On National Workplace Wellbeing Day (28 April), Charity Workers Face Increasing Pressures and Inadequate Pay

Posted on
28 Apr 2023
by Ivan Cooper - Director of Public Policy

Ibec's National Workplace Wellbeing Day (28 April) highlights the importance of people’s health and welfare at work, but for many charity employees, a lack of adequate pay and conditions means ongoing burnout and high levels of stress that cannot be addressed at an individual level.

Charity workers in Ireland are the unsung heroes of our society, dedicating their time and energy to causes that often go unnoticed. But behind the scenes, these employees face significant challenges in maintaining their wellbeing in the workplace. Structural issues such as lower pay, relative lack of job security, rarity of benefits, and the challenging nature of work make it extremely difficult to meaningfully improve employee wellbeing without adequate support from the state and other funders.

In an age where we are constantly reminded of the importance of mental health and self-care, there is an irony in the fact that that those who willingly choose to serve others often find themselves in a position where their own wellbeing is put at risk. The recent Job Burnout Report from Irish firm HRLocker identifies charity workers as the most likely group of employees to suffer burnout, and according to a recent poll by The Wheel (Ireland’s national association of charities), 92% of workers know someone in the sector experiencing it. The challenges faced by charity employees in Ireland are multifaceted, stemming from the very nature of their work and the societal structures that surround it.

Firstly, the issue of lower pay cannot be ignored. While the altruistic nature of charity work is commendable, it doesn't pay the bills or put food on the table. Many charity employees find themselves on the lower end of the pay scale, often making significant financial sacrifices to work in a sector they are passionate about. A survey of our own members, which examines concerns and priorities for charities and community organisations each year, found that about half of these organisations aren’t able to hire or retain enough staff, mainly because they can’t offer attractive salaries. For those who do choose to work in the sector, financial strain can lead to a constant feeling of insecurity and contribute to poor mental health.

Job security, or lack thereof, is another challenge. With funding often precarious and frequently only granted for one year at a time, charity employees frequently face uncertainty about the longevity of their positions. This insecurity can compound the already challenging nature of their work, where they are often confronted with the harsh realities of the problems they seek to address — poverty, homelessness, drugs, and children’s welfare among many other issues.

Benefits, which may seem standard in other sectors, are often a rarity in the charity sector. Resources are stretched thin, and providing additional perks such as health insurance, pension plans, and wellbeing initiatives may be seen as luxuries rather than necessities. 81% of charities gave no bonuses to any of their workers in 2022, according to the National Guide to Pay and Benefits in Community, Voluntary and Charitable Organisations. In the face of such different workplace conditions to many other sectors, charity employees often find it challenging to maintain positivity, motivation, and wellbeing in the long term.

Lastly, the emotional toll of charity work cannot be underestimated. Employees are often exposed to the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society, witnessing firsthand the pain and suffering that exists within our communities. This emotional burden, if not managed carefully, can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue — indeed, the first academic reference to “burnout” in the 1960s described the work lives of exhausted staff at a centre treating young-adult offenders.

So, what can be done to address these challenges? The state and other funders should recognise the importance of supporting the wellbeing of charity employees in Ireland and provide for reasonable working conditions. Most urgently, cuts imposed on state funding during the recession should be restored and brought up to adequate levels that account for inflation. Adequate funding for charities can help to ensure that employees receive fair pay, job security, and access to essential benefits. Only then can mental health and wellbeing initiatives truly help employees manage the emotional aspects of their work — they cannot do the heavy lifting in the absence of basic security.

The time has come for Ireland to demonstrate that it values not only the work of our charity employees but also their wellbeing. By investing in their support, we can build a more sustainable and compassionate society, one where those who dedicate their lives to helping others are not left behind.