader of the women’s health organisation.

One leader we spoke to cites misalignment with her board as her single biggest challenge of the pandemic, and a significantly negative influence on her mental health.

‘I have a board who was more about the bottom line than they were about meeting the needs of the communities we serve,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t getting the impression that they understood just how impactful their leadership is and needs to be. They were insisting on results that just [weren’t realistic] in the middle of a pandemic. If there was something that really caused me sleepless nights, it’s this sense of what I would call disconnectedness to reality. What mattered was not all of the achievements that we had under our belts, but the bottom line.’

‘We did a lot of reflection as a team and decided that it’s up to us, and we’ve got to get it done. We didn’t feel we had a partner working with us. It felt like we were on our own. So, if we’re on our own, so be it – it’s temporary, and we’re just going to get it done.’

‘Many organisations have crisis plans for different scenarios. But I wonder if a checklist for boards would be helpful, and could offer the board a set of questions to ask themselves in a climate of rapid change,’ says the leader of an employment skills organisation. ‘For example, have you sat down with your CEO and taken stock of how the team is doing, how they’re adapting, and what pressures will be the first call on the CEO’s time? Have you taken the time to really understand what your CEO is dealing with? And have you thought about how you might redesign strategy, or whether you need to put plans on pause? These are some of the core questions.’

What’s next?

As we look forward to a continued easing of restrictions and societal reopening, leaders in some parts of the sector fear that the need they’ve seen in their communities over the past 16 months is just the tip of the iceberg. As we move into a new normal, emergency funds dry up, and governments begin tightening budgets, they worry that demand for services will rise, placing new pressures on the sector. The common refrain is that going back to business as usual is not an option. The question is what it will take for organisations and their staff to be able to weather this new storm.

For now, most leaders we spoke to are encouraging staff members to maximise downtime over the summer. Some are closing their offices for a week or providing additional personal days. Others are increasing dialogue with employees around mental health and support.

‘I have a real concern that once people feel they can move out of crisis mode in their work, around their own risk and their family’s risk, once kids are in camp or school, once we have the chance to let go a bit, there is a real threat of a collapse, both mental and emotional,’ says the director at the frontline response organisation. ‘We need to be prepared to react to that, to make space for that and have supports ready.’

Leaders are also navigating a new tricky question: what a safe and appropriate return to work looks like for their organisations.

Most say they’re using flexibility as a touchstone and trying to balance the benefits of working from home with the desire to maintain and build culture through in-person collaboration and connection – trying to chart a new, more sustainable path for the sector from the inside out.

‘Personally, I hope our sector throws away the constructs of office hours and bums in seats. And the idea that we need people to sacrificially give their time – that choosing a job in the non-profit sector only happens to those of us who’ve been blessed with martyrdom syndrome,’ says the leader of the women’s health organisation. ‘We need to value people for who they are holistically and how they have to navigate their lives in community and take that as a plus, not a minus, and build on it. We should come out of this pandemic recognising the capacity of the non-profit sector to lead in crisis and to lead in innovation.’

Christina Palassio is a strategic communications professional and writer with a background in journalism and more than 20 years of experience working in the arts, food security, and international development sectors.

This article was originally published by The Philanthropist on 28 July 2021, a PhiLab partnerIt is being re-shared in Alliance with permission.

New issue: Mental health philanthropy

This issue of Alliance explores the present state of philanthropy for mental health (who is doing what and where the gaps are), the intersections with other issues, the factors which have limited mental health philanthropy and the steps that are needed to bring philanthropists together to make common cause in the area. Guest edited by Krystian Seibert, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University Australia and chair, Mental Health First Aid, Australia.

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