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Panel examines ways nonprofit leaders, employees can address mental health challenges

Stories | 11.28.23

With leaner staff and limited resources, the stress experienced at nonprofits is often above and beyond those in the for-profit world. And that was before the pandemic upended the workplace.

Punctual and focused employees may become more relaxed and more disengaged. Easy-going and supportive coworkers seem more short-tempered and hypercritical. Those who used to be willing to take on new projects seem to stonewall every new idea.

Recognizing the urgency and relevancy of addressing the mental health challenges nonprofit leaders and their teams face, Adler University organized and hosted an educational panel discussion on Nov. 8 to promote self-care, well-being, and resiliency for employees.

The brainchild of two Adler University Board of Trustees members Falona Joy and Eddie Philips, Ed.D., the event also sought to explore new research on workplace mental health amid a pandemic, discuss how mental health challenges are showing up at nonprofit organizations, and examine the impact of remote or hybrid work.

According to a recent U.S. Surgeon General report on workplace mental health, 76% of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition, 84% said their workplace conditions contributed to at least one mental health challenge, and 81% reported they would look for workplaces that support mental health in the future.

The panel included Mary Ellen Caron, Ph.D., CEO of After School Matters, one of Chicago’s premier nonprofits providing Chicago teens the opportunity to explore their passions and develop their talents through after-school and summer programs and a partner organization of Adler Community Health Services (ACHS); Adler Board of Trustees member Kathleen St. Louis Caliento, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Cara Collective, which engages job seekers, employers, and other organizations to break the cycle of poverty through the employment; and Kevin Osten-Garner, Psy.D., executive director of ACHS, the clinical training center of the University. Adler University President Raymond E. Crossman moderated the discussion.

Invited leaders and employees from several well-known Chicago-area nonprofits and organizations attended the event, including the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Chicago, Chicago Community Trust, WBEZ, Healthy Schools Campaign, and The Albert Pick, Jr. Fund.

Among the key takeaways from the panel included nonprofit leaders’ need to embrace greater transparency in the workplace by inviting others to provide input into their decision-making process. And they encouraged nonprofit leaders to set clear boundaries to help their employees achieve better work-life balance.

These include encouraging employees to take their paid time off, being serious about taking their vacation without doing any work, however miniscule it may seem, and using available sick days for unscheduled mental health days. Taking these breaks can help employees become more effective when they return to work.

Dr. Osten-Garner also discussed the ways ACHS has worked to help Adler students develop resiliency skills at their internships and practicum placements. This is achieved by setting realistic expectations, celebrating achievements, helping them understand when they work best, and teaching self-care techniques that work for them. This may include never scheduling more than three back-to-back therapy sessions without a 30-minute break and breaking away from social media or news consumption when feeling overwhelmed.

“There’s a lot more understanding of, and an encouragement to be honest about, where each of us are as professionals,” said Chris Toft, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Adler University. “When an individual’s glass is empty, it used to be left unacknowledged. Today, the panelists said, addressing these challenges is a sign of compassion and good leadership that will foster a healthier work culture in the long term.”

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