Kate Massarella: How to improve the wellbeing and mental health of your team

29 Mar 2018 Voices

Kate Massarella from Bird – an organisation founded by Hannah Massarella that promotes and facilitates self-care and wellbeing in the charity sector – looks at what charity leaders can do to help improve the wellbeing and mental health of their teams.

The jury is in and the verdict is clear: wellbeing in the workplace is critical to the effective running of organisations. But how do not-for-profit organisations go about improving the mental health and wellbeing of their teams?

Introducing practical changes into the structure of the organisation, such as providing counselling services, can be the first step towards positive change, such as outlined in last week's article. However, the impacts of these changes may be limited if the culture of the organisation remains unchanged.

"As the saying goes, culture eats structure for breakfast," says Lina Abirafeh, former UN humanitarian worker and current director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University. "Whatever kind of culture we’re talking about trumps any structural changes that you may be trying to implement. You can be as progressive as you want but at the end of the day if the common understanding is not so then, that’s too bad, it’s really hard to fight."

Therefore, building a culture that supports and encourages self-care, wellbeing and positive mental health is crucial.

Doing things differently

Creating such an organisational culture can require significant and fundamental change, and it relies on a strong vision from those in leadership to move away from traditional forms of management. "We’re trying to create a movement," explains Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group, "rather than seeing it as the cold production of some sort of output." 

The focus moves from a competitive environment where staff members are working long hours, to one of collaboration, mutual support and inclusion.

Chief executive of Touchstone, Alison Lowe, describes her goal as creating "a culture where people are accepting of who they are", which sits in stark contrast to what is referred to as a ‘blame culture’ that can be found within some not-for-profit organisations.

This requires a fundamental shift for everyone in an organisation – one that requires ownership of all staff members so that it becomes embedded in the workplace culture.

"Once you introduce the concept and say this isn’t just about what we write down in our policies, this is how we behave, every day, and we open ourselves up to challenging if we don’t behave that way, because this is a reasonable expectation that everybody’s aware of", explains Maurice Wren from Refugee Council. And Maurice has seen his team thrive in such an environment.    

Openness and communication

A core feature of this cultural shift is creating an environment of openness, which relies on effective communication.

Transparency is an important part of this, which requires strong leadership and commitment, especially in tough times. "We are incredibly transparent with our staff," says Mark Flanagan, speaking when he was chief executive of Beating Bowel cancer, "the thing that stresses the staff is when they believe something is hidden from them. And so I’ve stood up and I’ve said 'this is where we are this is what’s happening, this is what I’m thinking'."

Progressive not-for-profit leaders also encourage open discussion in the workplace about issues that people can sometimes struggle to talk about, such as mental health.

"We have to have a culture where people can talk about their health, wellbeing, mental health in particular, where people feel free to do that," explains Alison Lowe.

This requires bravery from directors and managers, and involves considerable emotional strength to hold the space for others to talk about difficult issues. And it can have a profound effect. "I’ve had situations where people have said 'I’m overwhelmed' and I’ve said 'look, talk me through it, I’m here with you',” describes chief executive of VSO Philip Goodwin, "and the flood gates open because people think, 'crikey someone is going to listen to me'."

What these actions do is create a culture within which people feel as though they have permission to be themselves, be vulnerable, and speak up if they have any problems. This requires ongoing diligence, as well as modelling of behaviours from those in leadership.

"I think the only way that you really allow people to be themselves and to be the very best version of themselves is if you are vulnerable and open and transparent about how you are and who you are," says Caron Bradshaw.

Staff members are also given permission to put their hands up and challenge things within the organisation if they think it doesn’t align with the organisation’s values, without fear of retribution. This permission also extends to working hours and encouraging people to take a break.

"To the staff I think the message is look, you matter before the cause right, my priority is you and organisationally at the end of the day what we do is important but don’t burn yourself out, it’s a job, let me know if you need space. And it’s okay to be ill, to be very blunt," explains Mark Flanagan. 

Building relationships

In addition to encouraging individuals to be open, honest and vulnerable, focus is also put on relationships between team members. Fostering a sense of inclusion and, as chief executive of Arthritis Care Judi Rhys describes it, "making people part of a whole, making them feel a bit more connected, and then part of the culture that we have quite strongly in the office." 

People are encouraged to celebrate difference and to support one another in the way that has been modelled by senior team members. In such cultures, self-care and care of others become mutually reinforcing.

"Focusing on a culture of collaboration and trust [is] fundamental to promoting self-care because if you’re in a collaborative environment where people are actually seeking to work with each other with compassion, respect, trust, then there is more chance we have both self care, but also mutual care. So people are looking after each other as well as looking out for themselves", explains Philip Goodwin.    

Emotional intelligence and self-awareness

Creating an open and supportive culture does not, however, happen overnight. It relies on constant vigilance and awareness – both in relation to oneself and to others. This requires what is often referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’, which can be difficult to understand and explain, and therefore difficult to train people in.

"I do see a lot of emotional unintelligence actually. And some of it’s quite shocking. I think 'I don’t know why they wouldn’t pick up on that'," says Philip Goodwin.

One strategy to improve emotional intelligence is by educating people to recognise that, as Alison Lowe says, "you’ve got good mental health and bad mental health and that at any time you can become unwell." 

Encouraging people to become more self-aware can also help and to identify what Alison describes "that feeling in the pit of your stomach" that tells you when something is not right for you.

This self-awareness can be crucial to avoiding bad mental health and so training people to recognise the mental and physical signs that things aren’t quite right are crucial, to "really know yourself and know your reaction to various things, and then really being sure you’ve got some strategies in place," says Judi Rhys.

It can, however, be much harder to see emotional distress in others. "In a sense you’re never going to be able to spot that [but] you can try and do a bit of prevention. You can try and do early intervention where you see that might be possible," says Maurice Wren.

But by doing things differently, fostering a culture of communication, building strong teams and encouraging self-awareness, organisations can become spaces in which the stigma around vulnerability and mental health is removed, enabling people to seek the help they need.      

This article is the fourth in a series developed as a result of in-depth interviews commissioned by Bird and conducted with leaders of not-for-profit organisations on the subjects of self-care, wellbeing and staff development. The articles bring together the key themes shared by these leading practitioners, offering insights into their perceptions and approaches and providing a valuable tool for those wanting to improve wellbeing in the not-for-profit sector.

Kate Massarella is an independent social researcher writing on behalf of Bird: an organisation that promotes and facilitates self-care and wellbeing in the charity sector, founded by Hannah Massarella.

More on