Staff mental health problems in the Impact sectors
Research surrounding mental health problems in the Impact sector is scarcely available, for the most part, due to the population being overlooked. The leading notion for why it's overlooked is that the Impact sector is generally seen as solution-based organizations, hence providing help to society widely outweighs attention to their need for internal help. Secondly, considering the Impact sector consists of a wide array of sub-sectors such as healthcare, finance, and education, it's harder to compile data that accurately reflects the extent of workers experiencing mental health problems.
Nonetheless, the available findings on mental health problems in the Impact Sector show that there should be a concern about workers impacted by mental health problems. Based on recent research concerning mental health problems of aid workers (which is a significant part of the Impact Sector), a quarter of international humanitarian aid workers are exposed to stressors that contribute to poor mental health. Research conducted on a group of respondents surrounding mental health problems among healthcare workers (HCWs) during COVID-19, suggested about 98% of HCWs experienced stress at work. A 2020 Behavioral health study conducted on industries associated with the Impact Sector found that up to 39% of workers suffered from mental health issues.
A common finding across research suggests that psychosocial risks, which are occupational hazards related to the constructs of work, are the main triggers of mental health problems in workers. Psychosocial risks such as high deployment frequency, poor management, perceived inequality at work, lack of support, and heavy workload elevated mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome in the Impact Sector.
Other potential psychosocial risks include:
- Short deadlines on an ongoing basis
- Inflexible working hours
- Limited participation in deciding workload
- Lack of resources
- Inability to keep up with the overwhelming needs of beneficiaries
- Isolation from co-workers
- Over or under promotion
- Insufficient homework balance
- Unclear job role within the Impact Organization
Often, Impact workers themselves refute the notion that work stressors severely contribute to their levels of mental distress. Hence, understanding post-traumatic stress disorders, and the factors that contribute to them, is crucial in building awareness. We explore them below.
Anxiety such as feeling nervous to sit down for a test or anxiety over an interview, is quite normal. However, when anxiety impedes your ability to perform work functions, triggers severe emotion, and impacts your ability to control yourself, this is known as an anxiety disorder. There are various types of anxiety disorders, namely, social anxiety, which is related to people who fear interacting with co-workers, and generalized anxiety, which is an unrealistic feeling of nervousness that is sometimes triggered by absolutely nothing. Other common anxiety disorder types include panic disorder and phobias. A lot of these anxiety disorders may stem from a person's characteristics or even personal circumstances. However, anxiety disorders are often directly related to your job.
For example, with the Impact Sector often sending employees abroad for work, anxiety related to adapting to an international country's culture and other social norms may overcome a professional set to work in a foreign country.
Stress in the workplace such as hardship duty stations are physical and emotional responses related to not being able to fulfill the requirements of a job, lacking resources, or the job not meeting the needs of a worker. An Impactpool member Paulin has shared his stressful experience on the reality of fieldwork in Peacekeeping. Despite stress not being considered a mental health condition, severe stress can lead to anxiety and depression, which are mental disorders. Furthermore, severe stress can increase your chances of getting involved in a work-related accident, burnout, or damage to your mind and body - making it something to be critically aware of.
Examples of stress in the Impact Sector include juggling several responsibilities without any support and feeling stressed over being able to perform exceedingly well at each task.
It is vital to build resilience in this sector, especially the Humanitarian Aid Sector.
Almost everyone experiences imposter syndrome the first few weeks at a new job or organization. Imposter Syndrome is doubting your capabilities to perform a job duty. It could be a feeling that you're tricking your co-workers into believing you're capable of performing a role, or frequent negative self-talk about how unrealistic you are for thinking you can take on a high role. Having an imposter can prevent you from climbing the career ladder in the Impact Sector, and in more frequent instances, have you second guessing the work you produce. An example of Imposter Syndrome is shying away from applying for an executive role at a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) because you do not meet every educational requirement.
When a job exposes its employees to high levels of stress, it is not uncommon for a worker to develop depression over time. Depression in the workplace is associated with negative work environments that foster irritability, anxiousness, and defense from its workers. It also leads to poor morale and motivation, impacting a worker's ability to perform job tasks. The effects of work depression, like lack of motivation, can manifest even outside the work environment affecting a workers personal life. While every worker can be susceptible to workplace depression, workers in the Impact Sector are often hit with the harsh reality that attempting to improve the lives of other human beings can come at a heavy cost, and without proper support can lead to depression. For example, there are many accounts of international workers who were initially excited to take on their international posts but when assuming their new roles, quickly developed depression due to overwhelming responsibilities.
Another product of job-related stress is insomnia. Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get enough rest. A common feature of work-related insomnia is tossing in bed, repeatedly thinking about a project or aspect of work instead of getting some rest. And even after finally getting some sleep, you may find that your dreams still center around your work. Experiencing insomnia for extended periods can be detrimental to your overall health as it can lead to accidents at work, weight disorders, chronic fatigue, or even hypertension. Like depression, insomnia is highly prevalent in industries associated with the Impact Sector. A study conducted on 598 366 night shift workers established a high prevalence of insomnia in workers in the social welfare and human health industry.
