Managing Your Business
Saving the World Isn't Easy: Avoiding Burnout in Nonprofits
Saving the world can be exhausting.
This is especially true if you're running a nonprofit organization, where feelings of impending burnout are about as routine as that quadruple shot latte you drink every morning.
Just about everyone is familiar with burnout. Between demanding customers, growing workloads, longer hours, and a culture that expects immediacy, every entrepreneur and employee has reached a point where it just feels like too much.
This feeling becomes increasingly familiar in the nonprofit sector. You're dealing with high emotional stress every single day, knowing that people's lives and wellbeing are sometimes on the line. At the same time, you're trying to be everything for everybody when budgets are tight and staff is limited (or even non-existent).
In nonprofits, things like regular overtime hours and lack of competitive pay are the norm. And you might even think time away from work sounds too stressful to justify taking time off. Throw a global pandemic and resultant economic collapse into the mix, and you're on the fast-track to full-blown burnout mode.
According to the World Health Organization, you know you're officially dealing with burnout when you have any of these symptoms (yes, you read that right, the World Health Organization says burnout is an official medical diagnosis):
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one's job
- Feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Sound familiar? Before you start running for the hills, take a deep breath. You've got this. There are a handful of strategies for overcoming professional fatigue. To help you avoid burnout, we put together the top four ways to navigate everyday stressors, recharge your brain, and continue to find joy in doing what you love.
1. Set Healthy Boundaries
This is all about saying "no" and being OK with it.
How many times have you opened up your laptop after hours to get ahead on that one big project? Are you guilty of staying at the office late and missing dinner? Do you check your work email before you even have your morning coffee? Has your personal phone turned into another channel for work-related messages?
In a world where it's so easy to stay connected 24/7, the line between work and life has become so blurry, it's nearly indistinguishable. Without that balance, you're robbing yourself of much-needed time to recharge and rest.
It doesn't have to be this way. You have to set boundaries both inside and outside of the workday — and not be afraid to stick to them.
So what should those boundaries look like? It largely depends on your own habits, but here are a few places to start.
Leave your work computer at work
If you don't work from home and you have a designated work computer at your office, make it a rule that you won't take it home with you. If this strategy feels too extreme, you can consider limiting the days you can bring it home (for example, dedicate Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays as laptop-free days). However you go about it, setting this boundary helps you break the habit of always bringing work home with you — and that means an opportunity to hit the refresh button on your brain.
Commit to a zero-work policy for certain times of the day
Do you check your phone before you've even had a chance to get out of bed? Waking up to urgent messages is the quickest way to start your day off on a bad note. Make a rule not to check your email (or Slack or Microsoft Teams or Google Chat) before you've brewed your coffee. If you find yourself preoccupied with work email outside of regular working hours and it's detracting from your personal time, set some rules to break the habit.
Communicate your needs
Once you start setting some of these boundaries, people at your office need to be aware of them, too. There may be an existing culture of responding to emails instantly or checking Slack and texts after hours. Ensure you're communicating your boundaries to others and encouraging them to do the same — it's one way to eliminate unnecessary stress and foster a healthier work environment.
2. Recognize That You Can't Do Everything (and That It's OK to Get Help)
Are you afraid to take time off because you're worried nobody else can step in and cover for you? Or do you fill your plate with every task imaginable because of a fear that someone else might mess it up?
If you are the only person who can perform a particular task vital to keeping your nonprofit up and running, it's time to share your know-how with other people. First, it's not sustainable to do everything on your own. Secondly, it's time to focus on diversifying your talent to find someone who can help lighten your workload (and make you feel like things are in good hands when you're ready for a break, too).
That's why, to help avoid burnout, you should spend some time empowering volunteers or new employees and train them on some day-to-day tasks. When you're ready to take some time off, make sure they're prepared to navigate issues that may arise in your absence. Documenting processes, workflows, and procedures is a great way to alleviate some of your concerns. And ultimately, doing so will help you feel comfortable enough to finally move a few things off your to-do list and reduce stress.
3. Make Self-Care a Priority
Self-care is a pretty big buzzword these days — but for a very good reason.
For a lot of people, the idea of prioritizing our own needs often goes against our instincts. Many think it's "self-indulgent" or "selfish" to make their own needs a priority, so they push them down to the bottom of the list. In doing so, they're putting a lot at risk; they're becoming more susceptible to exhaustion and burnout. And when anyone isn't at their best, chances are the organization isn't either.
Here are a few simple ways to prioritize yourself so you're always putting your best foot forward.
Take care of the basics first
Self-care doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, the best self-care is simple and accessible. If you're feeling drained, start by making an effort to go to bed a little earlier, drink a little more water, drink less alcohol, make healthier food choices, meditate, and get some fresh air. These are all small tasks that will help you feel exponentially better.
Take time off and stick to it
Schedule and block off time for yourself — whether it's a week vacation, one day away from work, or just the afternoon off. The key is to put it on your calendar and make sure everyone you work with knows. When you respect and honor these commitments, everyone else will, too.
Make it a habit
Running a nonprofit can feel like a continuous cycle. Things like vacations and Wine Wednesdays can help you recharge, but if it's starting to feel like an escape, there's a good chance you're still not focusing on yourself enough.
Find what keeps you balanced and stick to it. Make it a daily habit. Whether it's hitting the gym or setting aside an hour to read, make sure you're allowing yourself the time to do these things regularly.
4. Remember Why You Do What You Do
Chances are, you got into the nonprofit sector because you want to make the world a better place. But when you're bogged down by paperwork, endless phone calls, fundraisers, and late-night reports, it's easy for that "why" to get lost in mundane tasks.
Staying connected to why you got into nonprofit work is vital to staying motivated and avoiding burnout. Often, this means hearing or seeing first-hand the impact of your nonprofit's hard work on the beneficiaries. To do this, consider organizing events where you can connect with beneficiaries in-person or scheduling on-site visits.
If meeting beneficiaries face-to-face isn't possible, ask them to write letters to your team. This gives you and your team an opportunity to read these letters whenever you're feeling stressed. It's an easy way to refocus your brain on what really matters. It's also a reminder that even on the most hectic days, it's all worth it.
The Bottom Line
Burnout is real. It affects millions of people, and it's a growing problem in the nonprofit world. This is especially true for newer or smaller nonprofits where you might be on your own or working with a small staff.
The best thing you can do is recharge your batteries and allow time for the things that bring you joy — no matter how you define it. Incorporating all of the tips listed will help you be at your best. And that means your nonprofit can be at its best, too.
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