Burnout is a huge problem in the nonprofit industry, and especially so towards the end of the year. The last three months of the year are stressful and frenzied for most nonprofits, even if the outcomes are rewarding and exciting.
However, nonprofit burnout can happen anytime during the year. Heavy workload, demanding grant requirements, under-staffed teams, and strenuous budgets can all take a toll on the well-being of your nonprofit team.
Add to this the long hours often required for fundraisers and special events, and the zealous commitment most working in the nonprofit sector have towards a specific cause – and you get the recipe for nonprofit burnout.
Many different factors can cause nonprofit burnout. Some can be personal, while some others are directly related to working in the nonprofit industry.
This commitment often leads to nonprofit employees sacrificing their personal time and ignoring their own needs and limits. When this happens over an extended period of time, nonprofit burnout happens.
Since your employees are your most precious resource, it’s important to take care of them and prevent the nonprofit burnout. And employee burnout affects many, if not all, of the other aspects of managing an organization.
Employees who are burnt out won’t perform as well and this will reflect on the quality of programs delivered, on the relationships with partners, donors, the Board, and much more.
In the Healthy Happy Nonprofit Kanter outlines common symptoms of burnout in nonprofit workers:
Have your volunteers be in charge of some of the activities that your staff is currently responsible for (e.g. managing social media platforms or calling donors). Utilizing volunteers in this way can really help alleviate some of the staff workloads.
This pays off in many different ways. You’re providing a meaningful and engaging experience for your volunteers, you’re building a community, and you’re creating a cooperative space in which new ideas can be brought forward and everyone can learn from each other.
This is especially important if an employee leaves their post (or if they’re let go). Many nonprofits simply distribute the role to other employees – adding to their own workload.
In situations like these, hiring consultants, using volunteers or interns, hiring temporary staff directly or through a third party can help avoid nonprofit burnout.
‘Employee perks’ are often associated with the for-profit sector. It’s been accepted by many (generally unconsciously) that working in the nonprofit sector means sacrificing salary and benefits.
The time has come for this paradigm to change. If someone is working hard to help bring about social change in a sector that doesn’t aim for profit, it shouldn’t mean that their quality of life should suffer. On the contrary, they should be rewarded.
Do your best to provide your employees with appropriate compensation/salaries for their work. The yoga and meditation classes that everyone suggests to help prevent burnout won’t pay for themselves.
Investigate which benefits matter to them (e.g. childcare in the office, laundry in the office, free in-office doctor visits, gym memberships, or education reimbursement). You could get a local company to donate healthy juices for one breakfast per week. You could also invest in your employees’ learning opportunities. Whether you enable them to take relevant courses or attend interesting workshops and conferences, these can really serve as a motivation boost. Ideas are plenty, and there’s a lot of space to innovate.
Investing in benefits like these increases employee happiness, productivity, trust, and loyalty.
When things get hard, staying motivated and inspired becomes difficult. The “why” behind everyday actions and mundane tasks become obscure.
Just keeping up with the everyday reality of the role becomes burdensome. For example, fundraising can become tiresome and appear to be about the money. This is why keeping connected to the source of the work is incredibly important.
What this means is that it’s important for everyone at the nonprofit to be able to see and experience first-hand the impact of your organization’s programs on the beneficiaries.
There are many ways in which you can go about accomplishing this. You can organize events where staff, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders meet. You can organize on-site visits or have your beneficiaries write letters to your team that they can pull out and read whenever they feel burnt out and when they feel like what they do has no meaning.
It’s very important that every employee sees how their position fits into the larger purpose of the organization. Work with your employees to set goals for their work so that they clearly see how they will contribute to your collective mission.
When working at a nonprofit, everything feels important. And everything is. Many decisions at nonprofits directly impact the lives of others.
When you’re in the business of ‘saving the world’, it becomes hard to adjust and prioritize.
Burnout can easily happen when employees (and leaders alike) cannot distinguish between the real emergencies and things that really can wait until next week.
This is where the influence of nonprofit leadership becomes very evident. Employees across the board often look up to senior leaders, especially at the start of their careers. If the senior leadership never takes a day off and treats everything as an emergency, this is what will set the tone for the rest of the organization.
Not everything needs to be done immediately—or even at all. Take the time to really look through the tasks on your staff members’ to-do lists. See what can be moved off their plate, what responsibilities can be shuffled, and what deadlines can be moved.
This might sound counterintuitive (with moving deadlines and all), but this allows for focusing on what’s really important instead. This way, you’ll find that your team will accomplish much more—and they will feel better for it.
Create a space in your nonprofit organization where issues like burnout are openly discussed. Have regular check-ins with your team both individually and in groups (as much as resources allow).
During these check-ins, everyone can get a better idea of where everyone else is at and generate ideas about how to reduce burnout.
Make commitments as a team and ‘appoint’ someone to keep track of them. Without conversations, nothing can happen.
