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Mental health week: supporting our community service workers

May 2, 2022

The pandemic has affected all of us, but not all equally. As we support each other this Mental Health Week, United Way Centraide is placing a particular focus on workers in community agencies, who play a vital role in serving the most vulnerable across Canada.

We know that the pandemic has taken a toll on people. Two years into the Pandemic, a study by the Angus Reid Institute reported that 54% of people say their mental health has worsened.  For women aged 18 – 54 the rate was 60%. This data is important as Statistics Canada reports that women make up 80%of employees in Canada’s non-profit sector serving households and government.

Rising demand and few resources for community service agencies has been reported by United Ways and Centraides as a major impact of this Pandemic. This has been confirmed by Imagine Canada’s Sector Monitor Research, as well as Statistics Canada’s recent Canadian Survey on Business Conditions. In the Statistics Canada  survey, 23% of community non-profits indicated that their 2021 revenues were lower by 25% or more compared with 2019. The lower revenues come at a time when 36% expected to face an increase in operating expenses. Survey respondents shared that demand for programs and services remains high, as 35% of community organizations expected to see an increase in demand over the coming three months.  In addition, many continue to be concerned about recruiting and retaining skilled employees.

What does all this mean?

Many non-profit workers were at risk of burnout and compassion fatigue before the pandemic. But the unprecedented demand for services in the context of a prolonged crisis has taken an even greater toll on workers within human and community service provision. The majority of the workforce within this sector are women, many of whom had additional care responsibilities for children and elders at home and were therefore doing double or triple duty.

Each year United Ways and Centraides support community agencies to deliver over 5600 community programs in all regions of Canada. United Ways and Centraides are reporting that community agency partners are experiencing higher levels of absenteeism, burn out, and mental health leaves.

At one charity for the homeless in Halifax, a staff member says of their pandemic work, “We couldn’t have volunteers due to fear of infection, so we did all the work ourselves, making 300-450 meals for people who came to our door each day – up from around 100-150 a day before COVID. “

They continued, “I often don’t take a break during the day because there is so much to do. We’re short-staffed. There are so many jobs in the private sector right now that are easier and better paid, it’s hard to attract and retain good people.”

Recruitment in the sector is also becoming a challenge, with fewer applicants coming forward, leading to difficulties finding workers to fill vacant positions like never before. The community services we all depend on are at risk. Essential services that address food security, mental health, homelessness and provide services to seniors, children and youth, people with disabilities and women fleeing domestic violence.

So, what can we do about this challenge?

First, we can all take the time to acknowledge and recognize the amazing work of our essential front-line community service workers. United Way Centraide has been pleased to work with partners like the Bhayana Family Foundation to celebrate the Invisible Champions in our community agency partners, and we have been pleased to see provinces such as Nova Scotia and Ontario adopt recognition days for the sector.

Second, philanthropy (individual donors, foundations) and government need to transform its relationship with our essential community services. We need to reverse the trend of short-term funding and refocus our efforts on building long-term relationships, focused on the delivery of mission not just projects, and invest in and support the capacity of organizations to support people through living wages, benefits and greater job security.

Third, as set out in United Way Centraide Canada’s recent submission to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, we need a national comprehensive workforce strategy for the human and community services sector, and investments in mental health support for frontline workers in the community services sector.

This mental health week let’s take care of each other and let’s focus on the support needed by our essential community service workers.

– Dan Clement, President and CEO, United Way Centraide Canada

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