Most non-profits have difficult missions with a high level of stress for those who are on the front lines. Depending on the degree of stress or trauma that staff members deal with there can be significant brain dysregulation. What that means is that neurologically, certain individuals under extended toxic stress struggle to find healthy ways to cope with that stress effectively. It can cause them to be less cognitive, easily triggered, to lose their sense of time, have heart and breathing problems and feel overwhelmed.
What we do know is that individuals who are under high stress need more opportunities to regulate their brains and bring a sense of calm in order to be effective in dealing with the situations around them. Our brains are amazing organs designed to protect us from toxic stress by creating that fight or flight syndrome as a stress response. It is as if we were to see a tiger entering the room emotionally and need to escape immediately.
Particularly in a post-COVID world our brains are vulnerable to this kind of stress. As a non-profit leader it is important to know these neurological facts and to also create environments where our staff members have the permission and capability to regulate these stress responses.
I remember in the middle of the pandemic on an in-service day we made the decision to pay our staff to do regulation activities of their choice. They also were required to be able to tell us what they did and its impact. The response was overwhelmingly positive. They took walks, played sports, did contemplative activities, went to the beach, exercised, found their own fun and experienced life events that were relaxing and meaningful for them. The fact that we made it a workday activity was key in that they could explain to their families that they were obligated by their work to regulate.
Some organizations can’t do what we did but we all can give our staff the tools and create the environment to reduce stress, process their issues, breathe, take space and be permitted to pause from the intensity of their work. Each leader should make sure their staff knows that there is sensitivity to the ways that help them regulate and cope. An investment in fidgets, mental health days, check-in processing, group support and other ways to provide regulation time and strategies will show that we as leaders are mindful of their need for coping time.
This kind of emphasis will help our staff be able to endure stress over time, improve retention, allow for safety in the workplace and create authentic dialogue around brain regulation and the particular stressors within our organizations. If non-profit leaders are attuned and aware to this allostatic load of toxic stress, we will be better able to provide support for our staff as they do their valuable work.