Burnout first needs to be seen, recognized, acknowledged and talked about before it can be solved. And managing burnout becomes part of the organizational culture.
To avoid burnout, it’s very important to recognize the efforts of your staff members or colleagues. It’s helpful to notice the big and little successes that happen every day in organizations.
Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own and your team’s successes and accomplishments. It’s easy to keep paying attention to things that are not going so well. However, there are so many things that do work out every day and are taken for granted (someone thanking your organization, obtaining a new donor, recruiting a new volunteer, landing a big sponsorship meeting etc).
If employees frequently remember that they are helping the nonprofit keep its doors open and that they are accomplishing a lot all the time – they are less likely to feel like they’re stressed and failing.
Celebrate milestones and achievements, in whichever ways work best for your nonprofit, and remind your team of all the good they’re doing.
How self-care is seen and exercised differs significantly from one person to another. Whatever the definition, it is crucial that nonprofit leaders encourage self-care. Some in the industry even call for radical self-care.
The principle is, in essence, simple: You can’t pour out of an empty cup.
In an industry that is based on giving and where employees are often led by a fervor to serve and persist in the face of challenges – it’s essential that your team’s ‘cups are full’.
How can nonprofit employees take care of others without taking care of themselves? And this is a difficult paradigm to break. Self-care is seen as something indulgent and selfish by many nonprofit professionals.
In order to prevent nonprofit burnout, we need to break this paradigm. The nonprofit sector professionals need to see how taking care of themselves means taking care of their nonprofit’s mission.
Self-care activities can be anything from getting enough sleep, reading, meditation, and investing in hobbies to spa days and vacations.
Whatever self-care means for you and your nonprofit, encourage it.
Although time off could be considered a form of self-care (see above), when it comes to nonprofit burnout – time off is a significant contributing factor.
Time off is very important for mental and physical health. Encourage your employees to actually take their days off (and take them yourself).
Regular and planned days off will help you and your team achieve your goals and get closer to achieving your nonprofit mission without experiencing burnout.
Studies show that daily periods of mental rest and vacation time contribute to increased productivity and decreased staff turnover.
Therefore, advocating for regular and uninterrupted periods of rest (whether it’s encouraging a break every hour of work, encouraging a mindful lunch not spent at the desk in front of a computer, or it’s advocating for email-free holidays) is one of the keys to successfully managing nonprofit employee burnout.
It’s also very important for nonprofit leaders to actively provide coverage for the employee’s responsibilities when they take time off so that they may take a ‘real’ break.
The culture at work – particularly how employees are with each other – has a big impact on nonprofit burnout.
Investing in creating a community at the workplace can have a significant positive impact on employee happiness and productivity (therefore reducing the chances of burnout).
Consider creating weekly rituals for your staff members. Perhaps you could organize weekly breakfasts during which everyone shares what they’re grateful for, what brings them joy, or which colleague they particularly appreciated that week.
You could organize communal meals once per week when even your remote staff members join in via Skype or Google Hangout. Communication is crucial if the team is remote. Check out these 4 ways to communicate with remote teams.
This doesn’t mean that you have to push for the dreaded ‘mandatory fun’, but creating spaces where a more human approach can be created and where genuine relationships between co-workers can blossom is a sure way to help prevent and reduce nonprofit burnout.
Although sometimes deemed as ‘just trends’, activities like yoga and meditation – which promote mindfulness and well-being – are increasingly shown to reduce stress.
To practice mindfulness in your workplace, you could introduce mindful coffee breaks or meditation sessions to your team.
When it comes to well-being, potential practices are many. Strongly discourage your employees from sending e-mails after work or during holidays.
Ensure easy access to healthy food and drinks in the office and put out reminders around the office for your employees to stay hydrated, stand up, or stretch.
Support the physical fitness of your employees by paying for their gym memberships, personal trainers, or at least a couple of free classes per month when a yoga teacher comes into the office and delivers a class.
Working in the nonprofit sector can be exhausting. Deadlines, pressure from a variety of stakeholders, leading staff and volunteers, maintaining relationships with Board and donors, doing good – all of that leaves little space for anything else.
Ultimately, however noble the zest and long working hours may seem, we know from experience (and research) that in the long-term, employee burnout will have a negative effect.
Studies have shown that chronically overworked staff are less-productive, less-engaged, and more likely to make mistakes.
However, nonprofit burnout doesn’t have to be the norm. As a nonprofit leader, it is essential that you lead by example. Applying some of the ideas outlined above yourself can make all the difference for your organization.
This is why it’s important to take nonprofit burnout seriously and to put in place systems and practices to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The ideas suggested above are a starting point for cultivating a work culture against burnout. While there is a lot of research demonstrating the benefits of above outlined activities, there’s only one way to know what works for your organization, and that is to experiment until you find your own way.