Is your nonprofit workplace contributing to mental health or mental illness?

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Mental health issues don’t occur in a vacuum. Symptoms like depression, anxiety, PTSD and addictions are typically triggered by stressors at home and at work. Whether it be financial pressures, grief and loss, physical illness, relationship struggles, employee conflict, demanding deadlines, or bullying and/or harassment, employees are confronted with challenges to their psychological wellbeing everyday. Sometimes an individual's coping systems are not adequate to manage these challenges and they may find themselves suffering from a mental illness.

Statistics Canada reports:

  • 27% of working adults said they felt a lot or an extreme amount of stress on a daily basis;
  • 62% of respondents reported work as the main reason for their stress.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 30-50% of all new disability claims are attributed to mental health issues (2011 Report).

Common stressors and risks to mental health in the nonprofit sector

People drawn to working in nonprofit organizations are usually interested in contributing to a cause they believe in and are willing to invest in making an impact. Long work hours, going “above and beyond,” enduring stressful employee relations, limited funds and resources as well as frustrations with boards and donors create significant stressors for nonprofit employees.

There is another dimension as well: Some individuals drawn to the nonprofit sector may have a history of their own personal traumas that have remained unresolved. While employment in the nonprofit sector may be considered a healthy approach to working through a painful history, sometimes one is healing others instead of healing oneself.

This plays out in nonprofit organizations in a number of ways. Instead of direct forms of respectful confrontation and holding others accountable, individuals with vulnerable backgrounds may have poor boundaries or come across as hypersensitive, conflict avoidant and over-functioning. On the other extreme, some individuals with trauma histories may become bullies and seek out positions of power and control. What is important to understand is that brokenness can express itself in a multitude of ways that compromise healthy boundaries and respectful work relationships.

Counterproductive coping strategies develop early in life when a child is confronted with circumstances that they are not equipped to solve. In these instances, a child’s strategies are employed to manage anxiety, life challenges and relationships and they ultimately become ingrained in adulthood as maladaptive approaches to dealing with stressors.

The relationship between mental health and workplace psychological safety

The culture, stressors and employee relations in workplaces contribute to creating employee mental health problems. Research shows the most significant contributor to mental health issues in the workplace is a toxic environment. Great West Life reports:

  • 71% of Canadian employees surveyed report some degree of concern with psychological safety in their workplace;
  • While 91% of managers recognize the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace, only 47% claim to know how and only 1% report being strong at this skill set.

These findings are dramatic and nonprofits are not excluded from this reality. Here is how the bottom line is affected. Great West Life further reports:

  • For short-term and long-term disability claims, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability among professional and management occupations;
  • Mental Disorder short-term claims have the longest durations and last between 10 weeks to 14 weeks. Many of these claims would likely reach the maximum benefit period and may transition into a Long-Term Disability claim;
  • Mental Disorder long-term claims have the longest duration (over 3.1 years) and are the longest for professional and management categories;
  • In a workplace of 100 employees, up to 10 employees may be away from work for 10 days or more during a year. At least one of these employees will suffer from a mental health issue. At an average salary of $50,000, that employee will cost $12,500 in lost salary at 100%.

It’s in everyone’s interest to build a psychologically safe workplace

While an employer cannot control or fix an individual’s personal history or traumas, they can influence the conditions of their workplace. Creating a psychologically safe workplace fosters employee mental health, reduces disability costs, mitigates against litigation, promotes productivity and increases engagement.

Dr. Stephanie Bot has identified 10 Pillars necessary to creating a psychologically safe workplace. These include reducing stigma, understanding mental disorders and how they present in the workplace, understanding legal responsibilities and how best to address them, assessing workplace vulnerabilities to mental health and psychological safety based on the Canadian Standard, developing a trauma response program, implementing a program that ensures safe reporting and investigation procedures, building a business case, supporting physical health and wellness and creating an integrated action plan.

Strategies for the nonprofit

Here are some strategies you may find helpful:

  • Train managers to understand mental health issues in the workplace, how to respond with specific scripts and approaches;
  • Provide employees with reliable information delivered by licensed professionals on issues like depression, anxiety, addictions, loss and grief, managing difficult relationships at work and at home, in a confidential format;
  • Offer referral programs for support;
  • Create a safe workplace by implementing a written program to prevent and manage bullying and harassment;
  • Link requirements for respectful behaviour directly to performance;
  • Provide assertiveness courses for employees to learn how to manage difficult coworkers;
  • Provide Leading with Respect self-awareness and training programs for aggressive leaders.

Dr. Stephanie Bot, C. Psych. and Donna Marshall, M.A. are co-founders of BizLife Solutions. In partnership with the Ontario Psychological Association and supported by CharityVillage they offer the Certificate Program in the Management of Workplace Mental Health and Psychological Safety. Participants receive the practical skills, knowledge and expertise necessary to build a psychologically safe and mentally healthy workplace. Everyone leaves with an Action Plan they can implement when they return to their workplace.

Join Stephanie and Donna, along with a stellar faculty of legal, business, health and psychological leaders, at their upcoming Certificate Program September 22-24, 2016, in Toronto. Use code CHARVIL for a 10% discount.

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