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Charities offer others support but who supports them? Why talking is a good start

13 September 2019

Working in the third sector generally means getting to work alongside a vibrant mix of people and some incredible causes. But how do you best protect staff when work starts to take an emotional toll on the team?

Sarcoma UK is a cancer charity that funds research, offers support, provides information and runs a support line for people affected by this niche, but aggressive, cancer. Awareness is low, treatment options are limited, and misdiagnoses are not uncommon. As a result, the subject of death is sadly never too far away.

Thankfully, we’ve had the guidance and expertise of counsellor Jo Ham to help staff at the charity draw those emotional lines between work and life outside of work, for the past eight years. Our previous chief executive had the foresight to see that bringing her in on a monthly basis would be of real benefit to staff right across the charity.

Our team naturally become more resilient with more exposure, but it is never easy to digest the fact that someone you’ve been working with for weeks, months, maybe even years, is now deteriorating or has passed away. You’re in an odd relationship bubble of not being family or a close friend, yet have a relationship to an individual where they may find it easier to talk to you than those closest to them.

Every department is, in its own way, on the front line, dealing with people who have been affected by sarcoma. There’s the support line team who do an amazing job of listening and guiding people through the harrowing maze of anxiety and confusion of living with sarcoma; from frank conversations about amputation to how to talk to children about cancer. There’s also the communications and fundraising teams who naturally deal with supporters and their stories and motivations for supporting the charity. But then there’s also Steve and Natalie who work in our finance and operations team and are often a first point of contact, whether that’s a phone call or email.

Having these 45 minute one-to-one sessions with Jo is more than just an outlet. Knowing that a professional is available can make a noticeable difference to staff mood and the atmosphere in the office as a whole. As much as it is about talking to get those work-related feelings off our chest, it’s also very much about arming staff at the charity with the tools to acknowledge, distance and process those powerful emotions that come with working in a cancer charity. These sessions are compulsory for the three staff members who make up the support line team, with free slots available for the rest of the charity if people need them. These sessions with Jo rarely go unfilled.

At the start of the year, we asked Jo to run a workshop for the whole charity around building resilience. We recognised that the charity had expanded to 20 members of staff who were all being exposed in some shape or form to such contact with callers and supporters.

Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile the contrast between work hours and life outside of the 9 to 5. It’s often the processing that takes place afterwards on the commute home or cooking, when there is more time and space to reflect on the day, that things start to properly sink in. We attend funerals, sit in on cancer support groups and spend a lot of time just listening. In many ways, it’s a lovely position to be in, having that trust for people to open up to you. Similarly, having someone you can trust, like Jo, is such a benefit, regardless of how many sessions you end up going to. It’s a statement from the employer that your wellbeing matters and this can add to that pool of motivation. It’s a different kind of investment in the team that isn’t easily measured in numbers, but is worth every penny.

We are by no means in a unique situation and we do actively celebrate the positives and successes as much as we need support for the more challenging moments of the job. However, not every charity has the luxury of a counsellor. There are support staff out there who work remotely and are left to deal with the potential cocktail of emotions by themselves, and that inevitably will have an impact further down the line.

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Wellbeing guide for comms professionals.

Bevis Man

communications director, Sarcoma UK

Bevis has more than 14 years of experience working in media and communications within the third sector. A firm believer in the power of a good story, he cares about using communications in the right way to do good and frequently has his head buried in impact reporting metrics.