Caring for the caretaker: How Metro Detroit's nonprofits support staff mental healthThe Nonprofit Journal Project

“As a support organization, we’re not used to thinking about our own mental health. We’re always more focused on the folks we serve.”

As many nonprofit workers can tell you, when your job is all about helping people in distress – regardless of whether it’s of the physical, mental, or financial variety – you sometimes forget to take care of yourself.


“It’s weird for us,” said Judy Gardner, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Washtenaw County. “As a support organization, we’re not used to thinking about our own mental health. We’re always more focused on the folks we serve.”


Yet the mental health toll on the nonprofit sector’s front line workers in Michigan has been significant.


“I call it the superhero complex,” said Sharonda Simmons, Ozone House’s director of education and outreach in Ann Arbor. “I appreciate all the love and support people have shown for front line workers, and the signs and the applause are nice. But on some level, this also puts them at a distance and takes away from the fact that these are still just human beings … who get exhausted like everyone else.”


Part of Simmons’ concern for her colleagues stems from the fact that they’re “used to doing this work in a more personal capacity,” Simmons said. “Doing it virtually is not the same, and that takes a big toll on morale. We’re used to getting in to work and interacting and engaging with people, and we can’t do that right now.”


Plus, the population Ozone serves – homeless and at-risk youth – can all too easily slip through the cracks in times of crisis. “They don’t have cell phones, and they don’t have regular access to computers,” said Simmons. “ … So there are feelings of guilt about not being able to do the work we want to do because of these circumstances. … And there’s increased anxiety because we’re trying to make plans and create services when everything’s changing all the time. Like the Governor once said, it’s like we’re building a plane while flying it.”


Gardner, meanwhile, though impressed with the adaptability of her small team of employees (as well as NAMI’s volunteers), acknowledges that the pandemic has nonetheless hit her organization hard.


“I was in awe,” said Gardner. “ … We worked very quickly. Within a month, some of our programming was online, and now we’re at a hundred percent. … But I did lose two staff people. One was a new hire, and one had been here for years. They both said they couldn’t deal with the stress of everything going on. That was tough.”


And losing staffers inevitably means that those who remain must absorb the extra work. “It felt like my job became two full-time jobs,” said Gardner. “I haven’t worked that hard in a long time.”


Gardner isn’t alone. In mid-March – a moment when the state’s shutdown suddenly put many people’s careers on pause – a lot of nonprofit workers conversely found themselves scrambling to keep up with ramped up workloads and completely new challenges.


Simmons described how workers at Ozone House, in this early moment of national fear and anxiety, had rushed out to grocery stores to purchase loads of food that could be made quickly and didn’t require a stove for preparation.


“The clientele we’re supporting are impacted in different ways than other people,” Simmons said, noting that schools are normally a primary food resource for young people living in poverty. “ … ‘Shelter in place’ isn’t a necessarily healthy thing for everyone. … We tried to really quickly get food boxes to the young people and families we serve that wouldn’t have money or access. It was a mad dash, where we thought, ‘Let’s just get everything we can to our clients.’”


This heightened sense of urgency was followed by COVID testing problems (first scarcity, then long lag times for results) and tight limits on how nonprofit workers could relieve their own anxiety – including Simmons, who likes to decompress by browsing in TJ Maxx (which she couldn’t do), and who tries hard to keep her work life separate from her home life.


“When COVID hit, so did the difficulty of disconnecting,” Simmons said. “Instead of staff working in our building, now they’re receiving suicide hotline calls at home, which makes it much harder to have that separation. There’s always more work to do when you’re in crisis management.”


Both Gardner and Simmons report that mental health check-ins with coworkers have become standard practice.


“We have a Mindfulness Monday email that goes out to everyone at the agency, and that will have things like, a mental health tip, resources for people with families, ideas for physical activity and things to do with children who are staying at home,” said Simmons. “ … We also have check-in Zoom meetings, … where we use some of the same exercises we use with our clients. Like, describe how you’re feeling in three words or less. Share what you might need right now with your colleagues. We all need connection points with people.


“We’ve done social distancing walks, and virtual coffee hours, and virtual study halls, just so we can see people’s faces via Zoom. A lot of these things have been implemented along the way. It’s not the same as doing things in person at all, but it’s an attempt to alleviate stress and recognize the mental health burden on our people.”