secondary trauma
Talent Published Date, 2023

Deeply Invested In The Mission: Helping Your Team Cope With Secondary Trauma And Stress

Created By: Jessica Shatzel
April 25, 2023

It’s not uncommon to experience stress in the workplace and nonprofit employees are, oftentimes, more susceptible to these types of mental health concerns.

Working in the nonprofit sector can be particularly challenging—and stressful. Nonprofits and those they employ often support communities and individuals faced with tough times or difficult circumstances, and the personal sacrifices and commitment to the “cause” can lead to burnout and “secondary traumatic stress.”

“Secondary trauma is part of the nature of our profession and not a sign of weakness. Most of us understand the need to take care of ourselves, both personally and professionally but find it difficult to find time and motivation to integrate self-care strategies in our day-to-day lives,” Arieh writes.

The impact of secondary trauma and burnout can be significant for nonprofit employees. It can cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and emotional numbing. Burnout, on the other hand, can lead to feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy. Both can negatively affect job performance, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.

“Interacting with beneficiaries and addressing their issues on a daily basis can also take a toll on your employees’ mental and emotional health. There should always be a balance in the exposure to such experiences to offer employees the space they need and remove burnout,” Ilma Ibrisevic writes on donorboxblog.

Nonprofit leaders must work to make sure the organization’s actions, resources, and culture are aligned with its values. Your employees need to be shown that they have organizational support when it comes to overcoming mental health concerns and stress brought on by the work they do.

It is also important that nonprofit leaders create inclusive and safe work environments that help their team continue to thrive and do life-changing work. A nonprofit workplace that champions inclusion and an appreciation for diversity but fails to practice what it preaches can be a source of stress and frustration for women, people of color, and individuals from other marginalized groups.

Nonprofits rely heavily on the passion and commitment of their staff to fulfill their missions, and when employees do not feel valued or included in the workplace, it can lead to a sense of disillusionment and burnout; and can also trigger race and gender-specific secondary traumatic stress. Team members doing this important work do not want to be a part of organizations that perpetuate the same systemic inequalities they aim to combat.

How Can Nonprofit Employers Reduce Secondary Trauma, Stress, and Burnout in the Workplace?

There are plenty of ways organizations can help employees manage workplace stress. Here are a few:

  1. Prioritize employees’ emotional well-being and sense of safety and comfort. Encourage authentic conversations about stress and mental health among employees.
  2. Encourage employees to make time for self-care. Provide workers with healthcare and wellness benefits to every extent possible and encourage them to take advantage of these resources.
  3. Offer opportunities and strategies for work/life balance. When possible, allow for flexible schedules that accommodate employees’ preferences (morning people vs. night owls, extroverts vs. introverts) and personal lives.
  4. Provide or direct employees to mental health resources. It’s time to normalize conversations around mental health, and one way to do this is to emphasize its importance in company messaging.
  5. Foster a kind and inclusive work culture. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for stress, whether it stems from the workplace or not, consciously fostering a kind and inclusive workplace culture can go a long way toward preventing and reducing tension of all kinds.
  6. Proactively prevent and address toxic aspects of work culture. Between the tight labor market and the number of employer review sites now available, a toxic work culture will harm your reputation.

Nonprofit team members work tirelessly to fulfill their organization’s mission and positively impact their communities. They are driven by a sense of purpose and a desire to make a difference, which can lead to a heightened level of investment in their work.

While some level of workplace stress—and stress in general— may be unavoidable, reducing stress in the workplace should be the aim of both employers and employees. It is crucial for nonprofit organizations to recognize the risk of secondary trauma, stress, and burnout among their employees and to provide support and resources to mitigate these effects. By prioritizing the well-being of their employees, nonprofit organizations can improve staff retention, job satisfaction, and ultimately, the impact of their mission.

Diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace cultures are the healthiest and most productive. Orr Group can help you build from your values to promote policies and practices that promote DEI. Get in touch to learn more.

Jessica Shatzel is a Director and Head of Talent at Orr Group, specializing in executive search, recruitment, and a variety of human resources support for our nonprofit partners.

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