Charity - mental health and wellbeing

12 May 2021

44% of charities report an increase in colleague mental health concerns, our latest sector survey shows.

Charities are adept at doing more with less, and squeezing value from every interaction and every hour of the day. In addition, some frontline charity work is by nature difficult, upsetting and mentally draining. The upshot is that the third sector has long been aware of the mental health and wellbeing challenges faced by trustees, staff and volunteers.

That much was evident in our 2019 Charity Risk Barometer, which placed staff burnout as a top five medium term threat to the sector. Fast forward to the 2020 Barometer and, after six months of Covid, burnout was a more urgent concern, considered the second most serious challenge to charities over the coming 12 months.

For our latest mental health and wellbeing study of 450 charities, conducted over the last two weeks, we wanted to gauge the mental health of the sector after a year or so of lockdowns and remote working, and during the first tentative steps on the road to normality.

The charity sector is large and diverse, and organisations’ experience of the pandemic differed dramatically. While some charities had to pretty much shut up shop for large parts of lockdown, others faced a perfect storm of increased demand and dwindling resources. Meanwhile, everyone had to get used to new ways of working. Unsurprisingly, over half of respondents (56%) said Covid had exacerbated mental health issues in the sector.

The big picture

  • 66% of charities are concerned about staff burnout
  • 44% report an increase in colleague mental health concerns since January
  • 44% of respondents say they might leave the sector because of burnout

Isolated and anxious

Like other organisations, charities were forced to abandon face-to-face service provision in March 2020, along with the camaraderie and support offered by office life. Many moved service provision and core operations online, while others didn’t have that option. This disruption continues to affect the sector in different ways, and has inevitably led to an increase in stress and anxiety for many employees.

As we slowly emerge from lockdown, the sector now faces funding shortfalls, the implementation of long-term remote or ‘hybrid’ working models, and the continued adoption of new methods of service provision. This barrage of change may leave those working in the sector feeling confused and overwhelmed. And as we move into an era of post-pandemic uncertainty, many may be worried for the future of their organisation and the jobs that depend on it.

Covid’s effects on mental health

Where organisations have seen an increase in mental health issues since January, they have been:

  • Anxiety - 71%
  • Stress - 70%
  • Depression - 66%
  • Suicidal feelings - 27%
  • Self-harm - 25%

Digging deeper, employees’ biggest concerns include:

  • Challenges at home (child care, home schooling) - 33%
  • Health concerns for family or friends - 30%
  • Concerns about Covid-19 (i.e. variants, vaccination) - 30%
  • Fatigue of home working - 30%
  • Feeling isolated - 30%

The impact

Worsening mental health represents a clear and present danger for the sector. As mentioned previously, 44% of respondents are considering leaving the sector altogether. Unsurprisingly, 37% of charities are worried that burnout will lead to staff shortages, while other concerns include recruitment issues (38%), being unable to provide services (36%) and a charity’s liability as an employer (28%).

This situation could be exacerbated by any proposed return to the office. Well over half (60%) of staff are nervous about going back to the office when it reopens.

Concerns around returning to physical premises include:

  • Catching Covid-19 - 57%
  • Service users not wearing masks - 35%
  • Colleagues not socially distancing - 34%
  • Concerns about extra workload caused by Covid-19 - 34%

What charities can do

Amidst this disruption, communication between trustees, managers and staff is more important than ever. Charities should train managers to identify mental health issues, and timetable regular check-ins with remote staff to gauge stress levels and offer support. Charities also need to put policies in place around working hours and encourage home workers to disconnect from work devices regularly. Anil Champaneri, senior HR consultant at HR and H&S consultancy Alcumus, says that burnout can become  more likely when working from home becomes living at work.

“From a HR perspective, organisations need to understand that not everyone can work from home easily. Talk to staff as soon as possible about plans for the future and their views on home working or hybrid working. Some staff will have taken to remote working during lockdown, but others may have found themselves starting earlier or finishing later than normal or even working weekends and never truly switching off. That risks burnout.”

Organisations should do all this as part of wider health and safety and risk management processes that help capture employee concerns around workload, remote working and stress. They should also include detailed H&S policies around any return to the office.

