Learning from COVID-19: Five Self-Care Approaches for the Nonprofit Sector
by Mandy Sharp Eizinger
COVID-19 is the global pandemic of the generation.
Operating under crisis is often the norm for nonprofit organizations, and COVID-19 is revealing the complexity of global crises and their bearing on self-care for individuals in the sector. As parts of the world enter recovery and rebuilding in this new reality, the continued challenge will be to redefine post-coronavirus self-care for millions of professional helpers and skilled volunteers across critical healthcare, education, and social assistance programs.
The rise of the $10 billion self-care industry goes beyond the #TreatYourself hashtag that permeates popular culture (Conlin, 2019). Self-care, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress,” could come in the form of meeting basic human needs, like squeezing in eight hours of sleep to support the nervous system, regular exercise to increase serotonin levels, or time in the sun to boost Vitamin D. Instagram depicts self-care in filtered photos of yoga retreats, decedent baked goods, and inspirational quotes, which have their feel-good benefits, too. Self-care is highly personal and should be free from judgment.
Living in the time of COVID-19, our understanding of self-care and its role in the workplace is evolving rapidly. Here are five lessons about self-care that the nonprofit sector is increasingly acknowledging and looking for ways to adopt:
1. We’re confirming that superhuman strength is unsustainable.
COVID-19 front-line workers and social assistance providers are demonstrating super-human strength and resilience, but at the end of the day, superhuman strength is unsustainable. The ability to cope with crisis may lead to compassion fatigue, defined by the American Institute of Stress as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events” (n.d.). Many nonprofit workers were already subject to this strain before the pandemic.
The implications of renewed or compounded trauma on the social sector is real in the day-to-day. The experience of trauma is triggered daily by social isolation and bad news, such as:
- the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported across the headlines
- the rise in incidence of domestic violence reporting due to required stay-at-home orders (Taub, 2020)
- limited community resources and hungry families (DeParle, 2020)
The experience of trauma is compounded further for individuals entering unsafe or resource-strained working conditions while in fear of risking personal health or suffering professional consequences. Indeed, COVID-19 confirmed a tangible need for personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect first responders and essential workers, even in mission areas we never thought of before, like food banks and homeless shelters — and we are learning that protection from the mental and emotional strain of working in crisis is equally critical.
What the sector needs:
- Coronavirus reminds the sector that we need safe work environments for our staff and constituents in the physical space and in the mental and emotional space. That safety will look different for different types of organizations and mission areas, and for individuals, but it is worth it to discover what works.
- Because crisis is often the norm in the sector, trauma-informed staff and support resources and policies are critical to caring for staff in this new reality.
2. Recognize that burnout is real.
The images of healthcare workers with mask impressions etched into their faces, or food bank staff packing resources into mile-long lines of vehicles are images of this unprecedented time. Yet burnout in the form of chronic stress and energy depletion hit the sector long before coronavirus. It is exponentially higher in a time when many are working to keep their heads above water in a time where it is anything but business as usual.
Burnout — officially entered as a medical diagnosis in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases in 2019 — creates psychological and physical conditions costing $125 to $190 billion in healthcare spending in the United States each year. It also often leads to low productivity and high turnover in organizations (Garton, 2017).
What the sector needs:
- A day off — or a week off — without penalty amid crisis may prevent burnout and increase positive mental health. Encouraging no-penalty mental health days or approving sick days for mental health is crucial in the sector.
- Peer support groups and safe spaces for dialogue, peer coaching, and feedback are also helpful in building a community of practice and accountability in this new way of operating. We need each other.
3. Focus on productivity instead of the 9-to-5.
The days are long. Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant (2020) noted that the work-from-home workday amid the coronavirus pandemic adds two to three additional hours onto the day, as regular work is coupled in many households with responsibilities of eldercare, childcare, homeschooling, and other household duties. Grant suggests this period be used instead for testing shorter workdays or fewer days in the workweek — prioritizing productivity versus the timesheet, a movement that seems counterintuitive but shows an increase in productivity, company performance and employee happiness (Soojung-Kim Pang, 2020).
