Burnout takes a heavy toll on those who experience it. It can affect health, well-being, motivation and resilience. This sense of physical and psychological depletion caused by unremitting stress is a phenomenon well known in the nonprofit world (Volk, Guarino, et al., 2008).

Not only does burnout cause suffering for those experiencing it, it can cause a decline in quality of their work that negatively impacts their participants and their organizations as well.

In fact, burnout can get pretty expensive. Replacing a staff member when burnout leads to turnover can cost up to twice that person’s salary. And that’s not even counting the cost of lost organizational knowledge and disrupted relationships.

These reasons, along with my own experiences in the nonprofit workforce, are why Keys to Change focuses on taking service-centered professionals from burning out to fired up!

These dedicated professionals make a difference in others’ lives every day. They often are affected by  challenging life experiences similar to those facing the people they serve.

Their own personal histories and their close, empathic contact with their participants, who are often dealing with seriously disruptive life events, can contribute to their risk of burning out.

Other factors can contribute to their risk of burnout:

  • Like all of us, they live and work in a culture that admires busyness as a sign of importance and status. We internalize those messages and lose track of the need for time to reflect, rest and renew that is required if we are to keep on giving.
  • Like many of us, they have absorbed cultural messages about achieving, being productive, and avoiding idle time, to the point that it’s hard to treat themselves with the kindness and compassion they offer to others.
  • Often, their organizations are understaffed, underfunded and overburdened, leading to an overly stressed state of “bad busyness.” (see below).

Staying in the Good Busy Zone

This past week I gathered with a packed-to-capacity roomful of child abuse prevention professionals at South Carolina’s Children’s Trust Prevention Conference. Our topic? “Let’s Get UnBusy!”

We made the most of our time together, noting the cultural messages and workplace and personal factors that are sources of the “bad busyness“ that they struggle with.

We compared the “bad busy zone,” where you’re either underutilized or you’re severely over-stressed, to the “good busy zone,” where you experience the just-right amount of challenge. You have the resources and support you need to function well and you’re feeling motivated, purposeful and connected.

We spent the rest of our time focused on strategies to help us spend more of our time in the good busy zone.

We tried out a number of strategies for staying in the good busy zone. These included:

  1. Using your “Heart Magnet” to discern how to set limits on accepting new assignments and other requests for your time;
  2. Counteracting the voice of your “inner critic” that tells you you’re not allowed to have downtime by listening to the voice of your “Inner Encourager”;
  3. Comparing how you actually use your time to how you would ideally like to use your time;
  4. Identifying a practical and do-able step to create a shift toward that ideal time use;
  5. Creating a “Ta-Da” list that identifies a manageable number of priorities and important items, and at least one that is something you want to do.

Just being able to talk to  and exchange ideas with others who understand how it feels when you spend too much time in the “bad busy zone” brings a certain relief!

By the workshop’s end, participants said they’d gotten ideas and strategies to help them better manage their time, and that enhanced their capacity to stay in the “good busy zone.”

That was great to hear. Workshops like this one can help nonprofit leaders and staff members find self-compassionate ways to promote their own well-being, especially when they’re followed up with action steps that individuals and organizations can take.

What Nonprofit Leaders Can Do

Creating organizational cultures that reduce the likelihood of burnout and it’s emotional, physical and financial toll isn’t a job for individual staff members alone. It’s a goal that calls for nonprofit leaders and staff members to join together.

One productive step that nonprofits can take is to assure that staff have access to structured learning opportunities about making changes that can help them spend more time in the good busy zone.

Another is to have supervisors check in with staff regularly to see if they need any support or resources to get into the good busy zone.

But individual efforts alone are not enough. The forces of “bad busyness” can affect an entire organization and it’s senior leadership, moving through the network of workplace relationships to affect staff members ability to stay out of the “bad busy zone.”

To counteract this, nonprofit leaders can commit to collaborate with staff in finding ways to  reduce the stresses that promote “bad busy” and burnout. The best way I know of doing that is to take steps toward becoming a more relationship-based workplace.

A relationship-based workplace purposefully creates and strengthens effective work relationships that support leaders and staff in successfully carrying out the organization’s mission and reaching it’s goals. The principles that guide relationship-based work provide a useful framework for strengthening organizational capacity to help all involved spend more time in the good busy zone.

Interested in learning more? I’d love to hear from you! Contact me to find out more.


Volk, K.T., Guarino, K.. Edson Grandin, M., & Cervil, R. (2008). What about you? A workbook for those who work with others. The National Center on Family Homelessness.


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