Some charities are already offering wellbeing support to colleagues. Measures include:

  • Access to third party helplines - 40%
  • A wellbeing policy - 39%
  • Access to a mental health professional - 38%
  • Introducing mindfulness techniques (e.g. meditation sessions) - 38%
  • Mental health first aiders - 32%

But more can be done. Every third sector organisation should carry out a risk assessment to see where gaps exist in mental health support. Identifying stress and anxiety early, and reacting appropriately, can reduce the chance of mental health issues leading to poor performance, long term absences and even a claim against your organisation.

Anil Champaneri, senior HR consultant, Alcumus, says “One very positive thing every charity can do is train someone to become a mental health first aider, who can then be a first point of contact for anyone who might be struggling. Although a mental health first aider is not qualified to diagnose a mental health condition, they could recognise symptoms, offer support and signpost a colleague to the right resources or people for help. Just having one in the workplace demonstrates to employees that the organisation takes mental well-being seriously. It also gives the message that it’s OK to open up about mental wellbeing issues.”

But more can be done. Every third sector organisation should carry out a risk assessment to see where gaps exist in mental health support. Identifying stress and anxiety early, and reacting appropriately, can reduce the chance of mental health issues leading to poor performance, long term absences and even a claim against your organisation.

Vikki Woodfine, a specialist regulatory lawyer at DWF Law LLP, says that cases linked to mental health are becoming more common. “Over recent years, we have seen that the HSE has started to acknowledge mental health as well as physical health when considering an employer's duties to protect employees...the increasing recognition in society of the importance of looking after mental health has resulted in the HSE becoming more interested in the topic.”

Don’t forget trustees

In all this it’s easy to forget trustees, who can sometimes seem one step removed from the day to day bustle of charity work.

But trustees are at the heart of the Covid response, with 68% involved in deciding new ways of working, 52% having regular meetings with management and 37% having regular meetings with staff and volunteers. They lead workshops, support new fundraising efforts and use their own skills to support change.

They’re doing far more than might otherwise have been expected. According to one recent survey, 62% of chairs spent four or more days a month on their chairing role compared with 43% before the pandemic.

Trustees face increased workloads and stress, and are making decisions for the future of their organisations in an environment without precedent. Understandably, they may not get every one right. Penny Wilson is CEO of Getting On Board, an organisation that trains and supports potential trustees and charity leaders. She says that charities might find it difficult to fill trustee positions in future, leading to further issues with governance and strategy.

Penny Wilson, CEO, Getting on Board, says “Trustees and staff alike feel the pressure of the charity being on the knife edge of survival. In particular, the sense of responsibility to vulnerable people who are relying on the charity can be overwhelming. Staff and trustees both have parallel stresses in their personal lives. But some trustees, by definition, also have their own day jobs and other roles where the pressures might be equally overwhelming. Some have therefore had to resign their trustee roles. This, along with the appalling ravages of the virus itself on the trustee body, has left many charities with reduced boards”

While financial protection may only partly mitigate a trustee’s mental anguish and concern, having a comprehensive Trustees and Management Liability cover in place can help to protect them from any personal liability resulting from decisions they make which may be a reassuring factor.

What help is available?

It’s no surprise that 52% of charities say they need more government support. Whether that will be forthcoming or not is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime practical support for mental health in the charity sector is available.

Stress Indicator Tool

This tool, from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), measures the attitudes and perceptions of employees towards work-related stress.

Mental Health at Work

Mental health charity Mind have collected a wide range of resources to help any organisation get to grips with workplace mental health.

How Ecclesiastical can help

Ecclesiastical’s specialist insurance policies for charities can help protect organisations against work-related stress claims, but they go much further. Our policies are about support as much as cover, and include:

  • Telephone counselling service for all employees, volunteers and immediate family members who live with them.
  • Health and safety support and advice to protect employees and volunteers - online, by phone or face to face.
  • A regularly updated website with guidance on managing risk during Covid-19.
  • Our award-winning claims service, should the worst occur.

We can also provide access to a range of additional services, including:

What next?

The UK has a roadmap out of Covid restrictions, and the vaccination programme continues apace. But the future remains uncertain. Covid recovery could mean Covid austerity as far as charity funding is concerned, and organisations have some big decisions to make around remote working, the return to face-to-face service provision and how much the ‘new normal’ will (or won’t) look like the old. All of this is potentially anxiety-inducing for an already stressed workforce.

That makes it even more important for charities to take mental health into consideration when planning a post-pandemic future. Dedicating time and resources to wellbeing is a crucial investment to an organisation's future.

Charity barometer 2020 butterfly