At some level, we’ve all suspected that toxic workplaces are bad for our health. But when the U.S. Surgeon General issues a stark warning about the health consequences of toxic workplaces, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect. Is working at our organization affecting our staff members’ health? And, as leaders, what can we do to create a healthy workplace? 

 

1) Creating a Healthy Workplace: Start by Understanding Your Own Baseline

Nonprofit Executive Directors are notorious for working long hours under incredible stress, often for skimpy benefits and too little pay. This in turn sets the tone and expectations for staff members throughout an organization.

If this pattern continues for too long, it can lead to massive burnout. And the consequences can be all too real. According to Forbes:

Studies have shown that working long hours leads to serious health issues. Employees who log 55 or more hours per week have a higher risk of a stroke and dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to those clocking the relatively traditional 35 to 40 hours a week. 

As leaders, our natural response is often to try to jump in and help others. When we read about the dangers of toxic workplaces, we brainstorm ways to keep our own staff happy, healthy and engaged. But if we’re struggling, overwhelmed and miserable ourselves, how can we possibly presume to help anyone else?

Just like airline safety instructions, it’s vital that leaders don’t forget to put on their own oxygen masks. This is something board members in particular should keep in mind as they manage and support the Executive Director.

Which is why the first step in creating a healthier workplace is to understand where you as a leader may be personally struggling.

  • Are you feeling overwhelmed and overworked?
  • Are you constantly operating in crisis mode?
  • Are you starting to experience signs of burnout, such as physical or mental exhaustion?
  • Do you feel that your work is valued? If not, why not?
  • Are you making time for your annual check-ups, health screenings, and other medical appointments?
  • Are you taking time to truly unplug on weekends and vacation days?

 

Once you understand your own workplace health baseline, you can take a wider view and consider the health of your team as a whole.

 

2) Pay Attention to Managing Change in Your Organization

Nonprofit organizations are always changing. We’re adapting to community needs, pursuing new programs, or testing new tactics. While necessary, change can be disruptive, particularly when not everyone in an organization understands why it’s happening. Indeed, research shows the top reason CEOs get fired is poor change management.

According to Forbes, one reason change management fails is that:

Far too many leaders don’t like to talk candidly about the company’s challenges.

We’d add to that the need to be realistic and empathetic about how people may be affected by change. Even positive changes in organizations—such as those designed to create a healthier workplace—can have unintended consequences.

Take something as simple as changing health insurance plans. Your aim may be to get your employees the best coverage possible, balancing considerations like provider networks, copays, and deductibles. While many staff members may find that the new health insurance better meets their needs, others may suddenly discover their long-time provider is no longer in-network. Or they may spend weeks appealing to get the medications they rely on covered by the new plan.

As a leader, you can’t prevent every negative consequence from happening. But you can be open and honest about the reasons behind the need for change, the direction change is taking, and the reality that there may be bumps along the way.

 

3) For a Healthier Workplace, Look Beyond Right or Wrong Answers

When trying to create a healthier workplace, it’s tempting to reach for a list of “best practices,” pick a few to implement, and then move on. But the truth is that every organization is different.

Organizations have different missions, structures, staff, and cultures. Which means a healthy workplace is one where our unique teams feel supported and valued.

A recent Harvard Business Review piece about career reinvention sheds some light on how individual “success” can look different for everyone. The same wisdom holds true for healthy workplaces:

Our society teaches that there are “right” and “wrong” answers from our schooldays right through to the workplace. But, often, there are no discernible right answers when looking out over the unknown of a reinvented life or career.

If you’re setting out to reinvent a healthier workplace culture, there is also no single right answer. Yes, there are basics: fair wages, reasonable workloads, healthcare and other benefits. But even organizations that hit most of these marks can still suffer from unhealthy habits.

That’s why our final recommendation is to go beyond quick fixes and take a more holistic approach, such as strategic planning. Through a strategic planning process, you can tackle questions of both organizational effectiveness and organizational health—then build a comprehensive and customized strategy to address both.

Your organization’s health, and your own, is worth it.

 

Interested in more ways to foster a healthy nonprofit organization? Check out our 2023 Webinar Series: Nonprofit Capacity Building.

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