Funding pressures fueling stress within voluntary sector

Stressed employee

Half of charity leaders admit stress amongst staff is more of an issue now than it was three years ago

18th October 2019 by Gareth Jones 0 Comments

Over half of charity leaders admit stress is more of an issue now than three years ago.

Funding cuts and increasing demands on staff have led to a rise in stress levels in UK charities over the past three years, new research has shown.

More than half of charity leaders (51%) interviewed by insurers Ecclesiastical said that stress in the voluntary sector had become more of an issue in the past three years. The concerns increased in line with the size of the charity, with 57% of medium-sized charities and 61% of large charities admitting that it was a growing problem.

The challenging financial situation facing the voluntary sector is the main contributor to stress with charities citing increasing demands on staff (78%), lack of resources (7 5%) and reduced funding (74%) as the main drivers of the problem.

Vicarious trauma was also seen as a major contributor to stress with key factors including staff having to regularly deal with people with difficult behaviours (66%) and being exposed to highly emotional and stressful situations (60%).

In May 2019, Unite published figures that four out of five workers in the charity sector had suffered workplace stress in the past 12 months. A third of charity leaders in Ecclesiastical’s survey admitted that stress was an issue in their workplace, with the figure increasing to 51% at large charities. 

Of those charities that admitted stress was an issue, two in five (38%) said that it was affecting their ability to retain and recruit staff.

Angus Roy, charity director at Ecclesiastical, said: “Working in the charity sector has always been a challenging career but austerity measures over the past few years have made it even more difficult as charities have had to manage on tighter budgets. This has had an impact on staff with greater demands being put on them with fewer resources. Our research shows this has driven up stress levels and had a significant effect on staff recruitment and retention.

“Charities also face the increased risk of employees bringing a claim against them if they haven’t managed the issue properly.”

Louse Stubbs, a partner at law firm BLM, which specialises in insurance risk, said increasing stress levels in the charity sector had led to a broader range of claims in recent years.

She said: “Charities have always been exposed to claims for personal injury, whether that’s physical or psychiatric as a result of the vulnerable individuals many of their employees work with. With the impact of economic pressures resulting in funding and staffing cuts we now see many claims for injury, in particular stress and psychiatric injury, on the back of employees feeling overworked, under supported or under trained for example. These claims are inevitably difficult to defend where charities have failed to keep risk assessments or have failed to ensure sufficient staffing.

"The very fact that charities are having to adapt to so much change will impact employees  - the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) lists ‘change’ as one of the six main types of work design that can affect stress levels.”

Half of respondents (49%) felt that a lack of wellbeing support was a contributing factor to stress levels in charities and 73% agreed that more needed to be done across the sector to tackle the issue.

While Ecclesiastical’s research found that many medium and large charities were implementing staff-focused changes, smaller charities were some way behind.

77% of large charities and 72% of medium charities surveyed said they had introduced a wellbeing policy but this dropped to just a third of small charities (33%).

Likewise the majority of large (86%) and medium (91%) charities had introduced flexible working, compared to just 42% of small charities. Regular risk assessments were also a feature of many large (78%) and medium charities (84%), compared to 40% of small charities.

Roy said: “Charities need to recognise the impact that workplace stress can have, not just on individual employees, but on the success of the organisation. It’s important that charities regularly carry out risk assessments to ensure that workers are working in a safe and healthy environment, where they are not exposed to high levels of stress.

“Providing more wellbeing support will help to mitigate the risk of losing staff and create a culture that people will want to join. There is some good progress being made but more should be done to improve wellbeing of employees in the sector.”