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Heidi Geroff, a registered nurse with the VNA Butler Home Health Office, enters a patient's home.

Added stress: Nonprofits coping with unprecedented times

Visiting Nurses Association Executive Director Margie Walsh knows that listening to her staff is an important part of her job.

“We watch their visits and productivity quite closely, because some people won't speak up (if something is wrong),” Walsh said. “We are always listening to what their issues are, whether it's their laptop or their mileage. What is going on? And then we try to make sure we are reactive to that.”

But Walsh is cognizant of the fact that complaining can be more than the frustration of dealing with a malfunctioning computer.

“When I say we have to listen, a lot of time it's (about) complaining,” Walsh said with a laugh. “When they start to get a little bit unsettled, and they're getting a little disgruntled about stuff, then you have to start paying even closer attention to what's going on, because that's never healthy.”

VNA nurses take care of the dying and help see them to the end of their lives as comfortably as possible. The nurses give great care, but the harsh reality is that their patients' journeys are not going to end in better health; they are going to die.

It's a stressful job. How do people who already have a challenging job like this cope with today's added COVID-19 concerns? It's a question that can keep a director up at night.

At the VNA, Walsh found that listening in a deep and responsive way helps, as does ensuring that the staff finds extra cash in their paychecks. She hands out free bag lunches. Walsh also works hard to keep staff well informed with weekly digital meetings.

How do others do it? Two area high-stress nonprofit organizations have had to find their own ways through these unprecedented times.

You wouldn't think it, but Jennifer DiCuccio, executive director of the Butler Humane Society, said it can be a very high-stress job. Despite its name, the organization gets no money from Butler County, so DiCuccio has to rely on grants and private donations to keep the animals fed and comfortable, staff paid, and repairs, both expected and unexpected, made around the facility.

It's easy enough to get money for an animal in need; everyone wants to help an innocent, suffering animal. But what about the rotted door or ancient windows? That's a different story. It all adds up to dollars and additional stress.

'Compassion fatigue'

“The shelter is stressful in the sense that it's a constant,” DiCuccio said. “I'm constantly thinking about many things. I'm thinking about our adoptions. I'm thinking about the health of the animals. I'm thinking about making sure that my staff are cared for, that their needs are being met.

“I'm thinking about how I'm going to raise money. How am I going to go over payroll, how am I going to get more volunteers and how am I going to get more fosters?”

DiCuccio isn't the only stressed human at the shelter. She sees what she calls compassion fatigue in the staff as well.

“Animal welfare work is very stressful, and it can lead to having a negative effect on morale, a negative effect on job performance,” DiCuccio said. “It can lead to high staff turnover. I have staff who have been here over 15 years, and just the weight of what they see (affects them): starved animals, (or) animals that have been abused or neglected, animals that have come in that are not well cared for.”

And then there are the deaths.

“Having to euthanize an animal for medical reasons or behavioral reasons is very difficult and emotional,” DiCuccio said. Here's why: “You have to physically get that animal ready to go, sometimes give that animal medication and you have to physically drive that animal to the vet. You go through that whole process and you come back to work.”

Because animal work can be draining, DiCuccio does her best to help shoulder the pain.

“We talk about it; we don't hide it,” she said. “We're very open about it.”

The staff also says goodbye to an animal. For sick animals, they try to create a few days of extra comfort for it. It also helps that the decision to euthanize is not an individual one. A euthanasia committee, along with the staff, review the case before any decision to put down an animal is made.

It all makes for full days at the Butler County Humane Society, but DiCuccio has her own resource she credits for being able to stay at the job.

“I have a very strong spiritual core in the center of my family,” she said.

At the Victim Outreach Intervention Center (VOIC), Executive Director Linda Strachan said the staff is stressed when they struggle to serve their clients' needs, which can be extensive.

“We provide many services,” she said. “Most people just think of us as emergency housing. We provide legal services, we provide housing services and we provide counseling services. We provide services to people for referral to outside agencies when they need that. We provide prevention services to school districts. We provide a lot of service.”

The staff understands the importance of self-care; they practice it daily. It's not providing services nor the need for services that is adding to the stress of VOIC's staff. It's their inability to be together.

“One of the things that I find especially difficult is that we are not all in the office spaces together like we would normally be because of the pandemic,” Strachan said. “I won't allow more than 50% of the staff to be in any space together at one time. They can't congregate in an office and sit down and talk about something that typically they would.”

Strachan said it's one of the most difficult things they deal with.

Staying connected at VOICe

“How do we help each other be connected and support one another, when we can't be together like we normally would be?”

Instead they have to meet virtually, through Zoom, for example. But Strachan tries to make it fun. To that end she organizes watch parties. Everyone gets together on Zoom and watches the same movie, a film specific to their field. In this case it is about human trafficking.

They have fun making up games while watching a movie.

“We're going to do, like, who has the best snack with them?” she said. “This person is eating popcorn, but this person is eating caramel corn. It is a learning thing but it's a little more fun than a basic learning thing.”

Still, it just isn't the same as being together in person.

“I don't think it's compassion fatigue,” Strachan said. “I think it's virtual fatigue. We're tired of the virtual environment, but yet we depend on it so much. We want to be more in person.

“If I'm a counselor and I'm used to seeing my people in person — because, let's face it, we never did virtual, or telehealth as you might want to call it — we weren't doing that and we have to be so careful that our clients are able to participate in those kinds of things. Not everybody is safe to be able to participate in that. All the extra steps that we need to go to make sure that someone is safe: I think that's where virtual fatigue comes into play.”

Yet there is a good side.

“We have the ability to reach more people now because we have this available,” Strachan said.