October is Mental Health Awareness Month – a topic that is more relevant than ever in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic and the different levels of lockdown have brought to light many socio-economic inequalities in South Africa. The needy became needier and the disadvantaged even more disadvantaged.

The role that nonprofit organisations play in communities was magnified and so was their exposure to severely traumatic and stressful situations.

While there are many fulfilling aspects to being part of a nonprofit organisation, the over-exposure to traumatic situations may lead to Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), which is stress that an individual might experience after being indirectly exposed to trauma.

Secondary Traumatic Stress in South African NPO’s

A recent Mental Health Support Programmes Survey conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) in partnership with Tshikululu Social Investments, revealed that workers at nonprofit organisations in South Africa are experiencing high levels of psychological distress and are at risk of developing mental illness.

The survey assessed the psychological well-being of over 200 nonprofit professionals who responded to the pandemic. The findings revealed that a majority of NPO professionals have moderate to severe psychological disorders. Over a third of them were also displaying a high risk of developing a mental health condition.

Secondary Traumatic Stress in Cape Winelands Nonprofits

Valcare has experienced a similar rise in mental health challenges amongst their nonprofit member organisations, who are all operational in the Cape Winelands region.

Since the pandemic started, an increased number of nonprofit workers started reaching out to Valcare in their personal capacity to share their mental health struggles.

Many nonprofit workers were concerned about the welfare of their beneficiaries who all of a sudden didn’t have access to food, safety, educational resources or income during the lockdown period.

Others were busier than ever, with a higher demand on social services to support vulnerable people with the ever-increasing unemployment rates.

On the other hand, leaders of nonprofit organisations were feeling the pressure of decreased funding which in some cases led to retrenchments and restructuring. During a Covid-19 Impact survey that Valcare conducted with their members at the end of 2020, 72% of members indicated that they are concerned about finances.

In another quick survey that Valcare conducted with a group of social workers, they found that 66% of the social workers often cannot cope with hearing traumatic situations experienced by clients.

Furthermore, 50% admitted to continuously think about these situations even when they did not tend to.

When asked if counseling and debriefing sessions help them, most of the social workers confirmed that it does with one social worker answering: “It helps to talk freely and to give my honest opinion about my challenges, without being judged. Counselling sessions help me to take myself out of difficult situations.”

Unchecked secondary trauma can be debilitating. When people ignore the signs of their own trauma, they may be prone to unnecessary suffering, which can lead to burnout or compassion fatigue. This often results in nonprofit professionals ending or changing their career to avoid facing stressful situations.

The effects of STS on workers can spill over to an organisation and lead to challenges that could have otherwise been avoided by seeking help. One of the symptoms of STS is lack of productivity and when an employee does not perform at their usual best, a lot of things start to fall through the cracks. Work starts to pile up and the organisation’s functionality might start to suffer.

Valcare Membership Psycho-Social Support Programme

To offer professional psycho-social support to nonprofit members, Valcare decided to partner with Good Hope Psychological Services to offer complementary therapy sessions to their members who don’t have access to support.

Since the programme was launched in February 2021, 47 sessions have been facilitated to guide people through their trauma with many expressing the positive impact that it has had on their lives.

“My sessions with the counsellors at the Good Hope Psychological Services offer me support when I need it the most. I leave every session feeling hopeful and with a new perspective on life and the challenges I face,” said anonymous.

Organisations should help employees manage STS

Leaders of organisations should make sure that all their employees know what STS is and employees should be empowered to recognise the symptoms in themselves.

There should also be a safe space where employees feel free to share their STS experiences, preferably an independent outside counsellor.

Organisations should always be sympathetic and helpful towards employees who display symptoms of STS, and intervene when the warning signals arise.

The nonprofit space is centred around a network of people who are continuously giving of themselves to support others. It is therefore extremely important to ensure that the workers’ cups remain full, so they can continue to serve those who need it most. Nonprofit workers are the foundations of our society, their well-being needs to be a priority,” says Ivan Swartz, CEO of Valcare.

Article compiled by Lebogang Molapo; Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at Valcare.