July 22, 2020

Supporting well-being in resource-scarce environments

Five ways to support organisational well-being—for nonprofits, bootstrapped startups, and other organisations working with limited resources.

6 min read

People working in social impact have had to deal with COVID-19 and its varying impact at two levels—on one hand, they have to manage themselves and their own lives in this pandemic, and on the other, they are daily witnesses to how structural negligence, violence, and badly designed policies affect the lives of the communities they closely work with.

In this way, the pandemic has emphasised the need for organisations in our sector to develop highly-resilient, thoughtfully-designed, and responsive systems so that teams can continually build on their competencies and engage with their work, while also taking care of themselves. In social impact, we often speak about the importance of compassion for the people we work with, but fail to meaningfully engage with nurturing compassion for ourselves and focusing on our own well-being.

We often speak about the importance of compassion for the people we work with, but fail to focus on our own well-being.

While there are plenty of organisations that are interested in supporting their teams’ mental health and well-being, the lack of knowledge on how to do so, combined with the constant struggle for funds, the corporatisation of the development space, and systemic deprivation of resources in the sector often limit the possibility of them doing so meaningfully.

Related article: Mental health at work

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At Apni Shala, we believe that it’s not a ‘good thing’ for social impact organisations to build care-based policies. Instead, it is a non-negotiable if we want to serve our communities in the best way possible. That’s why, over the last seven years, we have worked to centre team well-being in how the organisation is designed. While our systems aren’t always perfect and we have made mistakes, we have a commitment to taking feedback and improving what we are building. And of course, we try and do this all in a cost-effective way.

Over the years, here’s some of what we have learnt, and what I think other organisations looking to start might find useful:

1. Be intentional about centering well-being

It’s important to be intentional about an organisational desire to support team mental health and well-being. And of course, that intention has to result in action. When thinking about how to put it all into practice, it’s especially useful to map out actions and policies against this intention to ensure that they are aligned. Some questions you can ask yourself to help with this include:

  • Does your vision statement speak about the well-being of the team in any way? How can you include it?
  • Are your HR policies in line with maintaining well-being? For example, think about how you have structured your wellness leaves and what opportunities you have for every-day flexibility based on employees’ needs.
  • In the event that a team member’s well-being is compromised, what actions, practices, and conflict resolution measures do you have in place?

A spirit level being used to draw lines_Rawpixel

It’s especially useful to map out actions and policies to ensure that they are aligned. | Picture courtesy: Rawpixel

2. Build meaningful management relationships

Management can be an exciting space to restructure relationships centered in well-being. Organisations should look at how they can thoughtfully design these practices, and what role a manager can play beyond ‘leading’ or ‘supervising’ a team.

An essential step to building this meaningfully is to get the inputs of your team. For example, last year, a team of ten supervisors came together and co-created the organisation’s management framework through an interactive process over 10 months. At the end of it, some of the practices that either shifted or have become more intentional include:

  • Having an emotion check-in before beginning a managerial conversation.
  • Setting up the time and agenda together before the meeting. This helps both parties be more prepared for the conversation and ensures that nothing throws them off guard.
  • Creating a balance of forms of management—namely, normative (taking updates on tasks, follow-ups, review of tasks, feedback, and so on), formative (professional development, skill enhancement for the tasks, and so on), and restorative (what emotions does the work bring, how are we processing them, what else is going on).

Related article: Check yourself, before you wreck yourself

3. Consider the variety of assistance you can provide

Different staff members may need different kinds of support at different times, and as an organisation it’s important to plan for the same. In doing so, the mental health spectrum is useful—think about what a team member may need when they are well, when they are in distress, and when they are experiencing anxiety—all of these states will require differentiated responses.

Likewise, people are coming into your organisation with varying lived experiences and realities (for example, some may have experienced discrimination and systemic oppression). Keeping this in mind, think about how your organisation can structure and create a care-based work environment.

A few options organisations can explore include:

  • Subsidising therapy: Partnerships with therapists and organisations that can provide therapy at reduced prices.
  • Including a well-being line item in your grant application: This can be for a variety of items, including staff welfare activities, trainings on well-being, as well as a salary component that takes well-being into account such as an employee provident fund or insurance.
  • Developing a mentoring programme: Develop a mentoring programme, possibly internally and cross-divisional. An internal mentor, for example, might be able to hold the organisation history, vision, and values while providing mentoring; and keeping it cross-divisional ensures that the mentor is not responsible for the goals of the team member, and creates opportunities for teams to get to know each other.
  • Using available time and resources for structuring care: For example, trainings and large team meetings can start with a check-in and well-being activity. As these initiatives are anyway planned and budgeted for (in terms of time and resources), integrating care into them is an easy step to take. Some examples of well-being activities include mindfulness practice, breathing exercises, expressive writing, journaling, and starting the meeting with art or music.
  • Creating resources for social-emotional, diversity and inclusion trainings, and policy work: Exclusion, bullying, and discrimination are real problems within organisations. Being cognisant of this, we have been running diversity and inclusion trainings for the team over the last four years. This includes three hours every month being spent reflecting on personal and professional spaces to remind ourselves of just, care-based relationships. During these sessions, we talk about how experiences of gender, caste, class, disability, neurodiversity, sexuality, religion, and other identities may have impacted our lives and how they unfold in the workplace.
4. Know your team, respond to their humanity

Building in systems to understand team members (where they come from, what they need, how they want to grow), and get feedback, as well as creating a space for conversations about the same, helps nurture a community that supports and cares for each other in the organisation. Importantly, doing so does not require an extra investment of funds, only time.

Here are some things to think through:

  • Does your team seek an active role in organisational decision-making? If yes, how can you create space for that?
  • What practices can you put in place to ensure honest and transparent communication on an ongoing basis? (Here, think also about how the leadership team can be more proactive in communicating organisational decisions.)
  • Would work from home and other flexible work policies benefit the team? How can you create systems that incorporate them?
  • Are your organisation’s policies equitable? For example, having financial assistance available for team members who may need it (above and beyond their salary), or being aware of how policies like work from home play out differently for different team members (say, based on gender). These considerations are even more important if your team, like ours, comes from diverse backgrounds.
  • Are you able to adapt to the team’s changing needs?

Related article: But, what about mental health?

5. Ask your team what they need

As we say in narrative therapy, “People, including the young and very young, possess expertise regarding their own lives. They are always taking action in response to circumstances in their lives.” As organisations, it is important that we honour this. When you are thinking about investing in your team’s well-being, ask them what would work for them.

We recently did a reflection survey with our team where we asked them about current systems, processes, trainings, and policies that have supported them in their work, what changes they think can further support them in the future, and an open-ended question where they could share anything they wanted with the leadership team. Everything shared in this piece as best practices have been culled out from that survey, based on validation from the team. After all, asking people what they need, listening, and responding to it, is the mantra.

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Rohit Kumar

Rohit is a founding partner at The Quantum Hub and the co-founder of Young Leaders for Active Citizenship. Prior to starting his own organisations, Rohit served as the head of policy and research at the office of Mr Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, MP (Lok Sabha), and worked for a few years with PRS Legislative Research. Rohit is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and IIT Bombay.