NPO workers running on empty as Covid-19 batters their mental health

A survey conducted among 200 NPOs has found alarming rates of psychological distress and risk of mental illness among workers

Suthentira Govender Senior reporter
Workers at non-profit organisations are taking severe strain during the Covid-19 pandemic, a survey has found. Stock image
Workers at non-profit organisations are taking severe strain during the Covid-19 pandemic, a survey has found. Stock image
Image: 123rf

While non-profit organisations have been working tirelessly during the Covid-19 pandemic to provide support, emergency relief and life-saving resources to struggling South Africans, the mental health of their workers has taken a battering.

A survey conducted among 200 NPOs between October 2020 and March this year by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and Tshikululu Social Investments to assess the effect of the pandemic on their well-being, found alarming rates of psychological distress and risk for mental illness.

“While NPO workers continue to provide crucial services for those deeply affected by Covid-19, they are still having to maintain their own needs — all within a context of limited resources, sustained exposure to social suffering, and novel pandemic conditions,” said Sadag.

The survey found that two-thirds of NPO professionals exhibited moderate to severe psychological morbidity, with two-thirds also facing an elevated risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.

More than a third of all NPO professionals were found to be exhibiting a high likelihood of having a severe psychiatric disorder by the time the survey was completed.

While NPO workers continue to provide crucial services for those deeply affected by Covid-19, they are still having to maintian their own needs - all within a context of limited resources, sustained exposure to social suffering and novel pandemic conditions
South African Depression and Anxiety Group

Significant risk factors for elevated psychological morbidity included social stress and fewer workplace mental health resources.

The survey found that men reported greater psychological distress than women.

“This is a particularly interesting finding because epidemiologically, women tend to be at a greater risk of developing psychiatric diseases or higher levels of psychiatric morbidity, but here we see the opposite, that men are exhibiting worse mental health in this sample,” said Dr Andrew Wooyoung Kim, from the Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“NPO workers faced considerable stress at work and home and consequently exhibited a range of symptoms of psychological distress, including insomnia, helplessness, excessive worrying, a disconnect from their work and family, cynicism and burnout. The overall incidence of psychological distress was particularly alarming in this sample.”

Nearly half of NPOs did offer some form of psychosocial support to their staff, yet many workers did not seek professional psychological assistance.

Clinical psychologist Dr Garret Barnwell said: “What this research shows is that there is a tremendous need. We know that mental healthcare services are lifesaving, so for people who are struggling, getting access early is really important.”

“The finding about men is really concerning. We know men present late to services sometimes, we tend to bottle things up. We need to think a bit differently about masculinity and how to encourage one another to access care and be able to create reflexive and caring spaces for one another in the workplace,” said Barnwell.

The NPOwer helpline, an initiative by Sadag and Tshikululu Social Investments, has received more than 4,800 calls since launching in October last year.

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