By Cat Donovan
Employee wellness continues to be a topic circulating at the forefront of nonprofits and associations. The pandemic has escalated workplace pressures and shifted expectations placed on employees by both supervisors and also the employees themselves.
For example, working from home has made it much easier for employees to check email at all hours of the day and night. Without the real separation of office and home, employees may be off the clock but essentially still “working” and may feel pressure to constantly check in, fearful that others are doing the same and, thus, they might miss an important message or request.
In the previous Big Buzz Idea Group blog “5 Tips for Prioritizing Your Mental Health in the Workplace,” we discussed some tips such as mindfulness exercises and ways to offer more flexibility to team members in their day-to-day responsibilities.
It is the duty of the executive director to pave the way when it comes to employee wellness. As the leader, you have the power to create opportunities for your team to gather in non-work-related settings, whether that is on Zoom or in-person, and allow for team bonding and communicating in a more personal manner.
The March Big Buzz Breakfast Club focused on employee wellness in the workplace under the lens of what we’ve learned over the past two years. The expert panel who shared their first-hand experience and offered workplace wellness tips included:
-Allison Herman, Director of Education for Hope For The Day
-Bernard Mariano, Chief of Staff for Between Friends
-Katrina Wright, Chief Human Resources Officer at Trilogy
Here are some helpful tips from the panel on how to implement a better wellness plan at your organization, as well as how to identify when an employee is struggling.
How The Pandemic Reframed Mental Wellness
When we know better, we can do better. It has taken two years of pandemic living for many organizations to sort out a manageable path forward for their team to remain productive and happy at the same time.
“Checking in and setting boundaries has been really helpful,” Mariano said. “During the beginning of the pandemic people tended to feel guilty. I’m working from home. This is the holy grail of what I’ve always wanted, so I always have to be on or reachable.”
Intentionally communicating organizational boundaries is important so a team member does not become trapped within their silo and feel the need to always be working.
The team does not always need to be “on” – and that goes for leadership all the way down. Executive directors and team managers need to set attainable and stress-free communication expectations. The key here is those upper-level employees then must also abide by that policy.
As leaders, we need to “make sure we create that space where people can actually leave (the work behind),” Herman said. It reinforces the policy when people in upper-level positions are setting the example and not emailing team members after hours. Employees will take notice of that and feel more inclined to hit the off switch.
Herman said she has some team members who live in different time zones. Utilizing scheduled sends on emails and instant messages was an easy way to stay connected at appropriate times and not receive an email at 1:00 a.m. that causes undo stress and anxiety.
Employee Assistance Programs
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a voluntary work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. EAPs address a broad and complex body of issues affecting mental and emotional well-being, such as alcohol and other substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems and psychological disorders.*
Does your company currently offer an EAP, but it has low utilization?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in this article from Indeed, over half of all workers in the United States have access to an EAP. The resources available through these programs usually come from outside groups that offer a wide range of support services including mental wellness, crisis management and legal assistance.
Wright said that low program involvement can be attributed to the fear of using the service equating to personal struggle or weakness. “I think many of our employees at times found it to be a little bit impersonal and there was still a great amount of stigma,” she said. Employees voiced concerns over whether the help was truly confidential.
“We had to look at rebranding how we promote EAP in the environment, but also look at doing some things internally which included things like peer counseling to help support and augment some of the services we were offering,” Wright said.
Even language such as “Performance Review Plans” and “Progressive Disciplinary Measures” can have negative impacts on employees.
“We need to start looking differently at the performance conversation. When you have a high performer who has begun to show signs of an attendance issue or their performance is slipping, our default conversation was immediately to review the numbers, productivity or the quality of the output,” Wright says, “instead of having the conversation around ‘how are you doing? Is there something we can assist with?’ The language in those first conversations that leaders may have with employees if they see a change in a team member’s work performance is going to be key.”
Ask your team what they are doing outside of work.
“Are you filling your cup somewhere else? At Hope For the Day we call it ‘valving our pressure’ – doing those self-care practices and not running yourself ragged,” Herman said. “But it can be harder for nonprofit professionals because you have people who are really passionate about their work.”
It is not uncommon that employees at nonprofits previously served there as volunteers. They are drawn to the organization because they are devoted to the cause. Therefore, these employees tend to be so dedicated to the nonprofit mission they can find it hard to take breaks and hit the off switch.
Small moments during the day can uplift self-care. Using the first few minutes of a team meeting to ask everyone about their weekend seems like a small moment, but it can make a difference. Encourage your team members to take a walk, step outside for fresh air or have occasional coffee, lunch, etc., with one another to foster self-care and develop interpersonal connections between team members.
This is another arena where managers and directors need to lead by example. When your team sees you filling your bucket, they will follow your lead.
Look for Signs of Struggle
As the organization or team leader you have extra responsibility to remain observant: Has an employee shown unusual behavior in some small way? Maybe wearing the same sweatshirt for a few days? Are they attending business meetings in attire that is too casual? Has communication dropped off or are they sharing differently?
“Look at PTO. Why is that person saving it up? Is there a big event or vacation coming up? Or are they working a lot and forgetting to take time off and time to breathe? Sometimes people need the reminder,” Mariano said.
Certain nonprofits that work closely with abuse or domestic violence survivors should also be acutely aware of vicarious trauma affecting your team. It is not uncommon for counselors and staff to begin to feel the personal effect of their client’s trauma on themselves. And that is an opportunity where peer counseling can be effective.
The March Breakfast Club discussion reinforced that mental wellness is a spectrum that impacts us all as individuals every day of our lives. Some days we are healthier than others.
“We know the pandemic did not hit evenly. We know that different people had different access to resources,” Herman said.
Organizational leadership must remember to view their employees as whole people. They need to be the example where the work switch is flipped off. Managing employee wellness in the workplace will continue to grow into an important aspect in every organization. But there is not a one-size-fits-all program solution. It will be up to leadership and the team to forge a path together in order to find the balance between productivity and reaching goals and taking care of each other.
Here are some additional resources provided by the March Breakfast Club panelists:
*Definition courtesy of opm.gov.