Stella Smith: It's time for the sector to acknowledge its unhealthy relationship with stress

Dealing with stress is central to much of what charities do, but there is not enough recognition of our own bad working habits

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

We all need a bit of stress from time to time. The occasional shot of adrenaline can be incredibly useful, propelling us out from under the duvet and into action.

It’s a fine line, however, between a touch of motivational stress and that draining continuous anxious stress that is responsible for all sorts of physical ailments, from headaches to higher blood pressure and bad backs.

This is a particular problem for charities, because dealing with stress is central to much of what we do.

Whether we’re supporting victims of domestic violence, helping to raise funds for cancer treatments or fighting to preserve our natural environment, our staff and volunteers step into the difficult situations that others prefer to ignore.

This altruism comes at a cost. In a recent study by the charity insurer Ecclesiastical of 200 charity leaders, more than half said that workplace stress has increased in the past three years and more should be done to help stressed staff.

It is a worrying finding, but what can be done? And who should be doing it?

The challenge for organisations is that stress is highly infectious. When people get overly anxious, they focus on short-term solutions to immediate problems. In doing so, they lose their ability to see the bigger picture, to think strategically and empathise with others.

This in turn causes problems and stress for others and before you know it, you have an organisation full of stressed staff and volunteers, and a very toxic culture.

Although people might want to break out of this vicious cycle, stress can also be addictive. If you’ve been rushing around, frantically hitting deadlines for weeks, months and years, it becomes a way of being.

Many people who are stressed will be creating problems for themselves and others, but might not be able to see another way of behaving.

If we are to address this issue effectively, we need to challenge some basic assumptions about how we work. There are too many people in the sector who are almost proud of their stress.

We still hear staff describe their overflowing inboxes and late-night working as if they are evidence of their heroism, rather than what they really are: a symptom of poor organisation and job design.

This admiration of overwork is damaging and it’s time we recognised if for what it is. Being continuously stressed for extended periods of time is not a badge of honour but a potential indicator of a mental health problem.

There are some great stress-management courses out there that provide staff with useful tips and techniques. An employee assistance helpline can provide a confidential space in which to discuss problems.

In the same way, therapists, counsellors and mindfulness apps all have their place. However, although organisational stress-management approaches are useful, they work only if the people involved recognise the problem and are willing to take action.

It is time to acknowledge the damage stress is causing for ourselves, our colleagues and our organisations. Charity leaders are right that something needs to be done.

If they can lead the way by recognising and managing their own stress, that would be an excellent first step.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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