How To Prevent Burnout When You Work For A Nonprofit Or Charity

Haley Bodine
Haley Bodine

New: Must read book by our friend Beth Kanter on strategies for impact without burnout.

When you work for a nonprofit or charity, it can feel like long hours and few days off are inevitable due to an unrealistic workload and deadlines.

A few years ago, I was working for a quickly-growing nonprofit in Detroit. I was a part of a small, but driven staff seeking to change the landscape of communities in the most downtrodden areas of the city.

Long hours and limited boundaries on my work and personal time led me to experience stress, mental fatigue, discouragement, and even some desire to quit altogether. The work I was doing was important, and the organization was doing incredible work in the city, but I was burning out.

Had I paced myself better and known how to prevent burnout, I would have not only enjoyed my work more, but I would have been even more productive at it.

Our minds and our bodies are wired like automobiles. We are highly functional, driven, motivated go-getters when we are fueled up properly. But we are also susceptible to experiencing burnout if we ignore the signs that we need to slow down and refuel.

Many times we choose to not stop to recharge before it’s too late for fear that we will lose momentum, lose valuable time, or fail to achieve what we are aiming for. In reality, if we reach the burnout point we often lose much more time and achievement than if we had just read the warning signs and acted accordingly.

Anyone can experience burnout, but nonprofit workers are especially prone to debilitating fatigue. As a nonprofit leader, you most likely wear many hats. As you endeavor to achieve good, meet needs, and lead your staff and volunteer teams there is very little margin for anything else. In order to cultivate a staff culture in which burnout is the exception rather than the “rule” you must lead healthy practices by example.

How to Prevent Burnout Nonprofit

Here are 5 ways to help you prevent burnout, and encourage a healthy, vibrant nonprofit staff culture.

1. Schedule And Practice Rest

Let’s start with possibly the hardest tip to implement: taking regular time off. As a nonprofit leader, your to-do list is endless, and your goals are important; world change is on the line!

But the truth is that in order to change the world you need to take regular breaks. Not only will you personally gain from this practice, but your team will benefit from a healthier leader. Additionally, your team will be shown what disciplined work/rest habits look like, and encouraged to do likewise.

Try practicing the 6/7 Rule: for every 6 hours you work, take one hour off. Then for every 6 days you work, take one day completely off.

“Try practicing the 6/7 Rule: for every 6 hours you work, take one hour off…” tweet this

Chick-Fil-A Restaurants are known for being closed on Sundays. Six days a week the public can get delicious fried chicken sandwiches and nuggets, but on Sundays all Chick-Fil-A restaurants are closed to give employees time to rest and enjoy their friends and families.

The interesting thing is that Chick-Fil-A still blows all other fast-food restaurants out of the water with their profit margins. America’s favorite fast-food restaurant was also recently voted #1 for customer satisfaction. This could arguably be connected to its employees being provided with regularly scheduled rest and time off.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but regular, planned days off will help you and your team crush your weekly goals without experiencing burnout. We are made to work, and then rest.

Statistics show that proper sleep habits, as well as daily periods of mental rest, and periodic vacation time contributes to increased productivity, and decreased staff turnover.

Work and rest. Work and rest. It’s rhythmic, and time after time following the natural rhythm proves to increase efficiency, sharpen mental focus, and decrease stress levels.

2. Schedule Wish-List Work

If you analyze your to-do list, it’s probably full of urgent items. Many of the items on your list are responsive items—phone calls to return, emails to send, projects to complete, etc. These are important items that demand most of your time, but often demand the most energy from you.

You probably have your wish list items: items that you want to do, but are often pushed to the wayside for more “important” items. But wish-list items are just as important as the urgent to-do list items because wish list items are generally refueling.

These are things like taking time to read and catch up on industry research, taking time offline to brainstorm or reflect, organizing files that keep piling up, or even stopping to dream big again and remember why you’re working so hard in the first place.  Then you can share your fresh insights, ideas, and reminders of purposes with your team to recharge their motivation as well.

Try scheduling just 15-20 minutes per day to the refreshing “wish-list” items. This will help you to refocus and refuel so you can prevent burnout.

3. Consider Providing Your Staff With Flexible Schedules And Remote Work Options

Nonprofits are generally not high-paying jobs. Most people do not enter nonprofit careers for the paychecks. However, what you are unable to supply in finances you can make up for inflexible perks to your staff.

By offering some level of flexibility in schedules, as well as remote work options you communicate to your staff that a.) You trust them to do their jobs, and to do them well without being micromanaged, and b.) You want to help them with work/life balance. Cultivating a healthy environment will increase morale for your team, and as a result prevent burnout.

“Cultivating a healthy environment will increase morale for your team, and as a result prevent burnout…” tweet this was recently voted the #1 best nonprofit to work for. A glance at their staff culture quickly shows why: purposeful, meaningful work, paired with drive, energy, passion, baked goods, and paid sabbaticals. Their staff culture has a clearly defined work/rest rhythm that contributes to productivity, positivity, and reduced cases of burnout.

4. Regularly Connect With Your Staff

One of the best ways to gauge the burnout level of your staff is simply to spend frequent amounts of time with them, and to regularly ask how they are really doing. As a nonprofit leader it is easy to get caught up in your outreach efforts, and as a result fall into the trap of assuming your staff is doing okay.

Take regular time (weekly, or monthly) to connect with your team, perhaps over coffee, lunch, or maybe an office treat. Cultivate a safe environment for your team to provide honest feedback on how they’re feeling about their workloads.

Then ask for feedback on how you can support them. You may not always be in a position to provide what they are asking for, but by being open to consider their input and opinions you will assist in helping them know they are protected and cared for. This will go a long way to helping prevent staff burnout.

5. Set Boundaries For Work And Personal Time

Good leadership means leading by example. This rings true for taking time off, whether it’s at the end of a workday, a full day off, or a vacation. When you allow yourself to actually be “off work” you give your staff permission to do the same. Phone calls can wait. Email can wait. Work can wait.

It takes practice and discipline, but it is important to establish clear boundaries between work and personal time. Your staff will thank you. Your family and friends will thank you. And you will experience true refreshment so you can be ready to get back to it when it’s time to work again.

“It is important to establish clear boundaries between work and personal time…” tweet this

Google Voice is a great tool for setting up your work phone number. You can schedule when you are available to take calls, and when calls should be sent directly to voicemail. This allows you to receive personal phone calls, but filter work-related calls until an appropriate time.

There are also apps for email regulation. Programs like Boomerang help you schedule when you receive emails so that you can strategically stay focused on what is most important at any given part of the day.

Burnout does not have to be inevitable.

As you head into this week, be sure to ask yourself the following questions to gauge your personal fuel tank, and to set yourself up for longevity:

  • When was the last time you took a full day off without checking any work-related emails or messages?
  • How many days last week did you work longer hours than you planned?
  • When was the last time you intentionally unplugged from your telephone or inbox?
  • When during the next week can you schedule time for non-urgent to-do items (e.g. industry reading/research, coffee with a colleague, organize your workspace, etc.)
  • What tasks can you delegate? What tasks can only you perform?
  • When will you intentionally rest during the upcoming week?

If you lead and encourage yourself and your staff to establish healthy habits of rest, you and your staff can prevent burnout and move forward steadily as you seek to change the world.

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