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Charity Workers Facing Rising Stress

Charity workers are suffering high levels of stress as they help clients with the impact poverty and austerity, while at the same time facing job insecurity due to government cuts to not-for-profits sector.

A recent survey by Unite the Union found that four out of every five of charity workers experienced workplace stress in the past year with the charitable sector at “breaking point.”

CLASS spoke to Unite national officer for charities and the voluntary sector, Siobhan Endean, about the pressures faced by charity workers. She said there was an “epidemic of mental health conditions caused by workplace stress.” Watch the video below:

Some of the not-for-profit sector is dedicated to helping people in areas like foodbanks, homelessness and fuel poverty, while a quarter of charities work in health and social care. Austerity has also seen income from government-related contracts plummet by a quarter.

It is hardly surprising that four out of ten workers surveyed by Unite did not feel that their job was secure, especially when 28 per cent of charities report that they are looking to reduce personnel costs. Over half of charities have less than 50 staff, and staff in smaller organisations are more likely to feel vulnerable to the financial pressures.

This pincer movement of rising workloads, due to the impact of austerity, and heightened job insecurity is contributing to higher stress levels across the public sector. Survey respondents felt they received little support from human resources, with one saying “My job is slowly killing me” and another: “So many things about this employer are great, but some very wrong and ‘they’ can’t see it nor understand.”

The respondents included staff working for charities such as Citizens Advice, Action for Children, Age UK, Save the Children, Oxfam, Mind, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, the Samaritans and Greenpeace UK. A report last year produced for the RSPCA by Unite found that three in 10 staff members at the charity had been bullied in the previous 12 months.

In a separate survey one respondent explained the emotional impact of work: “Charity workers that work directly with clients experiencing long-term issues, such as trauma or severe mental health challenges, are at particular risk. Trauma begins to impact you over time when you hear story after story. Therefore, you need to start thinking more positively or visualise a calm environment capable of washing away your stress.”

Some 42 per cent of charity workers told Unite that their job was not good for their mental health, 44 per cent said they did not believe they worked for a well-managed organisation and a further 34 per cent did not feel valued at work.

The vast majority of charity staff work beyond their contracted hours, 95 per cent, according to a Guardian survey. Many do so willingly. Charity workers are the most likely to declare that they are committed to the work that they do, and almost half say they are happy with the hours they work.

Trade unions are clear that staff commitment must not be taken advantage of, and the issues of mental health in the workplace must be taken seriously. Endean described her union’s findings as “profoundly disturbing”, adding: “Staff employed by charities and NGOs tend to be very committed to their organisation and are usually loathe to speak out as their fear it will damage the cause they work for. However, many workers are clearly at breaking point.”

She continued: “It is impossible to get away from the stark fact that the catastrophic cumulative impact of austerity cuts on the sector and mismanagement of dedicated and passionate workers is making them ill and creating widespread misery. However this is no excuse for them to challenge the long hours, excessive workloads and bullying which members say is a huge factor in mental health and stress problems. They must stop exploiting the goodwill of their workers.”

An anonymous charity worker wrote on the Guardian's Voluntary Sector Network how they left the sector exhausted and burnt-out, worn down by a combination of difficult working environments, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma: “Anyone in the helping professions is at risk of compassion fatigue, physical and emotional exhaustion, and a reduced ability to empathise. It is inevitable that a worker takes on some of the survivor’s feelings – whether it is anxiety, fear, sadness, powerlessness or anger. Over time, a worker can start to experience some of the same symptoms as the person they are supporting, affecting them physically, emotionally, mentally and sexually.”

The need for non-governmental bodies to better care for their staff has been the subject of several studies, and an independent review into misconduct at Oxfam found that a “toxic work environment” had allowed allegations of bullying and harassment to go unchecked.

The merging of work and home life is rife in the sector, yet there is often a gap in perceptions over the causes of stress between frontline workers and their bosses with employers believing it is caused by staff getting to grips with technology and organisational change, whereas workers identify low pay, unclear job expectations and workplace culture.

There is more that charity bosses can do to make life better for their staff by helping them manage stress and not become immersed in their work around the clock. Charities can encourage self-care plans to develop regular exercise, sleep routines, frequent breaks, healthy eating, relaxation and pursuit of hobbies. They can also normalise mental health with sick leave policies explicitly mentioning mental health, including preventative and ongoing treatment.

Charities are undoubtedly under pressure. The top 40 UK charities have reported a combined pensions deficit of £5.5 billion and the sector could lose £4 million in donations could be lost as a result of new rules on cold calling. In addition to staffing cuts, almost half of charities are anticipating having to dip into their reserves while seeking to make up the shortfall with an increase in non-charitable trading and assumptions about an increase in membership fees or subscriptions.

Despite the financial and workload pressures, charities have a responsibility to their staff so that together they can deliver quality services and campaign for an end to austerity and poverty.

  • Lester Holloway is Communications and Events Officer at CLASS