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How to manage stress and burnout in the NFP sector

While there are rewards and motivating elements, humanitarian aid and community development sector roles can also expose staff members and volunteers to stress.

In the Australian not-for profit sector, according to a 2014 report, 35 per cent of people working in the legal, social and welfare professions experience stress – the third-highest ratio of any career.

Similarly, in the international humanitarian aid and development sector where the Mandala Foundation primarily works, up to 30 per cent of aid workers have reported significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Burnout is also high within this sector.

Given the stressful nature of aid and community development work, it is a priority for both individuals and organisations to work systematically to identify, assess, prevent, mitigate and manage the impact of stress. The first step is for individuals and their organisations to ensure they have a clear understanding of the different types of stress they face.

Stress and beyond

Stress occurs when demands exceed personal and social resources. In other words, people can feel stress when they perceive their inability to handle the demands (workplace, financial, personal or otherwise) placed upon them.

When stress is overwhelming and persistent, a process of wear and tear begins to negatively impact psychological and physical wellbeing. This is known as cumulative stress, which also impacts a person’s capacity to fulfil a role effectively and can reduce job satisfaction.

Over time, cumulative stress can lead to burnout, which is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. Burnout is the result of unrelenting stress – not just too much stress. It is known to be common for those working in helping positions, such as in the NFP sector.

Because of the nature of their job, aid and development workers face more risk than others in the general population of developing vicarious trauma. This can occur through empathetically engaging with the memories and stories of survivors of a traumatic event. Aid and development workers can often be exposed to stories of community needs and suffering, which can have the effect of changing the helper’s beliefs or view of the world. This can be further compounded if the community is in some way meaningful to the worker, for example, if it is their own community.

Underlying sources

In an occupational health and safety context, there are typically six key underlying sources of stress in workplaces. These are the level of demands of a role, including such issues as workload; how much control a person has over their work; the extent of support available at work; the quality of working relationships; the level of role clarity; and how change is managed.

In addition to these core sources, it could also be argued that the level of acknowledgement or appreciation that staff or volunteers receive from the organisation is key.

These concepts translate into some of the common stress factors seen in the NFP sector. These can include the nature of the role itself, what has been seen or heard, insufficient preparation and support, limited resources and high workload demands, funding uncertainty, organisational or management challenges, conflict or discontent with colleagues, inability to achieve what is needed, emotionally or mentally draining work, lack of appreciation of efforts, and high levels of compassion.

Given the prevalence and complexities of stress in the NFP sector, it is imperative that stress is actively managed and addressed by both individuals and organisations.

Pyschosocial risk

Psychological wellbeing can be supported by systematically preventing, mitigating and managing psychosocial risk – in this context defined as “aspects of the design and management of work, and its social and organisational contexts, that have the potential for causing psychological or physical harm”.

Adopting a systematic approach to staff care, starting at recruitment and selection, and throughout the employment cycle, is therefore recommended.

A systematic approach includes two key components:

  • All key phases of employment or assignment are addressed, including pre-assignment (such as recruitment and preparation), assignment and post-assignment support
  • All key stakeholders, including the staff member or volunteer as well as management and/or the organisation, play interdependent roles in the psychosocial risk-management process.

Based on the need identified by sector agencies for practical solutions to help them in managing psychosocial risk and the debilitating impact of stress and psychological injury on both people and project, the Mandala Foundation has developed key sector psychosocial resources. These include guidelines for managing psychosocial risk.

For organisations

Principles for pre-assignment support:

    • Recruit for psychosocial competencies, not just technical skills
    • Consider the fit of the volunteer to specific assignments and context
    • Provide thorough briefings and prepare for key assignment stressors
  • Provide a realistic training environment
  • Train managers to handle critical incidents

Principles for on-assignment support:

    • Support the adjustment process
    • Manage leadership stressors
    • Prepare for high-risk environments
    • Enable policies for time out (such as rest and recreation, rotations, short assignments, reduced hours)
    • Ensure appropriate critical-incident support
  • Monitor risks and coping over time
  • Consider the needs of staff working in their own community

Principles for post-assignment support:

    • Ensure debriefing support
    • Allow for multiple follow-up support
    • Support re-connections and help promote a new sense of meaning
    • Enable connections to peers
  • Ensure that anyone psychologically harmed or injured by their work has professional support
  • Encourage breaks between roles

For workers

NFP staff are encouraged to prioritise and manage their own self-care needs in addition to any organisational support.

Tips for managing stress and preventing burnout include:

  • Be serious about the impact of stress
  • Recognise your own signs of stress (these are different for everyone) and regularly monitor yourself
  • Anticipate key role stressors and do what is possible to reduce exposure
  • Practise stress-reduction techniques such as exercise, relaxation, talking with friends, mindfulness
  • Expand your coping repertoire
  • Flag support needs with managers and/or peers
  • Formulate and review a self-care plan

With enhanced awareness about the nature and sources of stress, and a systematic approach, both NFP staff members and organisations should be supported to manage the inherently stressful nature of their work over the long term.

This article originally appeared in the March edition of Third Sector Magazine. Subscribe here.

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