Encouraging Self-Care in the Age of COVID-19

4 minute read

Jeanne Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

During the COVID-19 crisis, uncertainty and trauma have taken a huge toll upon us as individuals, organizations, and communities. Some of us have experienced COVID-19 close up with friends and family becoming sick, some dying. Some have experienced loss not directly resulting from COVID-19, but because of the pandemic, have been unable to mourn fully with family and friends at a loved one’s passing. Those doing double duty of caring for family at home and now managing remote school or home schooling, are juggling their day jobs – some more or less able to adapt flexibly to newfound challenges. Simultaneously, we have been confronted yet again with the virus of institutional racism – racism that has been here all along – giving rise to new demands for justice that have yet to be met, and affecting many of us on a deeply personal level. The cumulative emotional toll is enormous.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis began, many in the nonprofit sector struggled to balance our personal needs with the unending demands of our jobs. As people who want to serve the greater good, we’ve often needed to be reminded that taking care of others without taking care of ourselves isn’t healthy or sustainable.

That need has grown exponentially within the context of this pandemic, which has affected our sector in unique ways. Frontline agencies that provide food, help people find housing, and provide health care, counseling, and educational supports are experiencing increased demands for their services. Our employees, especially frontline, direct and essential workers, are more likely to be exposed to greater risk as they help others.

As this becomes a prolonged epidemic, nonprofits that have been dependent on annual and semi-annual fund-raising events are struggling to pivot to new on-line revenue generating models. Others are reporting concerns for sustaining their organizations even as the need for services increases and private philanthropy seeks to meet the increased demand for resources.

The challenge before us as leaders in the nonprofit sector is to create space for our employees and volunteers to care for themselves. Doing so will help make our organizations healthier and better able to achieve our missions. How do we do this? The precise answer will, of course, vary from one organization to the next – but here are some places you might start.

  • Acknowledge that this is a very difficult situation – we don’t get points for making believe this is easy or okay. If our employees have lost someone, offer them empathy. If they are not able to be in person with those they love, encourage them to use online platforms to see them, or suggest they make a good old-fashioned phone call. Most important, encourage them to take the time they need to mourn their loss.
  • If your team is working from home, ask that they take a real break from the computer, go outside, take a walk, call a friend and shoot the breeze, catch up on news with others; move around, push away from the desk, lay on the floor and breathe deeply, use yoga exercises and meditation – many apps are available for free on our phones! Yes, a push away to refresh will make your employees feel better and be more productive when they return to their desk.
  • If your employees are unable to work from home and time on the job is stressful, build in some quiet time for them during their workday. Encourage them to take some time while at work to read, go for a walk, and use some time to take a break. Once home from work, increased responsibilities there may diminish opportunities for relaxation after work hours. 
  • Check in with your team, and encourage them to check on themselves, acknowledge their feelings. Help them know that you are supportive as they express true feelings. Encourage them to talk with a friend or mentor, or if needed, a counselor. At the Center we have a weekly morale survey that is pretty simple and straightforward, and captures anonymous feedback on how each person is doing. Employees can also put their name on their comments to share feelings that they may not feel comfortable otherwise sharing with others or their supervisors. This helps create the space for sharing.
  • Use this time to become more culturally competent, recognizing that employees may be feeling differently about the continuous public exposure of violence, protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement – acknowledge black, brown and white feelings across the spectrum and use this time to focus on race matters.  Lean in rather than away.
  • If the organization is able, encourage staff to use a virtual platform to meet up with staff to play online games for a few laughs and relaxing time – trivia and Yahtzee lend themselves well to going virtual! There are other free and inexpensive online formats that can be used to bring some lightness. Mid-week mingles and happy hours online can help alleviate the feeling of being out of touch and remind our team that we can still have fun together.
  • Talk with your employees and encourage supervisors to do the same to make sure they are aware of individual circumstances, to the degree they feel comfortable sharing, and let them negotiate their work schedule. If they are working from home, they know first-hand the tasks they are juggling. Trust their judgement and work ethic, and ask them to communicate what they need to be productive while caring for themselves and their family. Consider asking them if working 4 rather than 5 days would be helpful, especially if they are working intensely most days. As much as possible and within meeting work deadlines, enable employees to set their own schedules, and when possible, be flexible with work plans.
  • To the degree possible, be transparent with staff about the financial health and viability of the organization. If they need to prepare to find alternate employment, more information could help. Reassure staff that leadership and the board are considering many alternatives to sustain the organization, increasing fund development efforts, and as appropriate, exploring restructuring that may include collaboration or mergers with other similar organizations. If necessary, consider short- term reductions in compensation across the board rather than furloughing full time staff.
  • Show appreciation. Find moments to show and tell employees that you know they are doing the very best they can, considering all circumstances. Encourage them to continue to find moments for gratitude. No matter how difficult, most of us can find something for which we can be grateful, and encouraging this can make all the difference in our day.


Share ways that your organization is caring for its staff, and find additional resources for guiding your employees and nonprofit through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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