Why We Need To Prioritize Self-Care In The Nonprofit Sector

Hannah Massarella, a nonprofit consultant, offers six tips for breaking down barriers to self-care.


Attention and discussion around the importance of good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is growing, particularly in light of reports such as that by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Directors, which show that stress is the leading cause of long-term workplace absence. As a result, leading nonprofit directors are developing a wide range of strategies to create workplaces that prioritize staff wellbeing.

An important aspect of wellbeing is self-care, defined by my team at Bird as establishing and prioritising a routine of self support that promotes better health and wellbeing and leads to more creativity, improved productivity and stronger relationships.

However, nonprofit directors and managers face a range of unique challenges when it comes to self-care in the workplace.

The good news? There is a way forward.

Let’s look at some of the challenges first, and then dive into solutions.

The nature of nonprofit work

Whether it’s dealing with bereavement in cancer charities, working with vulnerable refugees, or supporting survivors of sexual violence in humanitarian crises, nonprofit employees often face emotionally challenging situations.

Working in the charity sector can feel more like a lifestyle than a job.

Despite a strong desire among nonprofit leaders to relieve staff of the emotional burden of their work, the unpredictable and unreliable nature of funding means this can be a challenge. Funding for staff wellbeing and development often competes with the pressure to invest all available resources into supporting beneficiaries, which at the end of the day is what the charities are judged on.

Embedded culture

Within the nonprofit sector, there is a culture of overwork—long hours, taking work home with you both emotionally and literally, and running out of time to take holidays or time off in lieu are all common place, despite many directors actively trying to change it.

Barriers are also often put up against the discussion of self-care, mental health, and the emotional impacts of common nonprofit culture. A reluctance to engage with emotions can be identified, with men often feeling like they are not able to speak up and admit they are struggling, and women experiencing accusations of being too emotional and therefore not up to the job.

Finding balance

This dedication to the cause that many nonprofit employees experience can become detrimental to other workplace relationships. It is common to spend all your empathy on the people you serve, and then have little left in the tank to support colleagues or team members.

Known as compassion fatigue, it can impact your relationships outside of work, as well.

As a result, directors and managers find themselves continuously trying to facilitate a balance between staff supporting themselves, others within the organization, and the people they serve.

Way forward

Despite the challenges, more leaders in the nonprofit sector are considering how to create healthy organizations. Our research at Bird suggests a two-pronged approach is needed.

Leaders need to encourage staff to practice their own self-care strategies and create a culture that supports them when they do.

Here are six self-care tips for nonprofits that want to build a healthier culture:

    1. Provide professional support.
    A number of organizations provide professional support services to staff. This includes specialist and confidential support for staff members, such as counseling services, one-to-one coaching, and mentors. Additional support is also provided via online portals, such as websites that contain a range of information on wellbeing and self-care, as well as forums and discussion pages.

    2. Invest in training programs.
    Nonprofits are also investing in training programs that aim to support individuals to self-care. This includes classes such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation for all team members.

    3. Make time for events and celebrations.
    Staff wellbeing can also be given a boost by organizing events that celebrate successes, increase morale, and improve relationships. Staff awards ceremonies, wellbeing days, or time together off-site can all have a positive impact on wellbeing.

    4. Put wellbeing at the front.
    Progressive nonprofit organizations are trying to incorporate and mainstream wellbeing into broader organizational structures. Recording time off and monitoring sick leave is key if anything is to be done about it. Hiring staff that understand the need for prioritizing wellbeing is also key. Having policies and procedures in place and visible to all emphasizes the focus on wellbeing across the organization.

    5. Provide autonomy and flexibility.
    Treating staff like adults who can manage their own workload and ability to find the best way to get tasks done is key to wellbeing. If a member of staff knows they will get a report finished if they can work at home, let them—they know what they need.

    6. Model wellbeing as a leader.
    Wellbeing practices won’t be prioritized by staff if they don’t see their leaders doing the same. A key piece of wellbeing in the workplace is modeling and sharing with your team when you are leaving early to get some headspace, or arriving late because you did an extended yoga session at home. Being open about what you need in order to stay focussed and driven will encourage others to do the same.

There is much work to do, but it isn’t impossible. We can prioritize wellbeing so nonprofit employees can remain balanced, resilient, and able to do the jobs that they are so passionate about.

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