Are charities facing a wellbeing crisis?

After a year that rocked the sector’s resilience, it’s no surprise that people are feeling the strain. But are wellbeing challenges in the sector extending beyond the pandemic?

Priya Changela and Dan Jones. Portraits by Colin Stout
Priya Changela and Dan Jones. Portraits by Colin Stout

In September, Dan Jones, global head of campaigns at WaterAid, found himself crumpled on the edge of his bed, “sobbing in pain and desperation as my wife tried to convince me I wasn’t losing my mind”. 

The Covid-19 pandemic had pushed Jones’ work to a point that it felt as though it was taking over his life. Long days with no clear boundaries had become the norm, he says, combined with an interim leadership role and personal pressure to prove his worth during a period of extreme uncertainty.

“There was also lots of long overdue debate within our sector about decolonising international development, and I was having some serious existential angst about how I, a white British man, could play a role in this – or if I simply shouldn’t be working in this field any more,” he says. “At the same time, many of the ‘taps’ in my life, the joys and replenishments, got switched off.”

This was not Jones’ first experience with mental ill-health: he describes his anxiety manifesting as thick clouds flooding his mind and clogging it up with negative thoughts. 

“I can no longer see the horizon, or the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can’t calibrate the size of my worry against the rational size of the external problem,” he says. 

“I’m in a hole. It’s deep, dark, terrifying, and I’m alone down there. And then, why not throw in some self-hatred as well?”

Jones ended up taking time off, beginning a phased return to WaterAid in November, just as conversations about a mental wellbeing crisis in the third sector began to intensify. 

Given the relentless challenges of 2020, it is no surprise that people were expressing concern. Such conversations have taken place across all walks of life, and it is hard to imagine a single person who made it through the past year without any impact on their stress levels or resilience.

But could Jones’ experience illustrate a wider problem for the charity sector, and the specific set of professional challenges and pressures that working within it involves? And if the demands of working in charity risks contributing to poor wellbeing or, at worst, mental ill-health among staff, how can organisations support them? 

When personal meets professional

The suggestion that third sector professionals feel compelled to take on more work in support of their organisation’s charitable aims makes sense. After all, a huge number of people work for charities because they care about an injustice or an inequality, and are invested in helping to repair it. 

But when Third Sector surveyed more than 350 people working in or for charities to gauge their mental wellbeing, what became clear is just how stark this feeling is – and the consequences it brings.

More than 90 per cent of respondents had experienced feelings of stress, overwhelm or burnout as a result of their work in 2020, with 91 per cent saying that their commitment to the charity’s mission drove them to work longer hours or take on more than they could cope with. 

Many described a commitment driven by a “pressure to perform”, a desire to “not let colleagues down”, or their own personal drive. 

One person wrote: “It was impossible to do the job adequately and safely in the hours I was paid for,” while another said they had left the sector due to burnout after 20 years.

Not surprisingly 80 per cent of respondents mentioned the Covid-19 pandemic, citing the multiple challenges of adjusting to working from home while balancing personal issues and family pressures, and increased workload due to other staff being furloughed. 

“[I am] balancing being a support for vulnerable service users’ wellbeing through this crisis while having strained personal wellbeing due to the pandemic,” one wrote. 

“I feel like I have less capacity to be truly helpful because I feel overwhelmed myself, and don’t have helpful coping tools to offer – there are no easy solutions in a pandemic.” 

More than a quarter of respondents were worried about job insecurity, and almost half (41 per cent) expressed concern over a lack of professional resources. More than a third (35 per cent) were anxious about their service users. 

I am balancing being a support for vulnerable service users’ wellbeing through this crisis while having strained personal wellbeing due to the pandemic 

Third Sector wellbeing survey respondent, December 2020 

The compelling sense of mission embedded within the sector can be a powerful draw for people who want to improve the world, but it also comes with a unique set of demands. 

Speaking at Third Sector’s wellbeing briefing in December, Emma Mamo, head of wellbeing and engagement at the mental health charity Mind, agreed that elements of working in the sector could contribute to wellbeing challenges. 

“If people are choosing to work in the third sector it’s probably because they are very values-driven and they identify with the cause they are working in, even if that cause is more broadly something like disability, justice and social equality,” she said.

