Let’s Talk About Employee Mental Health

By Rachel Sams

We all face a lot of stressors these days. That’s especially true for nonprofit employees, and even more true for the people and communities we serve.

More than a million Americans have died of COVID since 2020. People in need often turn to nonprofits for help, and since the pandemic began, many nonprofit employees have faced crushing workloads and burnout.

Globally, the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased 25% during the first year of COVID, according to the World Health Organization. A 2022 Gallup study estimated that poor mental health among workers costs the U.S. economy nearly $50 billion annually.

Given all that, every step nonprofits take to foster mental well-being in our workplaces can help us better deliver our missions and serve our communities. Here are some ways to do that.

Examine Benefits and Policies

Offer employees the most robust mental health resources you can. Even nonprofits that can’t afford to offer benefits should provide employees a curated list of free and low-cost mental health resources in their communities, which you can create with a few hours (or less) of staff time. Reach out to your local health department or your local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

If your team doesn’t have an employee assistance program, resolve to find an option that suits your nonprofit. An EAP is a work-based program that’s voluntary and confidential. It typically gives employees access to free mental health resources, free short-term counseling, and referrals to counselors for longer-term treatment. Your nonprofit might be able to access an EAP through membership in a consortium, like a state, national, or trade association of nonprofits.

Make sure employees know about any mental health resources you provide. Communicate information about mental health resources often and widely. Share resources where employees gather and seek information: paystubs, email bulletins, break rooms, Slack channels, your Intranet.

Whatever mental health benefits you offer, work to provide more. If your nonprofit doesn’t yet provide mental health benefits, create a plan for how you could grow your budget to do so. If you offer mental health benefits, work to make them more affordable and comprehensive through negotiating with your benefits provider, shopping around for better options, or both.

Give employees as much autonomy as you can over where and when they work. Schedule and location flexibility help employees deal with the many responsibilities we all juggle in our lives. If you can’t give frontline employees the opportunity to work from home—even part of the time—consider how you can give them more options and flexibility in their work schedules.

Ensure you have a clear, barrier-free process to request time off for well-being. Make sure employees are aware of that process.

Improve Workplace Practices

While all humans experience and cope with stress and responsibilities differently, employers have a moral duty to pay attention to how working conditions and expectations impose undue stress on some or all members of the teams. Here are some ways to improve workplace practices around well-being.

Train your managers on how to talk about mental health with employees. If training’s out of your price range, ask a local mental health provider to provide pro bono or discounted training.

Put your oxygen mask on first. When you’re managing a team in stressful times, process your own stress to be able to help others. For example, take time to write down what you feel, whether it’s sadness, anger, or frustration. Get enough sleep and nourishing food, so your body has time and sustenance to process emotions.

Address unreasonable workloads. Resources are at a premium for nonprofits, but you can’t stretch your team to the limit without negatively affecting your mission and the people who deliver it. Have the difficult and ongoing discussions with your boss and board to end a low-demand program, or limit the pursuit of new opportunities to a manageable few so your team members don’t have to work unhealthy amounts.

Acknowledge what’s happening around you. If your community experienced a police shooting, or six days of air pollution made it unsafe to go outside, or if your nonprofit just lost a major contract, acknowledge it with your team. You don’t have to dwell on all the stressors in the world, but you can’t build trust with your team if you act like those things aren’t happening.

Make space in one-on-one meetings for your team members to share. Let your team members know it’s OK for them to talk about things they are struggling with or that worry them, and let them know it’s also OK not to talk about that.

If someone shares something they are struggling with:

  • Ask what support they need.
  • If they don’t know, offer a few options and see how they respond. You may need to agree to revisit the topic later.
  • Do say: “I’m sorry you’re going through a hard time,” “I’m available to support you,” or “Is there anything I can do to help or support you?”
  • Don’t say: “I know exactly what you’re going through because… [fill in the blank.]” No two experiences are the same. If someone shares something with you, don’t make it about you.

Communicate clear expectations to your team members. Every step you take to articulate what work must get done now and what can wait will reduce stress and help your team feel comfortable sharing their concerns.

Revisit expectations when you need to. If you’ve set clear guidelines about your team’s top priorities, you should always be prepared and able to let some things slide, at least temporarily.

Maybe you’re thinking, “This is more than I signed up for!” But the first word in “human resources” is “human.” Nonprofits that don’t reflect that in their practices will not be able to recruit and retain great employees. Leading with your humanity is key to helping and supporting the humans around you.

Maybe you’ve been working hard to do all these things for your team and you’re exhausted. Take the time you need for yourself. Revisit your boundaries and reset them when you need to. You may need to schedule fewer one-on-one meetings in a day if they are a heavy lift emotionally. You definitely need to cultivate and nurture your own support system.

If we bring the same care, service, and compassion to our internal operations as we do to our service delivery, we can create workplaces that foster employees’ mental well-being—and grow in our ability to deliver our missions.

Rachel Sams is a Consultant and Staff Writer at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She recently presented an NRMC member webinar on mental health for nonprofit teams. Reach her with thoughts and questions on this article at rachel@nonprofitrisk.org or (505) 456-4045.