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Managing wellbeing while facing increasing pressures

By Sara Drake, CEO, The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

The recent disclosure in a survey by the Association of Chairs that charity chairs are worried about potential burnout as a result of the increased pressures they face due to COVID-19 will have struck a chord with many working within the sector. Indeed, a subsequent survey by Ecclesiastical Insurance has found that almost half of charity leaders have considered quitting as increased demand for services has exacerbated staff and volunteer pressures, with two-thirds concerned about the effect that staff burnout could have on their charity. Most leaders are still operating some form of crisis management, which is exhausting. We also know that significant numbers of charities may not survive the pandemic and determining at what point they ‘manage’ decline or review options for merger is stressful, particularly as some trustees may be feeling the heat of personal liability more than others depending on the structure of the charity. 

The sector is facing all kinds of issues around resourcing – not just retaining staff or downsizing if necessary, but also in terms of finding well qualified trustees who can help design the future. The potential pool is likely to be smaller as, despite some large firms in the private sector doing much to offer support and encouraging their staff to volunteer, people are working so hard in their day job they may not have capacity, or possibly even the appetite, to take on additional responsibilities. So what can charities do to address these challenges?

Manage the risks

Few (if any) charities would have had a pandemic on their risk register, but most boards would be wise now to include staffing issues in the risk register (not just burnout, but loss through furlough and funding cuts).

Every sector has realised the importance of staff health and wellbeing, and I would expect these to be regular board items as they impact a charity’s ability to deliver its strategy and charitable purpose. The staff survey and internal communications will have been key to providing trustees with feedback from the ‘coalface’ when they cannot visit offices and other sites in person. As a trustee, I would not want to have to deal with ‘building back better’ and a major recruitment drive because staff felt undervalued and decided to leave in close order, especially if my employment pool was local rather than national!

Be realistic

Workload stress is not a new issue. The DfE has addressed the need for boards to include discussions about staff workload in its guidance since 2018 and produced a toolkit to help schools identify these issues. You may have all the toolkits in the world, but if you are asking people to do things at short notice and they are not taking holiday as a result, loss of morale might be the least of your problems. Ensuring all staff take their allotted leave before the next big push is an important part of risk management.

Similarly, the NHS is being urged to tackle the huge waiting list for elective surgery, and there is understandably push back about staff benefiting from a pause between dealing with the pandemic and tackling the waiting lists. Boards need to be realistic and might need to scale back some of their more ambitious plans until staff are re-energised.

Recognise areas of tension

There is a clear tension between providing staff with time to pause, reflect and regroup before starting the next phase in the organisation’s evolution and prioritising fundraising activities or rolling out new ways of working. For a number of charities it may be challenging to balance the risk to their survival of delaying fundraising activities against the health and wellbeing of staff. A reputation for poor treatment of staff and volunteers could be just as damaging as loss of income.

Moving from survival to revival

Uncertainty continues and many organisations are not able to plan for a ‘post pandemic’ world. The financial impact of the pandemic has been huge with most charities still trying to do more with less for the foreseeable future.

It is not, however, all doom and gloom. A report from Ecclesiastical Insurance earlier in the year found that charities have been rising to the challenge, with 83% going digital and 52% using social distancing/PPE to continue working with patrons. In many cases business continuity plans had proved effective and four out of five respondents said their board had adapted to change and performed well in terms of remote working and planning for the future. Some have been reviewing their options in terms of downsizing and collaborating with other charities. 19% of those surveyed were considering downsizing and 20% were considering collaboration as a longer term way of cutting costs or spreading risk.

Charities are looking to retain the positive changes, thinking about the digital tools they need to operative effectively and how they can protect against cyber risks. Some are discussing the new environment into which their charities will emerge post-pandemic. Beyond concerns about the economy and its impact on revenue there is growing public pressure for all organisations to do something about environmental and social governance issues (ESG), be that helping to tackle climate change, press for social justice or just show that they are properly governed.

Risk, strategy, reputation and ESG are interconnected factors for boards. Well governed organisations should be better placed to identify those issues and have them on the board agenda to deal with in an orderly fashion. For those charities employing a governance professional or those that have attracted a volunteer to perform that role, this will provide -significant ‘breathing space’ for the CEO to plan the next stage of the charity’s life cycle as well as being better placed to support staff and themselves.

Box out

The pandemic has forced charities to re-evaluate how they operate: the use of digital, reduced travel, office space, flexible working and alternative business models are all elements of the ESG agenda/ESG risk. The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland’s ESG maturity matrix, helps charity boards assess and identify the degree to which they can and want to embrace ESG in their broader reporting arrangements.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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