“As well as wanting to go the extra mile when needed, the charity sector has always had issues around leanness, lack of resource and tackling important issues – so there is a challenge that everything could fit within your mission, and a feeling of ‘if not us, then who?’, which can create heavy workloads for staff.”  

Whether it’s austerity, conflict, natural disasters, or a global health epidemic, the charity sector can often be found on the sharp end of most national and international crises. Nearly 85 per cent of Third Sector survey respondents said they are willing to put themselves through longer hours and subsequently poorer wellbeing environments when their charity is dealing with such an event. 

“I had no choice – I was professionally obligated to, never mind morally,” one respondent wrote. 

As Mamo pointed out: “There is also a lot of emotional labour associated with our work, and the vicarious traumatisation we can experience when we support people going through the toughest experiences of their lives.” 

This can be particularly profound in instances where a cause area is overlaid with personal experience. 

Kirsten Mitchell set up Manchester-based charity Spoons Neonatal Family Support in 2015, to provide peer support, visit neonatal units and chat to families, after her son was born prematurely.

“My little boy was placed on the neonatal unit when he was born at 24 weeks, so I spent a lot of time in neonatal care. I had post-traumatic stress disorder after he was born,” she says. 

Throughout the pandemic Mitchell ran the charity alongside her full-time job and childcare responsibilities – “I was trying to homeschool, motivate volunteers, think of new ways to reach parents, and meet changing guidelines” – all the while feeling for the charity’s service users, who had been left without often the only person they could talk to, because they had been through similar experiences. 

Every Spoons volunteer has, at one time, been a parent in a neonatal unit. Mitchell explains that they have to agree to see a counsellor at least every two months, because they are being re-exposed to that trauma through their charity work. “It has felt impossible sometimes, it really has – but I’ve always practised holistic methods like reiki and mindfulness,” she says. 

Supporting volunteers is something that Julie Bentley, chief executive of Samaritans, is also acutely aware of, as they form one of the front lines of the organisation. 

“Samaritans volunteers are the ones that answer the phones, and they are the ones taking the calls from distressed and maybe suicidal individuals. So we always have volunteers being supported by a shift leader if they need to,” she explains. 

As a leader, and as a sector, a lot of care needs to be provided for volunteers, Bentley says, as services would not be delivered without them. 

Workload and culture 

While external stresses took a clear toll on the wellbeing of Third Sector survey respondents, workplace culture was also repeatedly flagged – almost three-quarters of people felt pushed into taking on more work by their organisation. 

Being pressured to meet charitable aims is just “what the sector runs on,” according to one anonymous respondent, while another wrote: “So often, the work needs to be done before people see there is a need for it and understand the ambition and the potential. 

“You end up doing two jobs, and running yourself into the ground before more resources can be committed.” 

Paradoxically, only 17 per cent of the survey respondents admitted to inflicting pressure on others at work. Asked whether they had ever been responsible for placing colleagues under pressure, the majority of the 27 people who provided written responses answered: “I hope not”, “not intentionally”, “probably”, and “I try my best not to”. 

Yet more than 65 per cent said their workload left them with a poor work-life balance. 

“Unfortunately in fundraising, the reality is people aren’t going to tell you you’ve raised enough money,” says Dan Hall, fundraising manager at The Listening Place, a charity that offers free, face-to face support to people who are feeling suicidal.

“Demand goes up, you take on new colleagues or services – I was equating my own self-worth with the organisation.” 

Hall was encouraged to take time out from his role in February 2020 after, he says, his relationship with work became unhealthy. 

He describes presenting one side of himself to the outside world but feeling another, while feeling additional pressure for keeping his colleagues in their job. “Vicariously you become hyper-aware of the problem,” he says. 

“I work with a very distressing subject matter and I had been disengaging from it emotionally. It got to a point where I was dreading going in and talking about it.” 

Almost half (38 per cent) of respondents mentioned poor organisational culture when talking about major contributors to their stress. They wrote about bullying, in some cases by a trustee chair or chief executive, unreasonable demands, out-of-touch boards, and limited support. Several said racism, racial injustice, and racial tensions within their organisation were having a negative impact on their mental health.

I work with a very distressing subject matter and I had been disengaging from it emotionally. It got to a point where I was dreading going in and talking about it.

