By Maria Azuri, LMSW, principal, Equitable Table and Lauren Thomas Priest, MNM, program officer, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

This article is part two of a three-part series on nonprofits and mental health.

Stress. Anxiety. Tension. Overwhelm. We’ve let our mental health go unchecked for far too long. It’s a conversation sparked during Mental Health Awareness Month that must continue year-round with actions. Self-care behaviors that become positive mental health habits will never happen through one-off efforts if we don’t change organizational systems. 

We often hear or shout out our own rallying cries for leaders to enact courageous systemic change, forgetting too easily that systems are made up of people—and we can change long-standing practices that no longer meet the need. Isn’t this what nonprofits and philanthropy are all about – enacting change to meet community needs? We are the community, we need better mental health and we’re holding ourselves back from wellness.

The stigma around mental health is a longstanding one but in recent years, we’ve seen mental health highlighted more frequently across sectors and media campaigns, with a consistent conclusion: The commitment to focusing on mental health and well-being has to be a core aspect of all we do. 

Organizations have also been making some inroads to bring mental health into workplaces, opening windows to conversations connecting workplace wellness to employee mental health. Still, these conversations are often superficial; it’s time for leaders to step up and enact more meaningful actions that center employee mental health, deepen workplace wellness and provide greater access to it. 

Nonprofit staff are hurting, with wide-ranging surveys indicating that one-time grants or annual conversations are insufficient for the day-to-day challenges and inequitable access to resources that many experience. As a recent review of well-being outcomes and practices of grantees noted, “Employees with access to well-being programs experienced increased job satisfaction, decreased depression, and improved mental and physical health. Organizations saw reduced absenteeism, fewer reports of vicarious trauma, and less turnover. Increases in employee well-being also carried beyond the workplace and had positive effects on staff homes and communities.”

The message is consistent and clear: Providing greater mental health supports and access points at work improves the well-being of employees, families, organizations and communities. 

Creating the intentional space for mental health within organizations by incorporating the needed tools as a mainstay feature from onboarding, in the day-to-day, and during moments of crisis is imperative. Focusing on mental health is critical to organizational success.

Wellness at work initiatives centering mental health must move beyond individual calls for self-care practices and move to incorporate an organizational mental health context. Focusing on individual mental health magnifies the systemic aspects that significantly contribute to increased stress and anxiety and to lower rates of mental well-being, especially for women, who make up the majority of the nonprofit sector and experience significant pay gaps. 

Employees often feel guilty for taking a sick day, and many nonprofit staff either don’t have paid sick leave or have to reserve the few sick days they do have to care for sick children or other family members. Childcare is a significant stressor for many parents, but particularly for lower-income staff who often struggle to make it to work, find childcare, and balance the cost of it. Studies show that detention centers are quickly becoming the largest providers of basic mental health. The nonprofit sector is the third largest employer; what could the outcome be if staff had ready access to mental health services?  

Shifting from an individual-only approach to that of an organizational, holistic mental health approach opens up a multifaceted dialogue about well-being, and importantly acknowledges the interconnectedness of our community health – COVID-19 taught us this – with the intersection of work-amplifying dialogue and actions around holistic health and systemic barriers. This helps institutionalize a culture of wellness at work where we invest in wellness and affirm this with varied approaches, reaching well beyond an annual conversation or singular employee engagement effort. 

Positive societal change begins in healthy communities where organizations are access points for greater well-being; it’s a reciprocal dynamic that is the reality of holistic health. In our final article of the series, we’ll dive into how cross-sector initiatives can systematize organizational mental health. If the mission involves community well-being – the impact starts with an organization-wide approach to staff mental health. But first, we need to agree to launch it—together.

This is sponsored content.

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