Burnout is a common problem in the nonprofit industry. Long hours, few days off, heavy workloads and demanding expectations are unfortunate realities for many people working for charitable organizations. You may think the solution to burnout is simple, but it’s common for employees to view taking time off as a failure, which means they have given up or fallen under pressure.
Experiencing nonprofit burnout should not be shameful. It's an opportunity to pause, breathe, and practice self-compassion. In 2019, Burnout became recognized as a medical condition, and the World Health Organization is working on guidelines to help prevent burnout in the workplace. COVID has only added to the stress people are experiencing.
Now is the time to open the conversation around mental health in the workplace and for employers to step up and take action to prevent burnout within their organizations. If you feel tired, alone, or stressed with your work, you may be suffering from burnout.
What is Nonprofit Burnout?
Burnout refers to the stress a person is feeling because of work. It being in a state of both physical and mental exhaustion, just like the name suggests it is similar to a flame being completely abolished - totally burnt out with little left to give.
Signs of Burnout
- Being more critical and cynical regarding your work
- Having trouble getting to work or getting started
- Lack of concentration
- Lack of energy resulting in a decrease in productivity
- Feeling disinterested in your work or activities you used to enjoy
- No longer feel satisfaction from your achievements
- Have trouble falling and staying asleep
If you are experiencing one or multiple of these symptoms, you may be suffering from burnout and consider speaking with a friend, colleague or professional about how you are feeling. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to help alleviate your stress and recharge your battery, like taking time off, practicing mindfulness or spending time doing activities you love. But preventing burnout should start from within your organization.
When asking experts what they hope to see in 2022, a lot of them focused on culture and employee satisfaction. Our own CEO Dave Saraiva encouraged nonprofit leaders to consider ways to better support their staff. He shared, "I think in 2022 it's going to be more important than ever to make sure that you are taking care of the people that work for you, to create a good work environment, because people are no longer willing to put up with a less than ideal work environment.”
So how do you begin to create a better culture for your staff? Here are 5 tips on preventing burnout in your nonprofit.
5 Ways To Prevent Burnout in Your Nonprofit
Normalize Conversations Around Mental Health
Part of healing from burnout means being willing to have hard conversations. It’s scary to admit when we need help, and there is a fear in sharing this struggle with a boss or colleague that they will think less of you or that you just can’t perform at the level they expect you to. But by encouraging dialogues around mental health and creating a safe space, you are empowering your employees to advocate for their well-being.
For your organization, this could mean approaching your staff with compassion or making it a part of the onboarding process to let new members know who they can speak to if they are struggling in their position. It may also help to schedule time to speak with staff about burnout and their options if they are feeling a high level of stress at their job. This is especially helpful if you are regularly dealing with emotionally taxing situations.
Invest In Employees
A study done by Nonprofit HR found that 45% of responding nonprofit employees planned on finding new or different employment within the next 5 years. Of that percentage, 23% reported that they no longer wanted to pursue employment within the nonprofit sector, and 19% said nonprofits do not offer good long-term career options.
These numbers show that working for a mission they are passionate about is just not enough to keep employees happy. We are in the midst of a great resignation, people don’t want to settle when it comes to their careers, and nonprofit organizations need to take note of that. You should invest in your employees and show them that you value their work, careers, and personal development. See how you can support their professional growth by offering training or classes to improve their skills or asking them about ways to support their work.
So many people have gotten used to working from home, others would love to come back to the office. Each person thrives in a different environment so why not conduct a survey or ask employees how they would prefer to work.
Encourage Self Care
Each person defines self-care differently but whatever the definition it’s vital that you are encouraging your staff to find what to care for themselves, especially when working in high-stress or heavily emotional environments. The concept is that you need to care for yourself before caring for others.
The problem is many people often view self-care as selfish or a sign of weakness. This is a dangerous paradox that prevents many people from reaching out for help or taking the time they need to heal. This is why creating a positive culture around mental health is crucial to taking care of your staff.
To prevent burnout, we need to recognize and have boundaries that allow us to recharge our batteries and be our best selves. This along with getting proper sleep, going for walks, doing activities you love or pampering yourself are all acts of self-care. It’s up to you to decide what it means and how you want to practice it.
Check-in With Your Staff
In order to understand how your staff is doing, you need to take the time to check in with them. One of the ways to do this is to regularly schedule check-ins with your staff quarterly, monthly or by creating an open-door policy for them to reach out when they need to. It’s important not to assume that the people around you are doing ok, burnout can look different for everyone and even though someone may seem to be functioning normally they could be under a lot of stress internally.
Start the meeting by asking how your staff workload has been. Do they feel overwhelmed or need more support? Consider collecting feedback from staff, be receptive to their input and reassure them you will look into their suggestions. It’s important that your employees trust you have their back and best interests at heart.
Have Realistic Expectations For Yourself and Your Staff
The nonprofit industry is infamous for its turnover in staff, especially fundraisers. Why? Many nonprofits suffer from the "nonprofit starvation cycle” when organizations try to keep overhead costs low while expecting high-level results. They do not invest in their fundraisers or give them the proper support and training for their position. Or they are constantly hiring new development professionals and expect them to reach unattainable goals in a short period.
This environment is the perfect recipe for burnout. To fix this problem, you first have to recognize it and be willing to ask hard questions. If your goals are not met, is it a problem with your approach or that your expectations are too high? Fixing this issue begins with having an open conversation with your fundraisers and understanding their realistic goals and timeline.
Check-in with them, if a lot of your development staff needs to work overtime to get the job done you may need to grow your team or reevaluate your strategy. Have open and honest conversations and ask them if there is anything you can do to support their work and help them feel more confident in their position. Finally, trust that they know what is best and develop success metrics alongside your development team.
If you are experiencing burnout, you need to remember to be kind to yourself. Experiencing stress like burnout or anxiety does not mean you failed, it is just a sign that you are being pushed to your limits and deserve help. The nonprofit sector is not known for its support of its employees, so it is often up to you to advocate for your mental wellbeing. This means taking time for yourself and taking a break from stressors that triggered your burnout.
Self-care is important, and it’s something everyone would be practicing to help improve their overall well-being. Taking care of ourselves is not selfish, having self-compassion is a skill that helps us improve our own mental health and allow us to show up better for our professional and personal lives.