3 Steps Every Nonprofit Can Take to Support Their Employees’ Mental Health

3 Steps Every Nonprofit Can Take to Support Their Employees’ Mental Health

This past weekend, we observed World Mental Health Day, an annual event intended to promote mental health and raise awareness about mental illness. One in four people are affected by a mental or neurological disorder in their lifetime, but due to the stigma associated with mental illness or limited access to resources, many struggle to find the support they need.

This year, World Mental Health Day took on a new significance for many employees at nonprofits and for-profit businesses alike. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home guidelines introduced new challenges and pressures that have taken a significant toll on employees’ mental wellbeing—from the eroding of boundaries between one’s work and personal life to the difficulties associated with being a working parent with children at home. In fact, a global study released in May found that 75% of employees feel more socially isolated as a result of the pandemic; 67% are more stressed, 57% are more anxious, and 53% feel more emotionally exhausted. 

For nonprofits supporting vulnerable communities who may have been harder hit by the pandemic than others, these pressures are doubly felt. But in order to deliver their programs, keep their mission moving forward, and create an organizational culture of caring, it’s essential for nonprofit leaders to prioritize the health and wellbeing of their staff. 

To find out what tangible steps you can take to support your people all year long, we reached out to Seneca Family of Agencies, an incredible mental health-focused nonprofit that, since 1985, has been doing whatever it takes to help children and families through the most difficult times of their lives. Johanna Navarro-Pérez, director of Seneca’s Todo Por Mi Familia program, kindly shared some of the things she’s doing to support her team, and her recommendations for organizations big and small.

1. Ensure employees are aware of the resources and options available to them

Every nonprofits’ resources are different. But if you do offer an employee assistance program (EAP) or health benefits that give employees access to professional mental health support, be sure to highlight them. Some employees might not be aware of the support available to them, or they may be unsure how to access these resources, so creating more visibility and understanding can go a long way toward increasing utilization. 

Even if you can’t provide access to professional support, you may be able to help your employees balance their professional and personal responsibilities and ease their stress. For example, if you know an employee is taking care of young children, it’s worth asking them if they’d prefer to adjust their hours to work around naptimes, homeschooling, and other responsibilities. After all, it’s more important for work to be done well and for your employees to be healthy than it is for strict schedules to be adhered to. 

“Ask yourself, what do I really need from them to be successful at work that isn’t just rules for the sake of rules?” Johanna says. 

2. Emphasize the importance of self-care

Self-care—any activity taken to protect and replenish one’s mental, emotional, and physical health—is critical to overall health and wellbeing. 

“At Seneca, we have a lot of conversations around how important self-care is and how important it is for you to take care of yourself before you can help anybody else,” Johanna says. “Think about what they tell you on planes: you have to put your own mask on first before you can help those around you.” 

Encouraging employees to take regular breaks and get some fresh air is one simple way you can promote self-care. Or, if you notice a person frequently working late, you might send them a quick message reminding them to take time for themselves. You can also lead by example by opening up about the self-care activities you engage in, whether that’s yoga, using a meditation app, or just unplugging from work in the evening while you catch up with your favorite Netflix show. 

3. Normalize the conversation around mental health

Talking about mental health can sometimes be uncomfortable for everyone involved, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid the conversation altogether. If you suspect an employee might be having a difficult time, you have a responsibility as a leader to check in and see how they’re doing. 

“Be genuine, transparent, and honest, even if that means admitting it’s uncomfortable,” Johanna says. “Just make it clear that you’re concerned about them, and that they’re welcome to share feedback about how you approached the conversation later, but that you’d feel worse if you didn’t ask. Often, if you invite people into your process—especially if your process is coming from a place of genuine caring for your staff—they’ll forgive you for any fumbles in the initial wording.”

To help put employees at ease, it’s crucial to approach these conversations tactfully. Don’t bring it up in a group setting like a staff meeting, even if that’s the moment when you recognize an employee might need help; instead, wait and reach out to them one-on-one afterward. And to avoid coming across as inauthentic, don’t approach the conversation from a place of too much familiarity. Frame the conversation around the fact as their boss, you’re truly invested in helping them be successful, even if that means they have to take some time off to take care of themselves.

The more you practice conversations like this, the easier they will be—for you and your team. This can also help reduce the stigma around mental illness and ensure you and people are equipped with the tools you need to make mental health a priority. 

“Invest in your own leadership skills and your own knowledge around mental health,” Johanna says. “Consult with other leaders, consult industry best practices, and approach the topic from a place of genuine curiosity.”

To further support the mental health and wellbeing of your people, consider giving employees access to courses like these ones on LinkedIn Learning

And to learn more about Seneca Family of Agencies and the vital work they do, visit their website.  


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