Our work is often not confined to a 9-to-5…..Even when we aren’t at the office, we are thinking about work, worrying about clients and payroll and programs and reports. And we never feel that we are doing enough, that we ourselves are enough.

~Vu Lee 

Those of us working in nonprofits don’t need research studies to tell us that we’re at risk for burnout. We experience the stresses every day that make us burnout prone. That’s not the greatest news! But here’s something much more hopeful. Burnout creeps us on us slowly. It happens to due to the build up of stress over time, and it can be prevented.

If we recognize burnout’s sources, distinguish between “good” and “bad” busyness, and recognize early signals of burnout, we can take action to keep it from happening.

One major source of workplace burnout is the unremitting urgency of the work, creating a culture of constant and overwhelming busyness.

The Pressures for Busyness

Pressures to become increasingly busy come from society, from trends in technology, from our workplaces and from past and present family and cultural messages. They come from within, too. As we grow up and enter our professions, we internalize others’ demands and expectations. These messages can lead us to define our own self-worth in terms of how busy we are.

Good and Bad Busy

Being busy can be a good thing. It depends on if we’re in the “Good Busy Zone” or the “Bad Busy Zone.” In the “Good Busy Zone” we can experience flow, an enjoyable state of full absorption and energy.  We have the resources we need to be productive. We’re feeling challenged and useful. By contrast, in the “Bad Busy Zone” there’s  either way too little demand on us, creating boredom and feelings of disconnection, or too much going on.That feels like we’re on a treadmill, trying unsuccessfully to keep up, and fearing we’ll make a serious mistake.

Too much time in the Bad Busy Zone causes our bodies and minds to start sending distress signals. Ignoring these signals causes them to keep getting stronger, until we are forced to pay attention.

That’s when we’re at risk of developing severe physical or emotional symptoms in response to the unremitting stress we’re dealing with.

Our coping capacity is being eroded, we’re losing our effectiveness and are well on our way to burnout.

Burnout Builds Up Slowly

Burnout feels like total physical and emotional depletion, coupled with feelings of cynicism, detachment and professional ineffectiveness. It’s not sudden thing. There’s time to notice the early signs and take steps to prevent it.

Early signs can include patterns of increased irritability with and resentment toward program participants and colleagues; being afraid to take time off; outside of work relationship problems; a loss of energy; an increase in minor illnesses; losing your sense of humor; loss of social life; or decreased performance at work.

Avoiding Burnout

Five Workplace Strategies

  1. Encourage regular time off. Discuss the importance of setting boundaries around work hours and of using personal and vacation days. Examples: Take at least one (or three!) vacation days every quarter. Take a longer vacation at least once a year. Create an agreement that there is no expectation of immediate responses to non-crisis after-hours emails or calls.
  2. Build in opportunities for alone time. Some solitude allows for reflecting, focusing and getting new ideas. Examples: Establish a regular “no-meeting” day each week. Allow staff to post a sign that says “Work in Progress. Please don’t interrupt.”
  3. Offer regular, reflective supervision or coaching as a space to slow down, reflect and learn. Example: Supervisors meet regularly with each team member. They address not just administrative tasks and service quality issues, but also  think together deeply and creatively about the work. Facilitate reflective discussions during regular team meetings.
  4. Follow each cycle of intensive activity with time set aside for rest, renewal and reflection. Examples: Hold a retreat; organize a meditation group; facilitate a reflective discussion.
  5. Give permission to say no. Control the “yes reflex” by being discerning about the requests you accept and the expectations you agree to meet. Examples: Say “Let me think about that and get back to you,” before responding to a request.  If you’re already at your limit, say, “I’m sorry but right now I can’t add one more thing to my plate.”  Ask for help by saying “I would like to do this. Can you help me think through which of my current priorities can wait, or can be done by someone else?”

We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything. Which means that for every “yes” there are 1,000 “no”s.

~Sean Blanc 

Five Personal Strategies

  1. Free up some time. Aim for making a small change in how you allocate your time. Example: List the things you spend time on during an average day. Put a check mark beside one that you’d like to spend less time on. Brainstorm ways to make that happen. Pick one do-able idea and try it out.
  2. Use “found time” for you. Between personal and work responsibilities, alone time can be hard to come by. Make use of found time to be alone with your thoughts.  Example: Rather than turning to your smart phone while waiting on line, walking the dog, or sitting in traffic, use that time to relax or reflect. Take a few deep breaths. Notice your thoughts and feelings. Reflect on the day. Let yourself settle.
  3. Give yourself a break. Remember that you have earned your time off and that you deserve it. Examples: Plan a few days off, and take them. Schedule a vacation. Take it, and don’t work during it!
  4. Treat yourself with  compassion. Show yourself the same kindness that you offer to others. Example: Save 10% (or more) of your resources of time, money, or energy for you. It’s worthwhile.
  5. Activate Your Inner Encourager. Turn your attention away from your Inner Critic and toward your Inner Encourager. Example: Listen as your Inner Encourager reminds you that you are enough, and that you are doing enough.

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Resources and Credits

Jeffrey Davis: Lead Yourself First

Charlie Gilkey: How to Say No When Your Default is Yes

Kara Heissma:Are You Too Busy? 5 Signs of Chronic Stress 

Lynn Shallcross: Taking Care of Yourself as a Counselor

Photo by Diana Simumpande on Unsplash

Busy Zone Image: Nancy L. Seibel, 2017