As the executive director of True Ridge, a Hendersonville-based nonprofit serving Western North Carolina’s Hispanic population, Lori Garcia-McCammon has never had an easy job. Her organization helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and refers clients to bilingual mental health counselors. Recent years have been straining, as many of the Central American immigrants her nonprofit works with are undocumented and fear deportation by federal authorities. But as a self-described “firecracker,” she was ready to fight for her clients.
The COVID-19 pandemic added greatly to True Ridge’s workload. “The number of people that we’re serving has increased, I would say, in a year, almost 200%,” Garcia-McCammon says. Because undocumented immigrants did not receive stimulus checks from the government, the nonprofit assisted those who needed financial help with rent and utilities, dispersing $80,000 in 2020.
But on July 20, Garcia-McCammon temporarily left her job while she addressed her mental health.
“I couldn’t handle it anymore,” she tells Xpress. “I would go to court for advocacy, and I see what our families are suffering. I would come back and I would be crying, which never has happened before. … It got to the point where [I felt] I just need some time away to be able to calm down and not feel down.”
Her experience is familiar to many nonprofit employees in the social and cultural realm, where being emotionally attuned to the suffering of others can bring insight and compassion to their work.
“That’s a gift and a curse sometimes — to be such an empath,” Garcia-McCammon says.
Work impacts the mental well-being of nonprofit employees in several ways. According to a 2011 survey by Opportunity Knocks, a job site for nonprofits, 40% of workers said their duties involved dealing with emotionally charged issues, and 25% said they were required to provide comfort to people in crisis. Roughly a third of respondents said they often or always felt “used up” at the end of the day.
Mental health providers generally refer to these feelings as “burnout.” Burnout happens when someone does not get enough rest or time to recharge, says Jessica Ringle, a counselor with the All Souls Counseling Center, an Asheville-based nonprofit that provides mental health support to WNC’s uninsured and underinsured.
“You feel flat; you don’t really care,” Ringle explains. “You’re trying to care, but you can’t really make yourself care.”
Burnout also occurs when someone feels responsible for others, even when circumstances are outside of their control. “People depend on you, and when … things go off track, the guilt you feel is tremendous,” says Butch Thompson, president of the nonprofit Blue Ridge Pride. “It’s a lot of pressure, and burnout does happen from the pressure of being the ‘rep’ of the organization.”
The COVID-19 pandemic stressed area nonprofit employees in new ways. Some, like Garcia-McCammon, had an overload of need at their organizations. Others saw their work either dry up or change drastically.
Prior to the pandemic, Asheville Community Yoga had 32 staff members teaching 80 classes each week, says Michael Greenfield, executive director of the donation-based yoga studio. Even though the nonprofit may be more wellness-focused than most — employees could purchase healthy food from the studio’s Karma Cafe at a discount, for example — their work took a lot from them “energetically,” he says. Staff members interacted with up to 600 people on the studio’s premises each day, he says, noting that the constant buzz could be exhausting.
“Our biggest burnout was being so big, helping people all the time, from 7 or 8 in the morning to 9 at night, and not having a day off,” Greenfield explains. The studio offered free yoga classes and one free massage once a month to employees. But he knew that alone couldn’t stave off burnout.
In terms of slowing down the pace, “COVID was a blessing for that piece,” Greenfield says. “COVID was a big reset for us.”
But Greenfield acknowledges that moving yoga classes to Zoom from March 2020 until August, the closure of the restaurant and temporary closing of the healing arts center were difficult for students who used those services for their health and wellbeing. Staffing also took a significant hit; ACY currently has seven employees.
‘You had to soldier on’
Nonprofit work has at times been a rocky career path for Ringle, the counselor with All Souls, who also works at a state-run psychiatric hospital.
Ringle primarily counsels survivors of trauma who have post-traumatic stress disorder. At times, she says, she’s felt despair after serving clients, particularly when their lives are adversely impacted by what she believes are inefficient government services.
But Ringle’s meditation and spiritual practice, as well as the realization that she cannot fix her clients on her own, enable her to be a willing receptacle for others’ pain. She credits her years of experience with coping mechanisms for keeping her proverbial tank full.
Yet she’s also experienced serious periods of burnout in the past. Several times Ringle left counseling temporarily and worked other jobs. Once she became a housecleaner; another time, she became a potters’ apprentice and attended art fairs. And a third time, she joined the Peace Corps as a health educator and wrote a novel while stationed in Morocco for two years. But Ringle always returned to counseling because of her belief in the importance of mental health — and meeting new people is “endlessly interesting,” she says.
Burnout reemerged during the beginning of the pandemic while working at the psychiatric hospital. “A lot of people got to hunker down and stay home; well, we didn’t,” Ringle says. “We had to go to work or lose our jobs.”
She thought that she had been coping well. But Ringle recalls watching the 17th season of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” which showed health care providers fighting COVID-19. The similarities she saw between the fictional Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital in Seattle and her own workplace evoked an unexpectedly emotional response.
“Every episode, I would just bawl,” she recalls. “Because [at work,] you couldn’t stop, you couldn’t slow down, you couldn’t feel your feelings, because you had to just soldier on. … You just had to do what you had to do and you had to get through it.”
Coming back from burnout often involves a reset like that described by Greenfield at his yoga studio.
For Garcia-McCammond, that reset came from taking time off. First, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and quarantined; she then went to Florida for the month of August and stayed at a counseling facility. “It’s a refuge for women,” she says of the center. “They took my computer, they took my phone. And it was time that I had to focus on myself.”
Taking a break to recalibrate enabled her to come back to True Ridge and set herself on a path to work more sustainably. One of her takeaways from counseling, she says, is the importance of self-care for every staff member: “Take 20 minutes to walk outside, breathe fresh air, read a book,” she offers as examples.
Garcia-McCammond also clarified her priorities. She had not spent as much time with her spouse, five children and nine grandchildren as she would have wanted since True Ridge started in 2017. “Resentment starts setting in,” she recalls.
“Being part of a nonprofit, you end up giving so much of yourself that there’s nothing left for those people at home,” she says. “I almost lost a marriage because of it. My marriage is doing well, but it’s because I had to make changes and say, ‘OK, my priority is family; then it’s work.’”
She adds, “Everything’s not about work. Work is going to be there the next day.”