Conference panellists start a discussion on mental wellbeing

As measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak change the way Australians live, work and socialise, there are concerns about how self-isolation and physical distancing are impacting mental health and wellbeing. Mental health experts say it’s natural to feel a variety of emotions such as stress, anxiety, boredom or moodiness. The constant stream of COVID-19 news is also overwhelming for many people 

On the fundraising front, the stresses wrought first by the bushfires of 2019-2020 and now the coronavirus are being felt in our sector as people worry about their jobs and fundraising in a most challenging time. At FIA Conference 2020 in late February, mental wellbeing in the fundraising space was discussed in a session for the first time.It was recognised that more can be done to help fundraisers and the discussion was the first step in the right direction. Here’s our report on the session.  

Fundraisers are burning out, stressed by excessive workplace demands, their own high expectations of performance and negative media stories about the sector, according to panellists at a recent conference session exploring mental wellbeing in the fundraising arena. 

Nigel Harris, CEO of the Mater Foundation; Lorelle Silveira, head of fundraising, Food Bank Queensland; and Greg McGahan, manager, Mater Young Adult Health Centre, led the packed session at FIA Conference 2020 in Brisbane. 

Starting a conversation on mental wellbeing: Nigel Harris, CEO of the Mater Foundation; Lorelle Silveira, head of fundraising, Food Bank Queensland; and Greg McGahan, manager, Mater Young Adult Health Centre, were the panellists at a session on mental wellbeing in the fundraising space at FIA Conference 2020 in Brisbane. 

Harris, a fundraising leader for nearly 40 years, said until recently mental wellbeing was seldom addressed by sector leaders.  

“It was a topic we skirted around or was entirely taboo. But it seems like this is now starting to change. It’s certainly coming up more in leadership discussions, and as managers and leaders, we need to talk about it and help our staff cope. I hope this conversation will be the spark that leads to solutions.” 

McGahan, a mental health nurse/manager for 30 years, told the audience it was important to address mental wellbeing in the workplace as one in five Australians is living with a mental health issue. There was also a 20 per cent increase in the number of people reporting they had a mental health challenge in the last year. 

“We see burnout in many people. We also see a lot of depression and anxiety in youth.  

They’re just hardwired for that. Women also experience more depression and anxiety,” said McGahan.  

The panellists noted both women and young people were highly represented in the fundraising sector. 

An audience member also noted that fundraisers are spending less time in their jobs and burnout is mostly to blame. Currently, the average stay is 16 to18 months in a role. 

Silveira said she believed fundraisers were also suffering trauma arising from the summer bushfire crisis.  

“Fundraisers have been helping to raise all this money during the bushfires, and then suddenly they were receiving a barrage of criticism from media who don’t understand or make no attempt to understand fundraising. Those stories have had a negative impact on fundraisers,” said Silveira, who used to work as a journalist. 

Harris said this was something FIA was trying to address by advocating for the sector and pointing out the positive impact, and difference fundraisers make to society.  

Silveira said fundraisers were also experiencing a secondary trauma after talking to bushfire- affected residents about their experiences so they could report back to donors. 

“I think the impact of being so close to this traumatic situation is going to escalate and that’s why this conversation is so important,” she said. 

Several audience members shared their stories of burnout and mental health issues. Some told heartening stories of bosses who gave them flexibility like mental health days and support networks. But others noted their organisations and bosses were not keen to address it. 

Burnout is not a badge of honour 

Silveira said that high expectations were also fuelling burnout.  

“It’s coming from leaders and boards, but it’s also coming from ourselves. We’re always trying to make every direct marketing campaign better than the one before and the next event better than the previous one,” she said. 

“I remember when being burnt out was a badge of honour. You came in early, left late and worked every weekend. It’s not healthy, it’s not sustainable, and I don’t think we should accept it anymore,” she added. 

Harris added that fundraising leaders needed to “address the elements” contributing to toxic work environments. 

Some recommendations that came out of the session: 

For organisations and leaders 

Leaders have a responsibility to create an environment where their staff feel safe, heard and supported in the workplace. Foster environments that are more empathetic and discuss the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace. And it goes without saying, there should be employee assistance programs to help. 

“Organisations also need programs that pick struggling people up early and allow them space and time to have the conversation. Good leaders have highly functional teams that have conversations about mental health and wellbeing,” advised McGahan. 

Leaders should model good behaviour and responses around mental wellbeing, especially for younger people coming into their workplace. 

Managers should conduct wellbeing check-ins with staff. Said McGahan: “When I recruit someone, I always ask ‘how do you look after yourself’? I want people to think about that, so they’re aware of the job they’re coming into. Every week, it’s good to ask how staff are travelling. Supervision, a peer mentor program and reflective practice are particularly important in times of high stress,’ he added. 

Recognise you are not an expert in mental health and won’t always know the right things to say to staff. “You don’t have to have all the answers for someone struggling.But be curious and let the person have time to open up to you,” suggested McGahan.  

Balance the conversation with discussions about resilience, coping and recovery,” he added. 

For staff 

Helping colleagues with mental wellbeing doesn’t have to come from the top, but if we all start, it can be part of the change.  

No matter what level you are, you can check-in and see if the people you work with are okay. We surprise and delight donors. Do the same for your colleagues. Hug them if they’ve had a hard day. Go and staff the phone for your receptionist if they’re having a hard time. It’s something we can all do,” said Silveira. 

Practise self-care. Silveira said it’s important to know the signs when you’re getting tired and burned out so you can stop and try to prevent things from escalating.  

“I do this now. I don’t beat myself up if I must leave work on time. I realise I don’t have to go to every event every weekend.”  

Apply trauma learnings to yourself. “As fundraisers, we’re good at interviewing people who have been in trauma to inform our campaigns. We can recognise when people are getting stressed at reliving the trauma. Apply some of that technique yourself, and don’t go home and re-play those experiences,” suggested Silveira. 

Remember why you do this job and tell your impact stories. Silveira said it’s important to remember why you entered the charity sector. “Celebrate when you do a good job, even if the media and public don’t understand fundraising. You’ve still got to tell your impact stories and remind people of the good work you’re doing every day.” 

Take control. Don’t always look at your emails and phone/ turn off notifications. Silveira said she only checked emails and texts twice a day. This way, she could “concentrate on her work with more brainpower.” She allotted time twice a day to respond to calls, emails and texts, which made her feel more in control. 

 “We fall into this trap because we have mobile phones and emails that we think we should always be contactable 24 hours a day and I don’t think that’s healthy for us,” she said.  

“This is a great start to the mental wellbeing conversation, but definitely shouldn’t be the end. We want to see it continue in the workplace and at future FIA conferences. Don’t let it end here,” concluded Silveira. 

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP or someone you trust.