Mental health at the non-profit workplace - Hindustan Times
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Mental health at the non-profit workplace

ByDeval Sanghavi
May 27, 2024 02:28 PM IST

This article is authored by Deval Sanghavi, co-Founder & partner, Dasra.

We often picture non-profit leaders as individuals who have sacrificed or foregone opportunities to earn wealth and have instead chosen to serve vulnerable communities in remote, rural settings. But to serve as a non-profit leader is to endure an unpredictable work environment, to find balance while filtering and nurturing hope despite cyclical deprivation and discrimination, all while putting one’s own health and well-being at constant risk.

Mental health(Freepik)
Mental health(Freepik)

It was no surprise when 94% non-profit leaders who participated in Dasra’s upcoming flagship research on mental health admitted to struggling with work-life balance. 87% leaders said they prioritise work over mental health, over and over again, pushing themselves for the communities they serve and are responsible for.

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One of our most significant findings was that less than 9% organisations have dedicated budgets for mental health and well-being initiatives for their staff. These budgets were prioritised and earmarked by leaders themselves.

Leaders at India’s frontline for social development wear diverse hats while balancing community expectations and donor-driven agendas for measurable change. As investors and philanthropists supporting their programmes, it is increasingly critical to recognise that these leaders and staff tire while managing interventions, communications, capacity building, fund-raising- all while maintaining a steadfast passion for causes that take time to show desired results.

A non-profit leader from West Bengal likened it to pouring from an empty cup, “I think the one thing that I would like to say is that nobody, no matter how dedicated to a particular cause, can pour from an empty cup. Everybody has to have some sort of safety net for them to be able to function.”

We have learned that at non-profits, this tireless commitment and ‘pouring out’ extends beyond conventional working hours. Leaders and staff play pivotal roles in supporting communities 24x7 and particularly during crises such as pandemics where they form a dedicated and trusted frontline, bridging gaps in information, health, education, food and security, often without salaries or health insurance to support themselves.

Key stressors at the non-profit workplace include limited funding, short-staffing and paperwork. Leaders and staff often work without salaries and only a few speak openly about risks to their personal safety. Unable to directly discuss personal mental-health, an NGO leader from northeast India shared what mental health means to communities on-ground, "Mental health is usually associated with sadness, which stems from daily injustices. Mental health is a luxury and well-being is the last option they [communities] think about."

With limited funding available, not all leaders can afford professional mental health support, retreats and wellness activities for their staff and themselves. Instead, they lean towards low-cost investment initiatives that encourage coping as a group while developing a culture of solidarity and openness at their workplaces. Some non-profits choose to celebrate challenges and failures while spotlighting them as learning, others just take a break with a cup of tea, picnics or watching movies together.

These no or low-cost solutions shared by non-profits as mental health and wellness initiatives strengthen teams but do not necessarily solve for or recognise actual mental health needs. Of the respondents to the study, only 56% non-profit leaders felt equipped to respond to actual mental health needs of their staff.

Philanthropy is beginning to respond to the growing need for mental health support for communities but is yet to respond to needs within the non-profit sector. The Cocoon Initiative is an example of direct support for non-profits. The initiative invites leaders to take a sabbatical to rest and revive their core strengths. Since its launch in November 2023, the initiative has provided financial support to approximately 30 leaders.

Through conversations with those seeking support, insights into systemic needs and the true risk of losing invaluable leaders to physical and mental health burnout have emerged. The initiative provides trust-based support to leaders where they decide their sabbatical budgets and activities, this has been deeply empowering as has the unpacking of what rest and well-being might mean after years spent serving at the margins.

Another initiative, the Intention Collective’s Healing Circles virtual platform brings together non-profit practitioners to care for themselves and feel a sense of community while sharing.

The Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) has developed powerful toolkits for understanding and delivering well-being and mental health within non-profit workplaces. Sonal Sachdev Patel and GMSP Foundation’s passionate advocacy for a ‘human-centred’ approach that is humane towards partner non-profits delivering programs is significant to rethinking how we fund. Sonal urges the ecosystem to consider more meaningful approaches to change, where implementation partners are not at risk of burning out.

There are other noteworthy examples of donors granting well-being stipends and budgets to non-profits to spend flexibly as they find fit. This is a step forward for the larger ecosystem, however, the mental health services gap and stigmas attached to it are complex and large- over 80% people struggling with mental health in India are not seeking and receiving care.

Non-profits being closest to the ground and communities could be a significant bridge to solving for India’s mental health crisis, but first we must respond to their longstanding needs. Budgeting for well-being and mental health support for organisations in all programmes will be a critical and intentional step forward in recognizing their tireless efforts to deliver change while building long term well-being resilience.

This article is authored by Deval Sanghavi, co-Founder & partner, Dasra.

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