Episode 58: Managing Frontline Nonprofit Staff

March 26, 2020

by: Sheela Nimishakavi

I think it’s safe to say that all of us want this pandemic to end- for someone to find a cure or a vaccine or something to slow the spread of coronavirus down so we can go back to life as we knew it.

And no one probably feels this way as strongly as our frontline staff. Unfortunately, child abuse, domestic violence, hunger, homelessness, and of course healthcare does not pause just because of a pandemic. In fact, the roles these staff play in the lives of those they serve is probably amplified right now.

To every single person on the frontlines, thank you for all you are doing to keep our communities safe and healthy. I really think that when people look back at this time and reflect upon this pandemic, the role of those on the frontlines- from healthcare workers to social workers to the volunteers who are out delivering meals each day- you all will go down in history as the heroes of this time.

Since so many nonprofits have staff that are out in the community, continuing to serve, I put together a few tips for how nonprofit bosses can support frontline staff right now.

Help your frontline staff feel safe and supported

My first tip hopefully goes without saying, but do everything you can to help your frontline staff feel safe, supported, and prepared. For those on the frontlines, there is such an acute fear of catching the virus and infecting their families. I think it’s incumbent upon organizations and leadership to do everything in its power to help alleviate these fears.

To start with, first determine how much risk is truly necessary. Are there ways to deliver your service that minimize exposure to potentially contagious individuals?

I think your staff will feel better knowing that the risk they are being asked to take is absolutely necessary and that leadership has considered all alternatives before sending them out there.

Now, I’m sure that you have explored ways to minimize risk for your staff, but have you conveyed that message to your team? Let them know all the options you considered so that they’re aware and trust that you are taking this really seriously.

Along the same lines, seek feedback from frontline staff about ways that they believe you can all minimize risk. Since they are the ones who are out there each day, they may see things differently and can offer potential solutions.

Another way to alleviate the fear your staff may be feeling is to ensure that all of your frontline staff have an adequate supply of equipment such as masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and gloves. I know a lot of this is in short supply all over the world so this is not an easy task but it is your most important task to find these supplies or similar supplies that provide the same protection.

Another way to alleviate the fear your staff may be feeling is to check in with your frontline staff regularly, maybe even every day. Ask them if they have enough protective equipment, did they stumble upon a way to reduce risk, did they feel safe and supported by your nonprofit? What do they need from you to feel supported?

Communication is key when emotions are as high as they are right now. Your staff need to know that you are doing everything in your power to support them.

Finally, another way to alleviate fear is to have a game plan they can follow if they are in a situation that they don’t feel safe being in.

Offer Mental Health Benefits

Really encourage your staff to not only take care of their physical health but their mental health as well, and pay for this benefit if only during the pandemic.

A lot of frontline workers have this acute fear of catching coronavirus and this fear of catching it actually has a name- it’s been termed pre-traumatic stress disorder within some circles.

It’s the anticipation of getting infected because we know this virus is passed from person to person, so the more people you are exposed to or interact with, the greater your chances of catching it. As frontline staff are exposed to participants each day, they may feel this pre-traumatic stress

What each person needs may look different. Some people might just want some guided meditations, others may need a coach or a therapist to talk to, some staff may prefer taking part in online classes on things like journaling or mindfulness. Still others may feel best when they can work out so perhaps you can pay for virtual training.

Self care looks different for every person so as part of this process you’ll want to talk to each staff member individually and figure out what they need. Or, perhaps set a budget for how much you can afford to spend on benefits, add that on to each frontline staff members’ paycheck and ask them to figure out what works best for them.

Engage your remote staff to help

Your staff who are working from home no doubt feel so grateful that they are able to work from home during this pandemic. That being said, there is a sense of guilt that and helplessness that accompanies this gratitude. Their co-workers and friends are out there each day and as grateful as they are, they may also feel that twinge of guilt.

There are small ways that your remote staff can show their appreciation for your frontline staff.

Perhaps remote staff can prepare care packages for frontline staff. Maybe they can put together meals or snacks once a week so that your frontline staff don’t have to worry about food when they get home from a long day.

Finally, how can everyone make sure to offer frontline staff recognition and show public appreciation for their work? Make sure you tell your entire community about the work they are doing and make sure that organization leadership personally reaches out to each staff member and expresses their appreciation.

In Conclusion

I think more than anything, frontline staff need to know that their entire team supports them and truly appreciates the work they are doing. While donors, your community, board members, remote staff, and leadership may not be able to be out there in the trenches with your frontline staff, they can all take steps to ensure their safety, and express their gratitude, recognize the amazing work they are all doing on the frontlines.

These are just a few of the ideas that I had for supporting frontline workers during this crisis. I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas and I’m sure you are all doing what you can to support them right now. What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear them!

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