“Round and round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows.”
~ Major Bowes Amateur Hour, c. 1930s
Nonprofits across America are facing the same situation. Rising demand for services in the face of a severe labor shortage. Each part of this problem aggravates the other, until it might seem that you’ll never find a way out of all the struggles. To be sure, the pandemic triggered some thorny nonprofit sustainability challenges, such as the Great Resignation. But let’s be honest — a lot of the problems currently overpowering the American workforce have been brewing since well before COVID-19. In this post, we’ll take a look at where we are today, how we got here, and what you can do to help your staff cope with that wild and wicked ride known as STRESS.
Where We Stand
Mental Health America (MHA) reported in April that 70% of American employees they surveyed last year were finding it difficult to concentrate at work. The study of 11,300 US employees shows a precipitous rise in the stress symptoms employees are feeling from 65% in 2020 and 46% in 2018. Of course, the pandemic has played a large role in this, but we should also consider other factors. Clearly, the events of 2022 — even with the easing of some pandemic pressures — have done very little to assuage workers’ concerns.
With everything going on in the nation and the world, it’s no surprise that American workers are feeling vulnerable and anxious. Threats to personal wellness and safety constantly lead national news stories. Included in the mix, COVID-19 still looms, and inflation has tugged at the nonprofit worker’s ability to make ends meet. Your employees must heap these external fears upon the traditional career concerns, which results in pernicious workplace stress.
How We Got Here
Consider the most common stress-inducing problems related to workplace culture. These remain unchanged from survey reports of years past. Lack of recognition for employees’ contributions remains a problem. There’s also workplace harassment which unfortunately, some nonprofits have done little to address. Left unhandled, this kind of problem will not only stress employees to the point of burnout, it will stain your employer brand permanently.
Also, many nonprofits lack a real path to career success for everyone, not just a chosen few. Developing a culture of support in all areas has been difficult for many nonprofits. The MHA survey reported that:
- Only 40% of employees agree that their company invests in developing supportive managers.
- Less than half of employees know about their company’s mental health services, and only 38% would feel safe using those services.
- Two out of every three employees are not comfortable providing feedback to their manager.
The survey lists more illustrations of problems taking place in America’s workplace cultures. If you haven’t done so lately, this is a good time to survey your own team for their particular stressors. It will be no surprise that different fields bring varying challenges; medical nonprofits often face compassion fatigue while workers in educational nonprofits can be stressed by low pay. Find out what is ailing your staff, so you can determine the best way to address those issues.
Unrest From Uncertainties
With the advent of the Great Resignation, positions are staying unfilled longer, which means that remaining employees are exhausted. Like riders unable to escape an eternally moving carousel, the fact that they are stuck in such an uncertain and incessant situation will no doubt make it feel worse. Even the most dedicated workers will eventually burn out. Nonprofit leaders who have failed to carefully balance workloads between remaining team members will likely notice this more than others.
After more than two years working remotely, some employees are still just simply not ready to return to onsite work. While a number of nonprofits have required workers to return, the fact remains that this is causing stress for those who don’t yet feel safe in the workplace. Help them adjust by ensuring that you keep up with current CDC guidelines in knowledge and practice. Then, communicate your safety practices. Transparency will ease tension. As COVID-19 case rates rise and fall, help your employees trust that you are going to do everything in your power to keep them safe, which includes establishing a caring culture.
Even remote workers may be feeling stressed about their careers. Take steps to account for proximity bias, an unconscious preference that leaders feel toward staff members they see in person over employees who aren’t onsite.
Uncertainty remains a huge stressor. This is the “nobody knows” part of the rhyme above. Unclear or changing job expectations will cause your employees to lose faith in their abilities to meet your demands. Uncertainty is a given in today’s world, but vague job performance expectations will only add to the weight they shoulder regarding overall career ambiguity, organizational changes, and even the dread of workplace violence.
Individuals & Organizations
Eight in 10 of the survey respondents stated that the stress from work affects their relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. Of course, it also affects their employers.
Stressed workers exhibit lowered performance, possibly due, in part, to lack of sleep. They become anxious and uncommunicative. At some point, most burn out and quit. This has been part of the Great Resignation, particularly for nonprofit employees suffering low-pay issues. They will resign to find better paid jobs in another industry, if that’s what it takes to escape the stress of unpaid bills. Longtime employees who have always taken strength from their belief in your mission might lose that resolve when they can’t afford to put gas in their car or food on their table.
Employers have been using temporary or contract workers to fill talent gaps, which can help in the short term. But bear in mind that this rarely provides a long-term solution. It’s an employees’ job market, and unless they want to work on-call, gig workers are finding opportunities to move up to full-time positions that have become more available.
When workers are stressed, job satisfaction scores plummet. Turnover becomes a problem and hiring new staff with a tarnished employer brand will be difficult.
Steps to Take
Here are some steps that can help destress your staff and keep your nonprofit moving forward:
- Communicate more than ever. Try transparency, as in posting an equitable pay schedule that lets everyone know your compensation is fair. Open discussions on all topics of stress, including workplace safety. Be honest, and approach discussions with a real interest in addressing their concerns.
- Offer wellness benefits. Provide services for mental and physical health, and advocate for a positive culture that encourages using these services as part of constructive healthcare practices.
- Offer fun and healthy activities. Whether it’s online Yoga classes for remote employees or group walks at lunchtime for those who work onsite, be creative in providing opportunities to enjoy life and increase their wellness.
- Offer paid time off. Encourage your employees to take time off for their needs without having to explain why they’re absent.
- Build more flexibility in deadlines and schedules. If they’re covering for lost coworkers, offer overtime pay, too. But equally important, let them catch a breath between assignments.
- Be the example that speaks to your culture. If you work long hours, your staff will see that as a requirement for success. Work-life balance is essential to everyone, and an annual vacation should be encouraged for all, including you.
UST’s Content Library provides valuable resources to help you halt that stressful unmerry-go-round, so your staff can find their footing on solid ground, once again.
This blog post was written by Beth Black, consulting writer and editor to UST. Visit PracticalPoet.com to view Beth’s online portfolio and learn more about her editorial services.