Dan Hall, fundraising manager, The Listening Place

One person of colour who spoke to Third Sector, but wished to remain anonymous, explains: “I’m not afraid of mental health stigma, I’m afraid of white people. My biggest source of mental distress is seeing white colleagues dig their heels in and refuse to acknowledge there is an issue, that they are complicit, and then be made to do what it says on their policies.”

They describe the mental toll of racism and microaggressions as having a huge impact on black and brown professionals working in the sector. “It’s always framed as offence. I’m not offended – it’s trauma, racism is trauma.”

As an example they cite a recent story about Versus Arthritis, when the charity apologised following allegations that described an independent investigation into claims of bullying and racism at the charity as intimidating and “victim-blaming”. 

“That is the case in point – real ugly terms of how harmful this is, white comfort taking precedence over black and brown trauma. If you speak out, then it can be a target on your back, one more white person who thinks you are playing the race card,” they said. “They find fault with our tone rather than the content of what we’re saying, playing on the ‘angry black/brown person’ trope.”

Indeed, one respondent to Third Sector’s survey wrote that “aggressive behaviours from those accusing charity of racism” had been a cause for concern.

Priya Changela is the direct marketing and fundraising officer at the Disasters Emergency Committee, and sits on the equality, inclusion and diversity committee at the Institute of Fundraising. She agrees there is a much larger conversation needed about the experiences of people of colour when it comes to mental health issues in the sector.

“When they are dealing with power structures in their organisations, even if it’s a purpose they believe in, if there is not a culture supportive of their own values it can be harder for them to express their needs,” she says. 

Changela adds that she regularly hears from people of colour who work in the sector describing situations in which they feel unable to express themselves, or that there is a lack of praise and support when it comes to their work.

Vital supports

In December last year, charity leaders body Acevo published its Workforce Wellbeing in Charities report in partnership with Mental Health First Aid England and a small working group of charity leaders. 

Among its recommendations it said there was a “clear need for more compassionate, sensitive and flexible governance in many organisations”. 

“Understanding that we have a responsibility to staff wellbeing is incredibly important,” says Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England and deputy chair of LGBT rights charity Stonewall. 

Organisations must have a clear commitment to mental health and wellbeing, and to helping colleagues stay connected, according to Blake. Leaders need to be honest, with relationships that are built on trust and openness. 

“Understanding that we have a responsibility to staff wellbeing is incredibly important

Simon Blake, chief executive, Mental Health First Aid England

“Ensure that what we are saying is being heard,” he explains. “We would advocate a wellbeing conversation as part of every one-to-one meeting to ask ‘What are you doing to look after yourself?’, make sure managers are confident enough to have these conversations, and know this is expected of them.”

Keeping connected is equally important, he says, as well as trying to foster the right culture. 

“We need to pay attention to what bits of culture and office life are being lost. You don’t have to have all the answers as managers, but it has to be a top-down approach.”

Speaking at the Third Sector wellbeing briefing, Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, said that, both morally and practically, there is no excuse for employers to not be thinking about wellbeing.

“If you have an organisation where most people are experiencing more challenges than they have the resources to deal with, then the culture of that organisation and the health and wellbeing of it is under threat,” she said.

Third Sector’s survey suggests most feel that charity bosses can do more to make life better for their staff, by helping them manage stress and guarding against becoming immersed in their work around the clock. 

Many called for charities to normalise consideration of mental health with sick leave policies that explicitly mention it, including preventative and ongoing treatment; and to encourage self-care plans that develop regular exercise, sleep routines, frequent breaks, healthy eating, relaxation and pursuit of hobbies. 

When Peters joined Blood Cancer UK in 2018 the organisation was in the grip of a wellbeing crisis, with an employee turnover of 44 per cent, high levels of sickness absence, and no wellbeing interventions in place.

“People were working so hard, but with no recognition and no parameters about how people could thrive,” she explained. 

Peters began working to drive a programme of culture change that focused on the people: having conversations throughout the charity to understand the ‘blockers’ to good wellbeing, then working quickly to clear them.

The charity implemented interventions such as the training of Mental Health First Aiders, flexible working, one-to-one conversations between managers and staff, and introduced social clubs and activities. It also took regular pulse surveys to benchmark progress. 