The crisis has accelerated the sector’s readiness to support remote communication and workflows, while also disrupting service delivery for many organizations. In a time when many are reevaluating overhead and reducing exposure by avoiding commuting or high-traffic office buildings, it is time to consider efficiencies that drive self-care yet still prioritize mission.
What the sector needs:
- The sector will benefit from flexible schedules and a focus on productivity and deliverables moving forward to balance work, life, and health. Stay-at-home orders also show us that the sector can thrive in executing remote work, but reliable and accessible technology is required to stay on mission.
4. Realize that self-care is highly personal.
Self-care and well-being are not one-size fits all, as education on self-care practices and one’s comfort level stepping into a space of self-care may be new. While the sector may promote well-being practices, trauma-informed care, or professional self-care goals in its organizational culture, the approach is highly personal.
Some staff may enjoy a workplace yoga session, yet others may prefer to leave an hour earlier to decompress alone. The important step is to create a space for self-care so individuals can participate in a personally meaningful way regardless of their physical, financial, or emotional preferences or constraints.
What the sector needs:
- Organizations should create designated time and space for individualized self-care — without adding something else to an employee’s plate. Give them a menu of options for their own well-being, without penalty or judgment. This will require a shift in some organizational culture and supervisory structures.
5. Acknowledge that self-care is a privilege.
COVID-19 further exposed racial disparities in access to information, testing, and healthcare. Similar disparities create barriers to accessing self-care. The resources, time, and energy to practice self-care are privileges that many individuals or communities cannot access in the day-to-day, nor in crisis — especially if getting through the day is simply about survival.
In the era of social distancing, there is an emergence of free virtual home workouts or complimentary trials of meditation and mindfulness apps, but not every self-care space is equally accessible or appropriate to encourage — and that is a problem the sector must acknowledge. Advocating for self-care with a single parent who must decide whether to help their child with homework or take time for their own well-being is just the tip of the iceberg. Encouraging an individual to take a lunch hour walk in a community with violence or incidences of racial profiling may be a misguided approach, too.
What the sector needs:
- As the sector rebuilds from coronavirus, it is important to recognize and understand the privilege of the organizations who not only survive but can also prioritize self-care in their organization. To understand self-care as a privilege, organizational leadership must also create space for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programming, eliminate barriers to participate in self-care, meet individuals where they are to build a sense of belonging, and identify blind spots in their own work for individual and collective well-being.
Adam Grant. (2020, May 2). If you’re working from home, the pandemic has extended the average work day by 2-3 hours. Now is the ideal moment for employers to reverse that trend by testing out 6-hour work days or 4-day work weeks. By freeing up attention and energy, less time can mean more quality [Facebook post]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/AdamMGrant/posts/3125024027548334
The American Institute of Stress. (n.d.). Definition: compassion fatigue. Retrieved from https://www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue
Conlin, J. (2019, May 10). The $10-billion business of self-care. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-business-of-self-care-20190508-story.html
DeParle, J. (2020, May 6). As hunger wells, food stamps become a partisan flash point. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/us/politics/coronavirus-hunger-food-stamps.html
Garton, E. (2017, April 6). Employee burnout is a problem with the company, not the person. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/04/employee-burnout-is-a-problem-with-the-company-not-the-person
Soojung-Kim Pang, A. (2020, March 10). It’s time to end 9-5 office hours: The business case for the five-hour workday. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/10/five-hour-workday-shorter-book
Taub, A. (2020, April 14). A new Covid-19 crisis: Domestic abuse rises worldwide. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html
World Health Organization. ICD-11 for mortality and morbidity statistics (Version: 04/2019). Retrieved from https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en#/http://id.who.int/icd/entity/129180281