Even as mental health organizations struggle to serve their populations, they face another problem — demands on their workers

When the head of the Toms River-based Ocean Partnership for Children says it has been serving local youth dealing with significant issues during the pandemic, it’s no understatement.

“These are kids who have attempted suicide, kids being bullied in school, kids who are anxious, depressed,” said Mary Jo Buchanan, the organization’s executive director. “During and after the pandemic, it has been really difficult.”

Mary Jo Buchanan.

And, a few years removed from the pandemic’s collective psychological impact first being identified as a crisis, those who have been at the front lines of those mental health struggles are experiencing a crisis of their own.

The lesser-known phenomenon of “compassion fatigue,” a normal response to the demands of caregiving warned about by groups such as the American Counseling Association, has behavioral health workers sometimes finding difficulties in maintaining emotional support for those in pain.

It’s particularly relevant in a sector already strained by the retention and hiring issues that have plagued all industries. That’s why organizations small and large have tried their best to stay attuned to burnout among their workers.

“Compassion fatigue is real,” Buchanan said. “We have to do all the self-care pieces for employees, as well as fun things, early closings — anything to lighten the load and address the burnout someone might be feeling. … Organizations really have to make sure (employees) are feeding their souls in a way that allows them to continue to do this really difficult work.”

Its care management organization, or CMO, serves more than 1,000 kids in Ocean County. Like similar organizations in other counties that are part of New Jersey’s Children’s System of Care, it serves as a community resource facilitator for youth up to 21 years old with a wide array of needs. To serve that population, and its surging mental health needs, keeping employee counts high has been pivotal for Ocean Partnership for Children.

And, like other organizations, the advent of telehealth has added an extra wrinkle to its efforts to keep its 120-employee pool intact.

“At least some of our licensed clinicians decided to stay at home with telehealth,” Buchanan said. “Our services are in-person. We go into homes of youth and families. That’s where the work occurs, and that can be a challenge for retention.”

In an example of the sorts of against-the-odds retention efforts that any employer could take cues from, Ocean Partnership for Children not only managed to keep staffing levels up — it grew. It also has been recognized in media as one of the state’s top places to work.

Buchanan credits that to a “special sauce” of willingness to embrace flexible work arrangements and hybrid scheduling for employees, and not just waving these trends off due to the in-person requirements of the job.

“We try to do innovative things, too,” she said. “We’ve done things like a scavenger hunt throughout Toms River that gave employees some outside bonding time. We’ve brought in food trucks periodically. We’ve even had Pampered Spirit come in and do massages for staff.”

To the extent that it’s been able to, the organization has also revised compensation to remain competitive.

“We have to do what we can for our staff, who live our mission every day and are highly committed to it,” she said. “We see how they’re lifesavers through what they do, whether it’s small, like playing basketball or going to McDonald’s with a kid, or large. They change lives.”