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RESET 2020 - Sector reveals profound well-being impact of pandemic

December 02nd, 2020

Mental health and well-being issues have emerged as key considerations for Australia’s social sector as it navigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest instalment of the RESET 2020 research study.

The data highlights how the pandemic has wrought a significant well-being cost on the sector, with burnout, stress and exhaustion exacerbating systemic issues. And the impact goes beyond frontline staff, to include leadership teams and organisation boards, with 11 per cent of organisations in a dire financial situation.

The survey amplifies how the twin forces of declining resources combined with increased demand has impacted on the social sector, with one in three organisations stating that the greatest impact on their workforce has been the pandemic’s effect on health and well-being.

In the first phase of the study conducted soon after COVID-19 arrived in Australia, only 16 per cent of organisations were concerned about staff and volunteer morale. Five months later – and with the Victorian lockdown at its peak – that percentage had jumped 15 points, to 31 per cent.

The survey shows that an overwhelming majority of sector organisations are dealing with on-going disruptions – almost half were experiencing increase demand and one in five suggested the increased demand was significant.

RESET 2020 National Impact+Need Research Study 
September 2020 Survey Internal

The RESET 2020 National Impact+Need Research Study from The Xfactor Collective, supported by Equity Trustees, undertook its first survey in April before a second survey of the sector in September. This time, 338 respondents engaged with the survey.

“Fear and anxiety are the major impacts and loss of work – an increasing sense of anxiety and depression,’’ one survey respondent from the human services sector said about the pandemic’s impact. “Mental distress ... added stress trying to deliver services online and by phone to the disadvantaged sector (with a 30% increase in demand). Increased anxiety about job loss and the isolation is not helping mental health-wise,’’ the respondent said. “Physically (health) harder to exercise, too much work and time in front of the computer – Zoomed Out – restricted socialising, lack of social interaction, decreased physical fitness. Work/life balance affected in the negative.”

And despite the prevalence of digital solutions to some challenges, including Zoom events and meetings, 30 per cent of respondents said their inability to run events, manage online service delivery and to fundraise, were impacting their operation. Overall, 60 per cent of respondents reported a continued loss of revenue since the beginning of June. Many organisations have had to dip into their reserves to continue operating.

Eighty per cent of respondents believe the existing sector constraints exacerbate the impacts of mental health and well-being.

The picture of the workforce emerging from the survey is how the sector has struggled to reconcile the demand for services with staff retention and working hours. Just over half of survey respondents had access to the Federal government’s JobKeeper support for some or all of their staff. Almost a third of organisations had no government support at all. And 42 per cent of organisations have stood staff down, reduced hours or asked staff to take leave without pay. More than a third of organisations state that their staff are working longer hours to meet increased demand.

“The signs of workplace burnout have increased exponentially among respondents since the start of the pandemic,’’ the survey report says. “More than two in five respondents reported that they often or always feel stressed or anxious, frustrated, cynical or exhausted and that they are not taking good care of themselves at the moment. Feeling overwhelmed and that their workload was unachievable is also frequently cited.’’

“This is of concern, given that this cohort’s purpose is to help their communities of interest achieve positive outcomes. If their own wellbeing is compromised, their ability to offer effective services and programs is also at risk,’’ it says. “These findings should be of major concern both to those who work in the sector, and those who support or fund them.’’

Adding to the frustration is that 91 per cent of respondents felt the circumstances had an impact on their service delivery, and one in two described that impact as ‘significant.’’

 One of the other important trends observed in the survey was that respondents sought help to find new funding streams or diversity existing revenue. The identification of mental health and well-being as such central concerns for the sector also triggered a desire to find strategies that could help protect and preserve the workforce from the on-going demands and pressures.

Julia Keady, CEO/Founder of The Xfactor Collective who has lead the research study says the findings are being circulated widely across the sector and into key sector influencers, who will be able to ensure the findings help advocate for the sector’s recovery. She also acknowledges this as one of the most collaborative projects in 2020, with more than 20 outreach partners involved in helping realise its potential as an important study on many levels.

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