Striving for an even more compassionate workplace
March 8, 2019 10:34 AM   Subscribe

My workplace, a non-profit, would like to start holding regular meetings to provide a venue for people to talk about work or issue-related problems in a safe space. Does your workplace do something like this you can tell me about, or do you have ideas I can take into consideration? Many more details inside.

I work for a controversial non-profit organization which has many supporters and just as many detractors. The work we do is emotionally draining and many employees suffer varying levels of compassion fatigue. My department, specifically, does the direct action work which is most controversial (think about working for Planned Parenthood on a medical team that performs abortions - this is not the org I work for or the issue we work on, but is a reasonable analog in terms of providing a service many people, particularly those with low incomes, need and are grateful for and that we are proud of but that many people object to).

We'd like to start holding a regular meeting where people in our direct action department can share new info about our org's issue, talk over recent triumphs and tribulations, and, most importantly, talk transparently about how they are feeling. A recent meeting about a different topic sort of organically became this and laid bare how BADLY this is needed. People were very emotional and had a lot to say about how crummy they feel about the negative public backlash we receive. Everyone seemed to find catharsis in being able to openly talk about these issues. It isn't something our org has addressed internally in a formal capacity before, as far as I know - the cultural attitude has basically been something like, "We know what we're doing is right, screw the naysayers" but without providing any specific tools to keep one's chin up.

We realize now that this has been an oversight, and it's something we want to provide to our staff who are doing very difficult and completely selfless work (and while being demonized by many for doing so!). I'm taking the lead on getting such a program off the ground, but I've worked for my org a long time and therefore don't have other professional models of such a program to draw from. Here are my thoughts so far:

- Monthly, one hour long, during the workday (so not an extra obligation afterhours), snacks provided. Would it be best to hold it right before the end of the day, so if people get emotional they know they can just leave afterwards and don't have to go back into work right after?
- I doubt we can catch the lightning in a bottle of how this unfolded organically again, so we'd need someone to lead the discussion. I'm thinking it's better for this not to be the boss of the people in the meeting, in case that causes folks to feel uncomfortable speaking freely. But would having the boss present perhaps lend some "legitimacy" to what's discussed, so people feel like the org really does have their back?
- We probably would not be able to hire an outside professional to run this meeting (ideally, it would be great for a counselor to do so, I think, but we are a non-profit with a tight budget after all)
- We don't want anyone to feel obligated to speak at this meeting if they are not comfortable, but also want to provide a truly safe venue for people to air any issues of concern to them. What is the right balance to encourage discussion without anyone feeling pressured?
- Perhaps we could offer a way for people to submit topics they want to discuss anonymously before the meeting, then the meeting-runner could read the topics out without people feeling singled out by being the one to bring it up?
- I'm a voracious reader of AskAManager and have seen too many posts about weird mandatory therapy sessions at work - that's the LAST thing we want this to become. So I really want to reiterate there is no desire for everyone to speak, only to offer this outlet for people who WANT a chance to raise a question or concern or just vent.

I'd welcome any other thoughts or feedback the hivemind has here. You guys are the most compassionate and thoughtful bunch of netizens I know of, and with such a broad range of experiences... I think it will really help to be able to get a wide range of input here. Thank you so much to all who read this long post!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think a skilled facilitator would really make a big difference. Maybe there is someone with professional training within your base of support who might be willing to volunteer an hour?
posted by metahawk at 11:06 AM on March 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

The workplace is a place to exchange skills for money, even a nonprofit. Your workplace's HR department would probably discourage this kind of peer-to-peer therapy, and would not likely support bringing in a consultant to basically give you all group therapy. There is no such thing as a truly safe venue for people to air their concerns about the job, on the job.

Take whatever money you had planned to budget for this, pump it into boosting your EAP (if you have one) or buying an EAP (if you don't). Give people every other Friday afternoon off for whatever they want - therapy, calling the EAP, meditating, or getting their errands done. It's none of your business how your coworkers choose to manage their mental health, though I applaud you for caring. The workplace is not a family.
posted by juniperesque at 11:08 AM on March 8, 2019 [24 favorites]

When I worked for a sexual assault center, the client advocates had monthly debrief meetings to give them a chance to process, get advice from each other, and stave off vicarious traumatization. I wasn't an advocate, so I don't have in-depth information about the format, but that is a common thing for crisis lines and might be a model you could look at.

I think you want to insulate the "these jobs can traumatize folks and our org has a responsibility to support them" (aka talking about feelings) from "news and info about our org's issue" with separate meetings. You probably want some time to go around with check-ins at the beginning and then the group could talk about what kind of training/support would be helpful for them in the first session?
posted by momus_window at 11:21 AM on March 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm thinking it's better for this not to be the boss of the people in the meeting, in case that causes folks to feel uncomfortable speaking freely. But would having the boss present perhaps lend some "legitimacy" to what's discussed, so people feel like the org really does have their back?

Your boss should send out the email inviting people to attend a monthly meeting, but not attend herself.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:39 AM on March 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Are there peer organizations that you could contact to see what they do?
I'd definitely chat with HR about your plans and be careful about what you call it and how you invite people. Meetings with info and updates sound like regular work meetings which are usually mandatory for staff. Talking about feelings sounds more like therapy than a work meeting. You've said that speaking is not mandatory but not whether attendance is. If attendance is mandatory then this seems like it is a required group therapy session. It's possible that not everyone was into the last session and may not have said so.
posted by oneear at 3:05 PM on March 8, 2019

I'm primarily with OneEar -- this sounds like a disaster of an improvisation, but quite potentially valuable if there are frameworks that have been tested for comparable high-stress workplaces.

