Advancing Philanthropy

In the Workplace: Prioritizing Mental Health in the Workplace—The Time is Now for Nonprofits

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woman with depression with her head in her hands

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified mental health issues at an astonishing rate, with a swell of stress, anxiety and isolation that has consistently worsened since early 2020. While there is much to be optimistic about today, coping with the emotional and mental fallout from COVID-19 will continue for years to come.

According to one Centers for Disease Control report, which surveyed adults across the U.S. in late June 2020, 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% reported having started or increased substance use, 26% reported stress-related symptoms, and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that these numbers are nearly double the rates we would have expected before the pandemic. As in prior studies, this survey showed that risk factors for reporting anxiety symptoms or suicidal ideation included food insufficiency, financial concerns and loneliness.

What was initially thought to be a temporary separation from office life became a radical transition in our work culture today. After all the government-imposed lockdowns, curfews, social distancing, and quarantines, work became more remote, isolating, and socially disconnected. Although all these safeguards were put in place to protect us from a deadly pandemic, the aftermath of this dramatic shift has moved mental health to a new level of importance for nonprofits to address.

african american man sitting at a desk with his head in his handsThe landscape of our workforce has drastically changed, and this has not happened without consequences to the workers themselves. Social distancing and remote work have separated us from our colleagues, donors, and populations we serve—that separation has caused a great deal of emotional disconnectedness and loneliness. Because of this, it has never been more critical for nonprofits to develop and implement, employee mental health and wellness programs.

Over the last couple of years, the conversation around mental health has become more open and public, but where the discussion still falls short is around the stigma faced by working professionals at all levels. Discussing mental health in the workplace is still a difficult subject and one that potentially puts employees at risk of being diminished or unfairly treated by colleagues and organizational leadership. The fear of bias and discriminatory attitudes toward those with a mental illness is what keeps many suffering in silence.

It’s great that organizations are promoting Employee Assistance (EAP) programs and listing available resources. However, we still have a long way to go before the workplace becomes a comfortable environment to disclose a mental illness without the fear of judgment or consequences.

For everyday people (working professionals, seniors, and students), when we disclose a mental illness, we fear losing the three things that matter the most in our lives: family, friends, and our jobs!

Disclosing a mental illness shouldn’t mean giving up anything or losing those who should be supporting you, but for many, that fear is real.

Leaders need to openly show support in order for change to take place. When leaders are vulnerable about mental health and share their experiences or the experiences of those closest to them, it helps create transparency—and acceptance—in the workplace. Sharing stories makes it easier for employees to ask for help when they need it. These stories can also help take the fear out of their own disclosure.

To talk about mental health, you have to understand the stigma and the power it has over people and their decisions about taking care of their mental health. The stigma associated with mental illness can be divided into two types: (1) social stigma, which involves the prejudiced attitudes others have around mental illness; and (2) self-perceived stigma, which involves an internalized stigma the person with the mental illness suffers from.

Some key statistics that help give insight to the growing concern about mental health in both the United States and Canada include:

  • One-in-five Americans and Canadians has a mental illness. (NIMH and the Center for Addiction and Mental Health)
  • Forty-one percent of Americans have dealt with an untreated mental illness. (Mental Health First Aid)
  • On any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians are unable to go to work because of mental health or mental illness. (Canadian Mental Health Association)
  • Forty million Americans suffer from anxiety. (Anxiety and Depression Association of America)

Nonprofit leaders today have the responsibility to look after their people and that requires two very important elements: continuing education and the willingness to leave their comfort zones. The goal for leaders should be to promote the acceptance and inclusion of those managing a mental health challenge or suffering from profound grief and loss. Normalizing conversations about mental health is still one of the best ways to reduce stigma within the workplace.

It’s critical that nonprofits recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health. Those who invest and prioritize mental health, wellness and self-care can create a healthier work culture for their employees.

Promoting mental health and wellness can positively impact employee retention and the recruitment of top talent. These investments can also show a significant improvement in employee engagement, morale and job satisfaction. Nevertheless, where so many organizations fall short is how to act and when to start. Both the research and employees say that the time is now.

Cultivating a culture of empathy, psychological safety and wellness requires consistency and effort. As nonprofit leaders, we have the power to support our employees with dignity and compassion. Leadership today is about taking care of the people responsible for the work, not just the work itself. Now, more than ever, it is essential to instill the importance of nurturing an environment of openness to better support our employees.

Social distancing and remote work have separated us from our colleagues, donors, and populations we serve — that separation has caused a great deal of emotional disconnectedness and loneliness.

We are entering a very interesting period of this pandemic, where the adrenaline and fear have worn off and the crisis is subsiding. However, a number of challenges remain for our sector. As nonprofit professionals begin to work out new flexible work options and return to the office, leaders have an opportunity to be more proactive moving forward when it comes to mental health and wellness. There are several ways organizations can help with this transition that also support employee mental health. Here are just a few helpful strategies:

  • Check-in and listen (regularly)
  • Practice gratitude
  • Create no-meeting days
  • Encourage self-care breaks
  • Celebrate small wins together
  • Make it OK to talk about feelings and uncertainty
  • Recognize and reward good work
  • Prioritize wellness

From May through October, there are various awareness days you can observe at your organization, such as Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Minority Mental Health Month in July, National Suicide Prevention Week in September, and World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10. Take this time to share resources, articles and inspirational stories of lived experiences and recovery—you never know who it will help.

To everyone in the AFP community who is an advocate, caregiver, or willing to share their story of lived experience: Your VOICE changes the mental health and addiction discussion. Your EFFORTS help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and recovery. And Your ACTIONS save lives every day.

Words like mental illness, addiction, and suicide can immediately and forever change a person’s life. They did for me. For those who suffer in silence, this can be a life or death issue. I don’t believe most people fully realize how much effort, strength and courage it takes to pull yourself out of a mentally dark place. To anyone struggling right now with their recovery, mental illness, or profound grief and loss—you are brave, you are strong, and you will get through this. Most importantly, always remember, you are not alone.

Talking about mental health today isn’t just a moment, talking about mental health today is a movement. This movement needs more advocates, activists and champions. And while tackling mental health can be challenging, organizations and nonprofit leaders are in a powerful position to help change attitudes and offer a vital support system.

ian adairIan Adair is a nonprofit industry influencer, TEDx speaker, and recognized expert in leadership, fundraising, and nonprofit management. He is a speaker, writer and advocate for mental health awareness and addressing mental health in the workplace. Ian is the author of “Stronger Than Stigma, A Call To Action: Stories of Grief, Loss, and Inspiration!” He is the executive director of the Gracepoint Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Gracepoint, one of the largest behavioral health organizations in Florida. Gracepoint impacts the lives of more than 30,000 individuals each year seeking mental health, medical, and addiction services in the Tampa Bay area.

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