Susan Comfort
6 min readOct 9, 2020

Stress Equity? Something to ponder for World Mental Health Day (if you can get a “bathroom break” to read this)…

“My Stress Score is in double digits — that’s before I even walk in my workplace.”

This is a common response when people fill out our Stressor Scorecard.

We’ve been testing this tool to spur discussion of how identity and circumstance stressors affect our daily lives, especially in the nonprofit and education sectors. Our scorecard measures your stress “before you walk in your workplace.” It’s based on the ACE* scorecard, but lighter.

It’s no surprise to people of color, women, immigrants (or LGBTQ folks like me), that these often-polarizing identities can cause personal stress. Nor is it revelatory that circumstances like divorce, childhood trauma, death of a friend, taking care of children, or food allergies can raise our cortisol levels.

What’s surprising is how little we talk about it with our co-workers, and how much empathy and trust is built when we do.

(Recent health implications of stress are also damning, but that’s for another day.)

We’ve seen stressor scores climb since March. We had to add new sign language for showing numeric scores on-screen, since totals were regularly topping 20. We’d added “Pandemic/Natural disaster” to account for the global tragedy we are collectively experiencing. We are about to update it with “Impacted by Incarceration.” It keeps evolving (we’d love your feedback).

What’s your score?

“I thought I had a lot of stress, but my score was only a two.”

That comment was from a man pre-pandemic, a nonprofit worker dedicated to his busy job but unbothered by oppression. He hadn’t thought about the stress his colleagues experienced daily, at least not before racial protests dominated 2020.

I’ve worked in Washington DC for over 20 years; our nonprofit community is large, diverse, hard-working, and passionate about making change. When the 2016 election happened, it took the wind out of my city. The stress factor skyrocketed overnight — all the strategies to be shifted, the fundraising repercussions, and of course, the world-changing goals that got rolled back.

On November 9, 2016, I couldn’t even talk to my colleagues. We just focused on work because we were deep in denial and grief. I don’t know why I went to the office that day, but in retrospect I wish we’d discussed what happened. (My city is about to undergo another seismic shift, no matter what is announced on November 4th, less than one month away.)

Anyway, after the Trump Administration came to town, I created the Nonprofit Wellness Pilot to address the stress I was seeing in D.C. Please check out our Wellness Equity report with the results of that six-month study, where 60 nonprofit workers tested “wellness benefits” like those enjoyed in the corporate world: yoga, personal coaching, gym access, financial counseling. The corporate wellness industry was $7B/year; healthy perks overfloweth in certain circles.

We overflowed our Pilot cohort with people who experience more stress in our society: for example, the group was 82% female, 65% people of color, and 54% lower-income.

Given the political climate, women and people of color are experiencing a lot of stress, and it’s negatively impacting our mental health.” (Wellness Pilot participant)

File this under “no duh.” But as obvious as it might be, there aren’t many stress solutions in nonprofit workplaces. We are chronically understaffed. We are constantly worried about fundraising. We are terrible at self-care. We are — ahem — often not blessed with the best managers.

And the cultural and systemic racism that is unaddressed in most organizations causes additional, invisible stress for employees of color.

We coined the term “wellness equity” because those who suffer the most stress deserve the most wellness support. But, this requires vulnerability.

Talking about (or measuring) our physical and mental health challenges will make us feel vulnerable, something we’re not used to at work.

*And maybe incorporating childhood trauma as measured by the ACE Scorecard is too triggering, too vulnerable for your office environment. We get it. The ACE Scorecard measures serious trauma that children experience before age 18. You don’t have to go there, at work, but the rest of society is talking about this much more openly, so actually, you might have to go there sooner than you think. We find that the Stressor Scorecard tool can be facilitated as a lighter, individual intro or a deep dive with discussion, depending on your team’s experience. The ACE Scorecard is quite graphic, so you have to allow plenty of time for discussion or reflection after exposure. It’s extremely relevant in schools right now, for adult educators to examine their own trauma and biases.

Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as taking action when there is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Her research shows that vulnerability inspires empathy, which in turn builds trust. But only you can draw the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Now that it’s World Mental Health Day, you might want to admit that your team isn’t the best at taking care of themselves — some people just aren’t wired that way. They’ll take care of each other, though.

We’ve seen when employees discuss their sleep problems or their workout challenges — it inspires empathy and problem-solving together. This wellness discussion spurs a re-investment of new energy. This expenditure of time or money changes behaviors, leading to a virtuous (as opposed to vicious) cycle of shifted behavior, based on empathy. All of this leads to greater trust.

Trust is the most prized component of workplace culture; the glue that holds teams together. Wellness can be a shortcut to get there.

Looking at some recent examples of trust-building through wellness:

→ Our team of Nonprofit Welless trainers and interns spans six states. We have only met via Zoom — we do icebreakers and/or workouts and stretch breaks every week during our meeting — and while this group has never met in person, we feel like we know each other because of all our shared experiences online.

→ We’ve helped LAMB-PCS (a public, bilingual, Montessori elementary school) adapt to the pandemic with new online wellness traditions: Spanish-language yoga & exercise classes on Zoom, Headspace meditation on their phones, Mindfulness trainings via Google Meet, and bilingual wellness interviews “survival tips” edited down to Insta-friendly content.

→ For a personal example of team-care, I just complained on Instagram that I was watching too many yoga videos and not actually practicing on my mat, because habit change is hard, and I’m an Obliger, blah blah. One of my friends said, “Same here, so what do we do?” and we decided to text in the morning to encourage each other to get on the mat. It got me there today. Accountability is key.

→ Just saw on Facebook that Jen Brock-Cancellieri got together with her co-workers recently for a socially-distanced kayaking meeting (gotta love Maryland).

→ A private pre-school in Georgetown DC has been back in the classroom full-time since Labor Day; their teaching staff is trying classes like Chair Yoga, HIIT, and Qi Gong so they can learn new skills together.

→ Our co-trainer started Spark*by Gabby including private, online movement and mindfulness classes for work teams and birthday parties. The fitness world has exploded with online options (& Gabby’s music rocks).

→ I’m hearing about group walking meetings (with each person on their own phone, walking). I’m doing a lot of these myself, whether the other person knows it or not! I don’t count steps but it’s a great way to get them in.

Your turn! How do you build your culture of well-being, where folks are aware of and supportive of each other’s physical and mental needs. Tell us how you invest in team-care, not (just) self-care. These bonds support every person in bringing their complete and best selves to work every day.

Susan Comfort

Co-founder of, manager of the DC/Balto/Pitt Alvéole teams, Tinkergarten leader, queer parent, bee promoter.