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Pause, reflect and respond

What voluntary sector leaders have taught us about workplace wellbeing

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the scale and pace of change has impacted the way we live and work. Although we don’t know the full extent of the fallout, many of us are very aware that the pandemic is affecting individuals’ mental health and wellbeing.  People have had to quickly adapt to remote working, makeshift offices, and balancing home life demands such as home schooling and caring for dependents, and, in some cases, they’ve had to deal with bereavement.

At IVAR, we have been running free 90-minute peer support sessions with voluntary sector leaders, which spotlight the emotional demands that leaders and their workforce face during work. We have produced a series of anonymised briefings from these sessions which refer to the emotional labour and demand on the voluntary sector workforce as a persistent concern, with the potential to result in more levels of workplace stress, burnout and sick leave than ever before.

We know that addressing workplace wellbeing can reduce boredom, and boost productivity and job satisfaction. Now, more than ever, voluntary sectors leaders take on more responsibility to provide emotional support – not only for their workforce but for themselves. I see this as an opportunity for the voluntary sector to pause, reflect, and respond to the current situation, embedding new and different work practices to improve future work conditions in the voluntary sector.

Over 400 voluntary sector leaders have shared with us a range of experiences of leading during uncertain times. We heard the positives of remote working, such as more flexible working and reduced commute times, as well as the differing ways leaders have responded to support the emotional wellbeing of their workforce. Their responses were shaped by a range of factors, including being adaptable to each individual’s personal situation; and which communication modes and practices were already in place.

Practical suggestions from our conversations with voluntary sector leaders

1. Build a shared purpose

You can do this by providing spaces for reflection, reaffirming the organisation’s mission and values, encouraging people to stay engaged with the work and identify with the organisation, even if they have been furloughed.

2. Be human

The pandemic has shone a light on staff’s personal remote working conditions, filled with distractions and responsibilities. During lockdown, more people have had to juggle home schooling and other caring duties. Having good HR practice is a positive starting place to address expectations of remote workers – such as clear job descriptions and working contracted hours – but this current situation requires leaders to be flexible and to understand that some staff may need to shape their work patterns around their responsibilities. Leaders might need to ask different questions when planning work for their colleagues in the future.

Our sessions have highlighted the positive examples of leaders taking a more human approach with their teams: being more transparent about their concerns; delegating responsibilities and issues; not trying to hold things that are not in their control; and talking to others. In turn, this has created stronger relationships, a shared sense of purpose, and heightened team morale.

3. Share power and build autonomy

As the majority of us are working remotely, it is essential that leaders are comfortable with giving up control and trusting their workforce to do what is best. Open and regular communication is key to ensure that people are not only listened to but feel heard. This consistent and transparent conversation should also bring staff into the decision-making process as it contributes to building core motivation and a sense of individual autonomy as they can take ownership over their working day and workload. For example, permitting employees to say no to ‘back-to-back’ Zoom meetings and stepping away from the computer to go on a daily walk.

4. Talk about emotional wellbeing

We are all feeling emotional demands during the pandemic. Compartmentalising between home and work life has become harder as the lines between them have faded. Staff feel exhausted, sensitive and receptive to tensions that might normally have been brushed off in an office environment; this can have a knock-on effect by creating uncomfortable and tense work dynamics.

Staff are missing face-to-face contact with their peers and the support they get from this. Leaders have adopted different practices to address this disconnect, such as offering additional coaching or support sessions; conducting weekly temperature checks; building self-care into the working day; sending care packages to staff; weekly online ‘coffee mornings’; and some have offered extended annual leave. It is essential that providing emotional support should not be viewed as a one-off, tick box exercise but rather embedded into an organisation’s culture; this requires regular check-ins and open spaces for staff to share their concerns and needs.

Staff are really struggling – we have upped clinical supervision to twice a month, this second lockdown is really hurting…home schooling, staff breaking down in team meetings…if you say something in the wrong way, people take it so personally.

Can’t give someone a hug, so need to think of different ways of doing this’ e.g. ‘coffee and cake chat’ on zoom- this works for some people and not all, but gives a chance to keep up to date with individuals responsibilities they are facing.

5. Learn together

There is a no ‘one-size-fits-all’ to supporting the emotional wellbeing of your workforce, and what is required for your organisation might be different from another. A good first step is to bring people together to have transparent conversations about what works for them and what doesn’t – this can be a powerful process that builds trust.


What can funders and commissioners do?

  • Acknowledge the importance of emotional wellbeing and offer dedicated wellbeing grants.
  • Proportionate and relational funding practices to understand the current and differing needs of voluntary sector organisations.
  • Long-term, unrestricted funding has never been more vital.

The voluntary sector has demonstrated tremendous flexibility and resilience during the pandemic – although resilience should not be viewed as a coping strategy, nor is it a sustainable working state. As we move towards a blended way of working, this is a key opportunity for us reflect on what has worked and what’s not: to shape our work practice for the better and prevent us from returning to ‘how things are normally done’. It not only requires structural changes but a cultural shift in how we think, talk and approach supporting the emotion and wellbeing of the voluntary sector workforce – with the guiding aim to prevent exhaustion and burnout, as one leader described ‘I don’t just want to survive but also thrive during these challenging times’. I hope that these practical suggestions are helpful to leaders but also highlights that there are opportunities available to individual staff members to take up during these strange times.


Join the event

Vita Terry and Mike Aiken are running a series of events funded by the Voluntary Sector Studies network that is examining the role of emotion and feelings in Voluntary Sector work. The second event in this series will run on the morning of 13th April 2021 from 10 am – 12.30 pm, and will be held via Zoom. We aim to provide space for developing the discussion on practice and research insights into the role of emotion and feelings in any aspect of voluntary and community work. Please register your interest in the event here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwude2uqD8pG9ITm-fioWF2eQbQfH62Xy1a%20.

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