“Without adequate insights about the challenges nonprofit employees face and a comprehensive approach to address them, nonprofit organizations could be undermining their ability to achieve their mission” ~David Westenberger

Indiana Youth Services Association launches pilot project to address nonprofit youth workers’ challenges

Disengaged, burned out, overwhelmed. Those are the adjectives often used to describe nonprofit employees in today’s work environment.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the voluntary nonprofit employer turnover rate is at a historic high — outpacing the turnover rate in the overall labor market. In 2022, the nonprofit industry had a turnover rate of 19 percent, compared to 12 percent for the overall labor market.

The challenge of retaining and recruiting nonprofit employees in a highly competitive labor market also comes at a time when nonprofit organizations are dealing with increased demands for services, changes in fundraising, and higher costs driven by inflation.

However, the well-being of nonprofit employees must take a priority, according to David Westenberger, CEO, Indiana Youth Services Association (IYSA), a statewide association of 30 Youth Service Bureaus in about 70 counties.

“Within our field, we haven’t done a very good job of taking care of our own people doing the work,” said Westenberger, who has been raising awareness about the need for nonprofit employers to support their employees beyond pay raises and title changes.  “In the field of youth work and social services, people in the field over a long period of time eventually mirror the population they serve more than retain the overall wellness and health that they had early on.”

Without adequate insights about the challenges nonprofit employees face and a comprehensive approach to address them, nonprofit organizations could be undermining their ability to achieve their mission, Westenberger said.

A comprehensive approach to employee wellness

Earlier this year, Westenberger and the IYSA team, launched a pilot project that addresses the overall wellness of nonprofit youth workers. The framework for the project includes the Eight Dimensions of Wellness outlined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and insights from ACEs (adverse child experiences) training.

During each year of the three-year initiative, representatives from four Youth Service Bureau organizations undergo monthly training that addresses one of SAMHSA’s eight dimensions of wellness — emotional, occupational, social, financial, environmental, physical, spiritual, and intellectual. Each month, participants hear from experts in each of the eight fields reflected in the dimensions of well-being. The also collaborate on supportive strategies and ideas that are later integrated in their workplace employee programs.

IYSA provides the participating organizations with stipends to support the initiatives that help their staff members grow in each dimension.

“For emotional well-being, one of the organizations contracted with a local agency to offer mental health counseling services for their staff,” Westenberger said. Other proposals included providing employees with gym memberships, implementing walking meetings, giving time for employees to be active during the day, and serving nutritious food during meetings.

The participants, who regularly report on their progress in implementing employee programs around the eight dimensions, will serve as mentors to the other eight organizations that will undergo training in 2023 and 2024.

Addressing a cycle of trauma

The IYSA pilot project follows extensive research that revealed numerous challenges for nonprofit workers in the field of youth services.

The association, which also supports numerous youth-focused initiatives, including increasing awareness about human trafficking, ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), medical amnesty related to underage drinking, launched surveys to gain insights about the challenges faced by youth workers on a day-to-day basis.

A financial analysis revealed that 78 percent of survey respondents experience moderate to significant financial stress, 67 percent are in debt, and 46 percent hadn’t save enough to cover an emergency. It also revealed that employees spend an average of 1.1 hours dealing with their personal finances while at work.

A 2022 IYSA survey related to the eight dimensions of health revealed the following:

  • 40 percent of survey respondents rated their emotional wellness as fair, poor, or very poor.
  • 36 percent rated the quality of emotional wellness support from their organization as poor or fair.
  • 43 percent rated their physical wellness as fair, poor, or very poor.
  • 29 percent rated the physical wellness support programs from their organization as fair or poor.
  • 64 percent rated their financial wellness as fair, poor, or very poor.

Survey respondents who rated their organizations as supportive with emotional wellness provided these comments about their employers:

  • “I am always taken care of and am constantly being checked up on to see if I am okay.”
  • “My employer is understanding and willing to listen and support and encourages us to take care of our minds as well as our bodies.”
  • “The employer does check-ins on staff to see how well we are doing or if we have any questions about programming or suggestions.”
  • “We can take a quick break if we are overwhelmed.”

Some suggestions provided by the survey respondents included providing employees with a quiet place so that they can relax for a minute, being supportive and listening to concerns, counseling, mental health check-ins, and an easily accessible platform for scheduling counseling and therapy.

Westenberger said that the surveys revealed the need to engage in a more comprehensive wellness strategy.

“In the field of youth work and social services, we have employees who, emotionally and financially, mirror the population they’re serving,” he said. “About 60 percent of the people working in the youth services field have their own trauma because they entered the field because of their childhood experiences. They have a passion to make things better for young people — to change the system and circumstances for children.”

A history of childhood trauma coupled with the demands of working with a traumatized population during pandemic is detrimental for many youth workers, Westenberger said.

“Like most other things, the pandemic brought to the forefront how much secondary trauma there is,” Westenberger said. “So, you’ve got people with high ACE scores where it is part of their intrinsic drive to do the work. And they’re working with populations who are experiencing high levels of abuse and neglect.

“We are asking, ‘What are some of the things in your workplace culture that could change to support employees and how can you provide resources to support them?’,” he added.