Kate Massarella from Bird – an organisation founded by Hannah Massarella that promotes and facilitates self-care and wellbeing in the charity sector – explains how wellbeing is an ongoing issue and how individual burn out can impact the whole organisation
In the context of the growing discourse around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, prominent not-for-profit directors frame it as an ongoing work in progress that is crucial to organisational success.
Despite investing considerable time, energy and resources into improving wellbeing and self-care in the workplace, even the most progressive not-for-profit directors feel there is much still to do. "I don’t think anybody has really nailed the culture piece," states Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of CFG.
This sentiment is widely shared and so discussions around how to improve wellbeing and self-care is growing within not-for-profit organisations.
As Caron explains, this engagement is the first step to making progress; "If you’re aware of it, and [if] you’re trying to address it, you’re half way to addressing it."
This engagement, awareness and willingness to try things out is crucial, but as Mark Flannagan. speaking when he was chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, argues: "the charity sector needs to be discussing this more." There is much left to learn.
Playing the long game: reflection, honesty and vigilance
The dynamics of wellbeing mean that addressing it is an ongoing challenge that doesn’t have a fixed end point, and one of the first steps seems to be admitting this.
"Oh it never stops," explains chief executive of The Refugee Council, Maurice Wren, "and just when you think you’ve got it licked something opens up. So [you need] constant enquiry and constant vigilance – are we doing what we say we do?"
The fact that wellbeing is inherently about people, who are so crucial to the successful functioning of not-for-profits, also adds to its unpredictable nature.
"There are so many variables, and you think you’ve got it right and then someone leaves and someone joins and the whole flow of energy and the demographic and dynamic of the team changes completely," adds Caron Bradshaw.
The nature of the not-for-profit sector, particularly in relation to the difficult issues that staff members deal with on a daily basis and charity funding structures, can also add additional challenges to maintaining positive workplace wellbeing. And as chief executive of Arthritis Care Judi Rhys explains, "some of the toughest times are yet to come in terms of the sector."
Making progress towards wellbeing in the workplace requires continuous reflection and vigilance, and the courage to be honest and admit when things are not going as well as you would like.
"There are some initiatives that have fallen off the agenda a little bit and I think we were in a stronger place when we were [doing those things]," admits Lesley Dixon, CEO of PSS, "I just think we’ve gone slightly off the boil but I think we’re finding our way again."
This openness to try things and be honest about their impacts appears to be a central characteristic of organisations that are making progress around wellbeing in the workplace. In fact, it seems that directors who are making the biggest inroads into mental health and wellbeing issues are those who are most able to be critical of themselves, and never see their job as finished.
"We want to continuously improve and get better at what we do all the time," says Alison Lowe, chief executive of Touchstone, "we’re not perfect, we’re still on that journey and hopefully I’ll never get to my destination because if I do then I’ll be an arrogant git."
In reality, the times when things are going well are the times when directors require more vigilance to avoid resting on their laurels.
"Never take anything for granted. When we’re doing our best that’s when we need to be more vigilant because that’s when the wheels will probably come off", explains Maurice Wren.
Investing in change
This ongoing development of wellbeing and self-care in the workplace also requires a willingness to invest. As such, directors are looking at ways in which their organisations can embed systems that address issues and ensure that progress continues to be made.
For some this involves implementing consultation processes and reviews. David Prince, people director at MS Society describes how they recently had "a review of our health and wellbeing approach across the organisation… to see what other things we could do in addition to what we’re doing already."
Similarly, Maurice Wren describes how the Refugee Council have included wellbeing in their internal strategic planning consultations, asking all staff members questions such as "what aren’t we doing and what could we be doing internally to support you? What would good support look like? What would better support look like?"
Other organisations, such as CFG and PSS, have employed senior team members, who have the explicit mandate to look at issues around mental health, wellbeing and self-care in the workplace.
However, directors are keen to point out that they do not see this as a solution. Rather, they frame it as another step within the ongoing journey. "I wouldn’t say that we’re there, but I think the fact that we know it’s important and we’re putting resource into it will set us up to get a better culture," explains Caron Bradshaw from CFG.
Well team, well organisation. Or the ‘business case’
It is very evident that progressive, not-for-profit directors are becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of wellbeing and self-care to the successful functioning of organisations. This, in turn, is strengthening the ‘business case’ for supporting wellbeing in the workplace. However, this can require a significant change in attitudes within organisations.
"‘All the soft stuff around emotional content, people – it scares people," explains Philip Goodwin, chief executive of VSO, "it’s good to say we feel passionate about these issues and we get on with it, but [some people in the organisation] think if we go into those areas it’s the fluffy areas. Rather than actually good management, good leadership."
On the contrary, leaders of organisations are finding that happy people, who are self-caring and have their wellbeing tended to, are much more productive. "It’s about creating a culture where people want to deliver well," explains Mark Flannagan, "and I would say people at [Beating Bowel] Cancer actually want to do a good job and will worry when things aren’t working as they would like."
In short, people become more motivated to deliver for an organisation and its clients if they are in a good place themselves.
The wellbeing of individuals goes beyond individual performance, however, and has a knock-on effect on the organisation as a whole.
"I’ve seen too many people burn out. The thing is they don’t burn out and spin off they burn out and sit there and then become a problem for the organisation, because they exude a negativity," explains Maurice Wren.
This can impact the ability of other team members to deliver, which in turn starts to impact the ability of the organisation as a whole to deliver. As such, a ‘business case’ for investing in wellbeing in the workplace and taking a prevention-rather-than-cure approach becomes clear.
"The earlier we are acting on things, the more likely we are to resolve them," continues Maurice, "but also the signal it sends out to other people that [we] are listening. I just think at the simplest level, the most human of levels, if you treat people well and you show respect, you get it back."
Addressing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, and encouraging a self-care culture are increasingly being seen as a necessary and significant part of a well-functioning and well-performing organisation. It’s an evolving and often unpredictable concern that requires hard work and continuous learning, but it’s clear that these thought leaders and their organisations are in it for the long haul.
This article is the fifth and last 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.