The danger of a team that doesn’t show emotion

Founder of Bird Hannah Massarella shares her own experience of burnout and encourages the sector to better deal with emotions. Hannah will be speaking at our conference, about building personal resilience in a fast-paced world. 

When I worked in the violence against women and girls sector, supporting survivors of domestic abuse, I kept a lid on my emotions. Daily, I heard stories of physical, emotional, psychological and financial abuse, but rarely processed or offloaded those stories. I took them on board and then carried on, diving headfirst into the challenges and stories of the next client.

As an empath, I absorbed some of the hurt and pain suffered by those I was supporting. Unbeknown to me, I was experiencing vicarious trauma, which over time led to complete burnout.

As I was doing my work, I was finding ways to numb my emotions so I could carry on. There didn’t feel like the space or opportunity to fully process what I was hearing, and I was personally quite unaware of the need to do that, so I found other ways to keep going. I numbed with alcohol. I drank in the evenings and on weekends. I drank so when I was outside of work I could forget all the stories I’d heard and find a way to relax and switch off.

I also stockpiled my emotions, a term developed by Dr Brené Brown. Stockpiling is where you ignore all of your emotions but your body starts to show you there are problems. I got severe lower back pain, and I was frequently ill with colds and flu.

As a result of not having a safe and constructive way to really process all the emotion that came with the work, I became an employee who was falling apart. I was verging on being an alcoholic and I was regularly ill and off sick. I wasn’t someone you’d necessarily want on the team. I was no longer the person my employer hired.

Eventually, I did completely burn out and had to leave my organisation and the sector as a whole. Luckily, I sought help and recovered, but felt on reflection it was a travesty that it happened to me in the first place. I went into the not-for-profit sector to give something back and to do work that felt meaningful but came out feeling broken and disillusioned.

It is no surprise sick leave and burnout statistics are high.

When I was experiencing burnout I wasn’t alone. Colleagues were dropping like flies, and as I investigated further afield the same was happening in other organisations in the sector too.

Too many not-for-profit organisations encourage staff to have a thick skin. Most in the sector are dealing with incredibly challenging subject matter, either working directly with beneficiaries or by reading and communicating stories or research. Everyone within a not-for-profit organisation is touched by stories of hardship, and yet many are expected to move through each day as if it’s a walk in the park. Dangerously, some organisations hold the unspoken story that jobs are in short supply, and if you don’t buck up and keep on keeping on your job will easily be filled by another bright young thing.

When we operate in organisations where the subject matter is heavy, and the processing space and time available is thin or non-existent the emotion seeps out in other ways. I’ve come across numerous cases of bullying within the not-for-profit sector; when we are carrying unprocessed emotions they can turn into judgement and blame of others. I remember in two of my past roles in the sector being genuinely afraid of the emotional wrath of certain colleagues.

Dealing with beneficiaries stories, holding the idea that the job could be filled any minute, and toxicity from colleagues can lead to trauma. Dr Gabor Maté talks about how trauma can lead to physical illness in his book ‘When the body says no: the costs of hidden stress.’ When we’re experiencing vicarious trauma, or we’re working with colleagues who are blaming, judging or bullying us, it can have an enormous impact on our bodies. It is no surprise sick leave and burnout statistics in the not-for-profit sector are high.

There are many ways staff can be supported.

So what do we do about this? How can we make space for colleagues to process the stories, emotions and experiences they hear from others in a productive way? First, I would advocate acknowledging that the need is very real. We need to move away from thinking staff should ‘just get on with it’.

Secondly, it is about encouraging the processing of emotion and making space for it. This can happen in a number of ways. CEOs or senior management can model self-care; you can share what you’re doing to self-support as you’re going through a challenging time. You can advocate or lead ‘honest check-ins’ where staff get the chance to share how they feel, name how it’s impacting them, and then state what they need. You can invest, and more importantly encourage, people to use staff counselling or coaching services. You can allow work from home. You can train people up internally to be listening support to others. You can give everyone a language to use to clearly express how they feel after a challenging conversation with a beneficiary.

There are so many ways staff can be supported. We know it can feel like there isn’t the time or the resource to make wellbeing and resilience strategies available when things feel so tight in the sector, but an awareness and the start of a conversation about it might be enough, to begin with.

Working in the not-for-profit sector is highly rewarding, engaging and fulfilling. But without the right kind of support (both by organisations and in terms of self-support) we can feel burnt out and disillusioned. However, with simple and easy processes it is possible to create not-for-profit environments that are healthy, productive, fun places to work in, where staff can truly thrive and beneficiaries feel the buoyant energy of those that support them.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash (man sitting on a wooden pier over a lake looking at mountains in the background)

Hannah and Bird have partnered with ACEVO for a number of years. We work with CEOs one to one to help you build and maintain resilience (particularly through challenging times such as struggles with the board, staff changes/challenges or an unexpected loss of role). We also work with ACEVO members by delivering wellbeing and resiliency workshops to their teams. Please get in touch via hannah@birdmovement.com for more information.

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