In one such survey taken in July 2020 – despite the many challenges of working in a pandemic – the number of staff taking five or more days of sick leave a year had fallen from 38 per cent to less than three per cent, and staff turnover had halved to 21 per cent. The percentage of staff who would recommend the organisation as a good employer had jumped from 41 per cent in 2018, to 95 per cent. 

“When I think about what the organisation can do, I’m thinking in terms of physical resources like how much money we have (a lot less than before), but I’m also thinking about what emotional resources I have in the organisation,” Peters reflected. 

Resourcing wellbeing can be a problem, especially for small organisations. Recent research by the Small Charities Coalition found that nine out of 10 small charities believe they do not have access to sufficient mental health support for their staff and volunteers, with just 43 per cent saying they felt sufficiently supported in the workplace. 

Only one-fifth of its respondents were confident enough to talk about an issue with their manager.

Third Sector’s survey found similar results, with just over half saying they felt there was not enough support in their organisation. 

We have to take a principles-based approach to wellbeing, because everyone works in such different contexts. You might have people working in retail, offices or outside, and all of them must feel supported

Emma Mamo, head of wellbeing and engagement, Mind 

Just 21 per cent felt “very comfortable” discussing mental health issues with their line manager, 40 per cent “somewhat comfortable”, and 31 per cent “uncomfortable”.

Staff may be reluctant or cynical about wellbeing initiatives, Peters says, but it is the job of a leader to be aware of the issue, to keep working on it, and to always be honest. 

“If you are worried about the team feeling cynical, say you understand – but that you are serious and you want it to work,” she says. “It’s important to champion this, and involve other champions and different voices too.” 

If organisations don’t have the funds or capacity for HR support, Mental Health First Aiders, and other resources, MHFA’s Blake recommends signposting colleagues to other organisations that offer advice. But the most important thing organisations can invest in, experts say, is time.

“We have to take a principles-based approach to wellbeing, because everyone works in such different contexts. You might have people working in retail, [in office environments] or outside, and all of them must feel supported,” Mamo advises. 

“The first principle is being focused on staff wellbeing – you need to be holding regular check-ins with people, understanding how they are doing, and how you can best support them.

“The second principle is the need to offer clarity to staff in terms of the new processes being put in place as a result of the pandemic, and the new platforms and ways of working. Therefore we need to create discipline, structure and rules around them, and consolidate them as much as possible.”

The third principle is about creating a sense of community and moments of social connection and facilitating dialogue at work, which is vital, especially now people are working from home and in hybrid ways, Mamo adds.

“Finally, the most important thing in this principles-based approach is to be agile and reflective, look at what is working and what is not, and recognise that something that worked a month ago might not necessarily work now.”

The DEC encourages Changela to take time off in lieu following a busy appeal. She explains that burnout, for her, often results in troubled sleeping and insomnia. It is a unique working environment, she says, because the team only springs into action during an emergency: “Two weeks of intense fundraising, working really late. When an appeal happens I can get quite buzzed and you’re running on adrenaline. But the tiredness comes after, when I step back and realise how much work I’d done.”

But, she says, the organisation is good at checking in. “We all keep in touch and ask each other how we’re feeling and check in with each other, which is really important. In quieter periods people’s motivation can dip, but I think that’s pretty normal.”

The Listening Place’s Hall says organisations should focus on building resilience.

“For us it meant being able to ask for help, and making that distinction between narrative and your own self-worth, because I equated it with the charity’s mission,” he says.

“Acknowledgement of a job well done and positive reinforcement can really help. I was lucky to be in a charity where I could easily access support – not everyone will be as fortunate.”

For WaterAid’s Jones, experiencing a mental-health crisis evoked disappointment at being in that position again after five years of hard work including medication and therapy. But he says it’s most important to be able to
talk to someone and hear that you are not alone. 

Jones’ wife has been his most important source of support, but he also counts himself lucky to be comfortable reaching out to his line manager, and that WaterAid had supportive policies as he made a phased return to work. 

“I had a bit of existential angst from taking time off, but people need to recognise it’s sick leave – you’re unwell. You wouldn’t have this angst if you broke your leg. Rest is just as crucial for the brain as any other part of the body,” he says.

“It never feels like what I want to do, it always feels hard and requires courage: but telling friends and family – people I trust, who love me – that I am struggling helps me banish some of my most self-critical thoughts.”

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