I'm a bit with Juniperesque in that in a legal sense a personal services organization cannot create a safe space for venting. You can't safely confess to activities which violate the law, professional ethics or terms of your funding. You can't safely confess to substance abuse or mental health problems which implicate the ability to deliver services impinging on health or requiring confidentiality or some legal quantum of competence. You can't safely confess to frustration that comes from serving hard-to-serve people who fall into the legally-protected categories if there's any chance you will admit (even in self-rebuke) to stereotypical thinking.
posted by MattD at 3:46 PM on March 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

We do something like this where I work, as part of an effort to be more transparent. We have a meeting every month where directors and managers field questions from a variety of sources: an anonymous suggestion box set up in Survey Monkey (this is something dependent on the survey settings and we all assume it's set up that way), a chat feature during the meeting where a facilitator takes the questions from chat and poses them to the group as a whole (for when you don't mind your manager knowing you asked but don't want your name associated with the question to everyone as a whole) and last, people just asking their questions on the call. These are all done over webex or similar, so it might not work for you but it allows people to ask questions or voice concerns at the level they're comfortable with. I believe the facilitator has training in this type of work so we're not flying blind during these calls.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:22 PM on March 8, 2019

At my ~8 person firm, in addition to regular formal and sometimes facilitated opportunities to share, we had a way of interacting anonymously. We had a company mascot—let’s call him Perry the Perigrine Falcon [not his real name or animal type]—and he had an email address for which everyone in the firm had access. People would use the Perry account to air company-wide issues and then we could discuss them using reply all; some people used the Perry identity to post their contributions while. Usuallybthe original poster would participate under their real identity. People would also use Perry to tip me (the CEO) off to stuff. And Perry also had positive things to say, like thanking someone for a quiet good deed or noting a job well done. I also used Perry to announce things like pizza in the conference room or to remind people to clear their science projects out of the fridge, but stuck to my real identity for matters of significance.

Sometimes it was obvious who had invoked Perry, but the convention of anonymity was useful and honored. If people decided they wanted to forego anonymity, a convention developed whereby people would sign the initial or subsequent emails “Perry, as dictated to [employee]. “Perry” could back down gracefully if any given idea was met with resistance. And having everyone collectively build Perry’s character was a contributor to corporate culture. Perry was understood to be well-meaning, occasionally goofy but fundamentally competent.

It was weird, but it worked for us.
posted by carmicha at 8:45 PM on March 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

I work in social services/mental healthcare, and I organized something similar-ish (though maybe less formal than you're thinking) for the last team I supervised.

1. Depending on your field, you may be able to disregard the well-meaning suggestions that employees bringing up personal difficulties with the work would somehow immediately be a legal issue. Most therapists/social-worker/counselor types have codes of ethics that require continued investment in cultural competency, and getting appropriate supervision (including group supervision) about implicit bias and cultural factors interfering with care would absolutely be appropriate (and it would be considered unethical/possible malpractice not to address those issues). Does your field have any similar code of ethics framework on which you could hang these discussions?

2. I have found in personal experience that "venting" is a really, really, really bad goal for these sorts of meetings; it ends up with everyone feeling stressed out and angry. "Helping each other find solutions by explaining what each of us does personally to cope with such situations" moves things forward better -- there does need to be respectful active listening to the problem, and expressions of sympathy or "Oh, that happens to me, too!" responses, but the discussion needs to start moving toward "What are things you do that help?" And it's best if that part of the discussion involves a lot of "I do..." language rather than "You should..." language.

3. I did these sorts of sessions about once a month or so within the framework of a weekly hour-long training that I ran. So, three weeks of "Let me help you do your jobs more effectively," one week of "What problems are you still running into that we can talk about fixing?" I think that context of "We're in a training" (the trainings were really informal) helped keep the discussion weeks from getting into group-therapy territory.

As the facilitator/trainer, I did find it challenging to walk that tightrope between "solving problems too quickly and not letting people feel heard" and "letting people vent too long and making everyone feel hopeless." It's tricky and takes some thought and experience, and I just tried to get the balance right over the long run.

I've worked in other high-burnout agencies that provided similar group support (hospice, rape crisis center), but always with one of the licensed therapists either facilitating or co-facilitating the discussion. I don't think such facilitation requires a licensed therapist, but I think that's the level of emotional intelligence you need for this. I think it was also helpful in each of those contexts that the facilitator was someone with some power in the organization to fix (at least some) things or definitively answer (at least some) questions -- again, that kept it in the realm of "We're working toward solutions." The key is that the authority in the room needs to follow up on the suggestions/questions. (When I was the facilitator, it was also a nice way of generating topics for future trainings so that I could give the staff the skills they needed to do their jobs with less trauma/stress/frustration.)
posted by lazuli at 8:53 AM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh and people also used Perry to suggest topics, raise issues and pose questions for the more formal get-togethers and facilitated sessions.
posted by carmicha at 11:39 AM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

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