Below the Surface: Mental Health and Psychological Safety in the Nonprofit Sector

publication date: Dec 16, 2019
author/source: Leah Eustace and Ian Adair recapped by Ann Rosenfield

Sexual assault and harassment, high employee turnover, and issues surrounding morale in the charitable sector are just a few factors driving an increasingly critical topic in fundraising: mental wellness. Overcoming stigma is a big part of helping create better workplaces for all of us.

"One day you will tell your story of how you've overcome what you are going through

and it will become someone else's survival guide."

Interestingly people are living with mental illness but we are not creating the space for this in our workplaces. Because of the myths surrounding mental health, people are reluctant to disclose their mental health diagnosis.

It is important to note that mental health is not a sign of weakness. Furthermore, mental health is an invisible disability and is a covered by all relevant human rights and workplace legislation.

Mental illness impacts people of all ages, all races, all religions, all backgrounds, all incomes. About 20% of adults in the US and Canada experience mental illness. These statistics show the prevalence of what is out there. In fact, over 500,000 Canadians are unable to go to work in a given week due to mental health. Sadly, suicide is a major cause of death for people aged 10-34. Each person who dies leaves behind 6 people who are directly impacted by that death.

Ignoring mental health has major consequences in the workplace. More than 80% of fundraisers are satisfied with their benefits and job but half are likely to leave their position by 2021. In the profession, 84% of fundraisers feel that they're under tremendous pressure to succeed. Thirty percent report planning to leave the profession within the next two years. All the major reasons why fundraisers leave their work - management, salary, toxic work culture, unreasonable goals, lack of respect for fundraising - impact mental health.

Mental health impacts retention, organizational culture, staff engagement and morale, and a charity's bottom line. Importantly, as the workplace changes, it is striking that 50% of Millennials and 75% of Gen Z have left their jobs for mental health reasons compared to 20% of the population overall.

Mental health is not just a reason people leave their jobs. Mental health is also the single more common reason for missed work. Mental health is the single most expensive category of health costs for many employers across all industries and size organizations. It costs 8x more to not treat mental illness than to treat it. Conversely, employees who can be open at work tend to have better performance, stronger engagement, and report better overall well-being. Psychological safety is an important part of this area.

People are suffering unnecessarily. Ironically, by not getting the help each person needs, it impacts them and their employers. The average person waits 8 to 10 years before they seek help for mental illness. Why do people wait? Over 50% of people report that disclosing a mental illness results in an unfavorable response.

Leadership today is messy. Part of our obligation as leaders is to use language that is current and respectful. You can take mental health first aid to train yourself to be more aware. We need to make sure we each play a role in building cultures that are psychologically safe at work and in our community.

To sign up for Mental Health First Aid, click here.

Ian Adair is a CEO, Trainer, and Keynote Speaker. Ian Adair has more than 20 years of fundraising, program management, and communications experience in the nonprofit, education, and corporate sector. Ian holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Westminster College and a Master of Science in Family and Child Development from the University of Central Oklahoma, and a graduate certificate in Advanced Leadership Studies.

Leah Eustace, M.Phil, MInstF, CFRE, ACFRE is the President, Blue Canoe Philanthropy. Leah is also a Board Member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, (AFP), the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy Canada, the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, AFP Canada and the ACFRE Credentialing Board. She speaks internationally in the areas of legacy giving, donor psychology, leadership, and philanthropic trends. As well, she’s a regular contributor to Advancing Philanthropy, Hilborn Charity eNews, and many other publications.


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