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Creating a Supportive Work Environment: Maintaining Mental Wellness in the Nonprofit Sector

Updated: May 24

As professionals in the nonprofit sector, we’re all here for similar reasons: To help people, to make the world a better place, to alleviate social problems for others that we have also experienced, and so on.


We dedicate our work to supporting those who are most vulnerable and lack access to appropriate services in our community. Whether you focus your efforts on criminal justice, education, health care, marketing, poverty, public policy, social work, etc., many of us have learned to carry the weight of others’ lives and adversities while attempting to balance the weight of our own problems. 


Because much of our work prioritizes the needs of others, this results in many of us de-prioritizing our own needs. Many different factors contribute to how we balance our mental health, from the countless hours we spend working and volunteering to the time spent commuting to and from the office, taking on multiple roles due to low staff, our exercise schedule, eating habits, finances, and even just the challenge of enjoying our personal time. 


Then there’s the part where we must process the traumas and experiences that the people who we work to support must face. Domestic violence, homelessness, homophobia, mental illness and suicide, racism, transphobia, substance use disorder, unstable employment and finances, and much more. Especially as all these problems that communities and nations face across the globe are live-streamed on the news and reported instantly on social media, the negativity that we are forced to digest and normalize only continues to strain our ability to distinguish between our true, inherent passions and the tribulations that motivate us to help those around us. 


Working in the public sector is draining. Yes, you have the opportunity to dedicate your efforts to solutions and strategies that benefit other community members and alleviate some of their challenges, but it’s time that we also recognize how exhausting our work is.


As professionals and leaders within the nonprofit sector, it’s of the utmost importance to recognize how our workloads can negatively impact our — and others’ — well-being, and how the lack of attention to the warning signs that our mind and body need a break can lead to even more severe states. We all must work on integrating self-care and wellness practices within our daily routine, as well as building support networks. Otherwise, feelings and experiences associated with the illnesses we all know a little too well — like burnout, anxiety, and depression — may only worsen to a point where we feel completely hopeless.


In an effort to, not just increase awareness around the importance of mental health, but also to encourage conversations and initiatives in the workplace, nonprofit professionals and organizations need to take the lead. By being a part of these crucial, and somewhat uncomfortable, conversations and mental health initiatives, we can work together to promote self-care and nourish our mental health for the benefit of employees who ensure that the nonprofit sector within the Phoenix Metro area thrives. 


Here are some strategies to try with colleagues or individually:


  1. Open dialogue & building awareness: Foster open conversations and discuss factors affecting mental health. Provide resources that employees and volunteers can access to alleviate stress and promote mental well-being.

  2. Flexible work schedules & healthy work-life balance: If your organization and/or certain roles permit, collaborate with employees and volunteers and establish more accommodating work models, incorporating hybrid or remote positions. Encourage employees to use vacation days and respect their boundaries. It’s especially important to recognize that while some professionals may communicate after work hours or on the weekend, others may experience increased stress from this style of communication. Consider adding a note in your email signature that expresses the non-urgency of matters or one that acknowledges employees’ set work boundaries. 

  3. Clear communication: Always clearly indicate deadlines for tasks and expectations to mitigate stress. Check in regularly with colleagues to discuss concerns or challenges, provide feedback, and acknowledge their achievements to elevate morale. 

  4. Mental health workshops: Provide training that educates team members on the signs of mental health challenges. Consider offering a mental health first aid class to team members or welcoming a guest speaker to have an open dialogue to reduce stigma. 

  5. Build a support network: This may consist of family members, friends, and/or colleagues. It’s important to have a strong support system of people you can talk to about the challenges you experience or to celebrate your accomplishments. 

  6. Identify your leisure activities: As nonprofit professionals, it’s not uncommon for us to tell ourselves that our passion — our work — is what we do for fun. But if it hasn’t taken a toll on you yet, it’s only a matter of time. Finding leisure activities that genuinely re-energize you will give you the boost you need to complete your job responsibilities to your fullest. These may range from art to sports or yoga, meditation, reading, crocheting, cooking, and more.


This Mental Health Awareness Month, I encourage you all to find time for yourself and identify healthy coping mechanisms & ways to practice self-care that go beyond your commitment to your work and volunteerism. 

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