Tips for impact sector workers to reduce the stressors associated with their work
Although tension or stress may inevitably occur at work, it's crucial to take steps to manage work-related stress before they turn chronic. Below are techniques for managing stress with practical examples for the Impact Sector.
Know the signs of mental illness
Indicators of underlying mental health issues will always show on an individual physically or emotionally. Apart from feeling sad and having frequent mood changes, things such as withdrawal from socializing and excessive guilt are clear indicators that you are facing a mental disorder. Once you have identified the emotional or physical strain you are feeling, take time to think about the work-related stressor or psychosocial risks that are causing you to feel this way. Then, take one stressor at a time and think about how you can manage or reduce its effect on you.
Example of intervention
Being on the frontline of conflict as an international aid worker can trigger anxiety, sleeping disorders, and many other mental health issues. Often, it is the impact of witnessing conflict that causes these issues. Choosing to withdraw from the conflict space, or having a frank talk with your employer to provide meaningful support could be measured to manage the job's effect on you.
Stress management interventions
Several stress management intervention programs reduce, prevent, and improve employees' stress coping mechanisms at the workplace. Some popular stress management techniques are relaxation, time-management skills, and lifestyle improvements. A lot of these techniques are readily available to learn on digital platforms such as stress management software, however, they can also be accessed through books or from a Psychologist.
Example of intervention
Depending on your role in the Impact Sector, and the stressor you are experiencing, look to explore role-specific stress management tools. For example, an Accounting professional experiencing burnout can use an accounting software package to help manage financial functions promptly.
If trying to control your stress on your own doesn't prove successful, then sometimes it's best to get professional intervention. Evidence-based psychological treatment from a Psychologist or Psychiatrist can help you adopt a host of practical skills to manage workplace stressors and the negative emotions associated with them. When seeking a Psychologist's help, it's best to get one outside your organization that's accredited, and subject to clinical supervision, advises the World Health Organization.
Example of intervention
Managing operations at a charity is a demanding job that can lead to fatigue and even relentlessness. Talking with a Therapist can help you address the routine changes needed to overcome your fatigue.
Being aware of mental health issues and having sufficient knowledge of mental health literacy is vital. By knowing mental health-related terminology you become self-aware of your mental health well-being and recognize when to seek help. Getting familiar with mental health terminology can be done in different formats (i.e. a professional trainer or by reading a book) and at your own pace.
Example of intervention
A medical doctor such as a Psychiatrist can be a wealth of information when seeking to learn more about mental health. When making up an appointment to visit a Psychiatrist write down a list of questions that you’d like answered regarding mental health.
Doing what makes you feel happy
Mental health issues are subjective and so is tackling them. While taking antidepressants may be a good solution for one co-worker, seeing a Psychiatrist may be better for another. When trying out different mechanisms to help manage workplace-induced mental health issues pay attention to the small wins you make with certain mechanisms. By understanding which actions help better your emotional and physical well-being, you can make plans to double down on them, and hope to see quicker overall results.
Example of intervention
Imagine being a Program Manager in a global development organization and experiencing stress over crafting a solution to providing sanitation in a warzone area. You communicate your stress concerns to your employer who advises you to seek intervention from HR. You also talk to a friend about what you’re going through, and they tell you to seek mental health care from a Therapist. You try out therapy first and feel that it's working for you. Despite your NGO advising you to seek help from HR, you're not obliged to do it, if you think you have found better help elsewhere.
Consult with Human Resources (HR)
When your mental health issues overwhelmingly stem from a structural aspect of your workplace, e.g. bad leadership, an overbearing coworker, or increased workload, it's vital to talk to HR about it. Though this may feel risky, HR professionals are trained to tackle employee mental health issues, and are required to address the issue according to law. By talking to an HR professional, you stand a better chance of addressing the stressor from the source.
Example of intervention
If you begin suffering from perhaps depression, jot down what you’re feeling before approaching HR. Detail how your feeling is impacting your ability to work. Then, approach an HR professional directly. If you are worried about stigma, or inadequately expressing yourself, get a Mediator to help you convey your feelings.
Mental health support interventions you can make use of in Impact organizations
With mental health issues affecting employees' ability to do their jobs, organizations are increasingly setting up interventions to help support people with mental health issues. Some of the mental health support interventions include:
- Flexible working arrangements. Organizations are increasingly supporting flexible working hours for the benefit of employees facing burnout.
- Welfare facilities. Many workplaces have mental and behavioral health services on premises that help employees respond to their mental health conditions.
- Peer support. Encouraging co-worker support for people facing mental health issues helps reduce stigma and alienation.
- Career training. Strengthens workers' ability to perform their duties, and helps prevent the feeling of anxiety or Imposter syndrome, surrounding taking on a new role.
- Return to work programs. Return to work programs ensure you remain employed even after an absence from work.
The UN has put together an extensive toolkit for more information on ways to communicate and support its staff.