Professional burnout is real and it is a particular problem within the nonprofit sector where limited resources must combat unlimited problems.
Nonprofit professionals are rarely guided by financial ambitions; they are generally driven by the desire to help, to champion a cause they are passionate about, to make the world a better place. Wall Street may close on the weekends, allowing business women and men the chance to get away for a day or two. Poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence know of no such luxury. In the face of these persistent problems, nonprofit workers are often tempted to work longer and harder than their for-profit peers. After all, if they do not step up to the challenge, who will?
However noble a 50+ hour work week may seem in principle, we know that in practice and over the long-term, employee burnout will have the opposite effect of its intent. Studies have shown that chronically overworked staff are less-productive, less-engaged, and more likely to make mistakes.
For the overall health of your staff—as well as that of the mission to which they are committed—it is important to take burnout seriously and to put in place steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. The following options are a starting point for cultivating a work culture against burnout.
Americans take fewer vacation days than workers living in nearly every other developed country in the world. But it isn’t simply a matter of not getting time off: more than 50% of American workers have unused vacation days at the end of the year. One reason it can be so difficult for nonprofit employees to take vacation is that while they may go away, the work does not. Most nonprofits do not have substitute staff who can cover while someone is out and so the work piles up. Vacation becomes less of a break and merely a shifting of hours. Nonprofit leaders should encourage their staff not only to take vacation, but should actively provide coverage for the employee’s responsibilities so that she or he may take a legitimate break.
Lead by example.
Nonprofit leaders should model a healthy work/life balance so that employees see that such a life is possible. This includes staying off email while away from the office. Other staff, especially young professionals just beginning their careers, will take their cues from the leaders above them. If staff see their bosses answering email late at night or constantly “checking in” while on vacation, they will take this to be the norm. Setting boundaries is an important part of life and you should make clear that you value their boundaries just as you expect them to value yours.
Constantly connect their work to the mission.
As vital as a nonprofit’s mission may be, not all work—indeed likely most of it—will be thankless tasks that simply need to get done. It is easy to get bogged down in paperwork, grant proposals, board meetings, staff issues, and to forget the purpose for which your work aims. Reminding your staff (and yourself) of your nonprofit’s larger vision gives meaning to the madness of daily work. This starts with setting a vision for your organization and inviting everyone with whom you work to share in this vision. Show your staff how each position fits into this larger purpose and work with them to set goals for their work that will contribute to your collective mission.
These are three simple steps that any nonprofit leader can take to prevent burnout. Staff is often the greatest resource a nonprofit has. It is worth the time and effort to invest in them and stave off the burnout that so naturally seems to creep in.
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