When my charity's chief executive talks about the importance of emotional intelligence, I put the best quotes on Twitter. When HR has a new policy on wellbeing, I put up posters about it. When our clients take up new hobbies, I draw out, in their case studies, how important enrichment activities are for self-esteem – how helping them rebuild their lives is about the whole person.
The commissioning landscape for service charities means we keep battling each other for contracts and keep merging to survive. The scaling-up process isn’t without growing pains. In my charity the stakes, scope and speed of the work have accelerated, but there hasn’t been enough structure or resource to support it. Over-stretched departments are creating stress and burnout, so at the same time that mental health has taken up a larger and larger place in my charity's remit, the working atmosphere has become increasingly bleak. Some of my colleagues have gradually become withdrawn; others have left suddenly.
When the workload was at its highest – around the same time as my charity was running a self-harm campaign – the pressure and the reminder combined. I found myself self-harming for the first time in years.
When I needed to use flexitime to see my therapist, my manager told me no. She said if I was going to keep having these appointments I needed to use my annual leave. The HR team told me that my manager was not technically breaking any rules and, if I didn’t like it, I might want to think about leaving, for my own wellbeing. The very next day our HR department, coincidentally, asked me to put something on the intranet – about wellbeing.
Having to fight for access to my own mental health treatment while celebrating my charity’s mental health services creates huge cognitive dissonance. When my to-do list includes writing wellbeing tips, I consider listing "antidepressants and gallows humour". Lately I’ve needed both to stop me crying at my desk.
Organisationally, the charity understands that our service users are all complex ecosystems that need nurturing. So it’s odd that the management team doesn’t seem to appreciate that its own employees are subject to the same pressures as those we support. It displays a lack of empathy and 360-degree thinking.
Chats in the pub have shown me my story is far from unique. I’ve heard many a story about teams in the third sector being so short-staffed that they feel on the brink of crisis. One friend told me that, after returning to work at a mental health charity after taking time off for stress, she was given a form with a tick box that read "employee has been made aware of the impact of their absence on colleagues".
Another friend described the employee assistance programme offered by her charity as a "well-intentioned excuse". When she rang the programme, they said her needs were too much for them to support and packed her off with the offer of a one-off appointment with a counsellor.
Each organisation is only as good as its weakest link, and charities have a duty to set an example inside and out. Professionally we know that people in a crisis aren’t in the best place to advocate for their own needs. By following best practice and extending the same sympathy and kindness to staff as to service users, charities might start to walk the walk too. It’s not like we don’t know how.
The author works for a well-known charity and asked to remain anonymous