When our work involves helping others who face major life struggles, we’re often strongly impacted by those difficulties. This happens through the trusting, responsive connections we form with those we serve.
Those relationship are are the key to our effectiveness. They also can expose us to a painful level of empathy with others’ distress, which over time can lead to the exhaustion, cynicism, and sense of distance or disconnection from the work that are hallmarks of burnout.
We feel the compelling nature of others’ needs. We are deeply motivated to serve and to help.This passion can lead us to take on every request for our time, routinely put in long hours and forgo time off.
As we work ever harder, the mountain of urgent priorities continues to grow. We come to feel ineffective, like we’re trying but failing to make a difference. There may struggles in our own lives to contend with as well, and these take a toll on us too.
Given the nature of service-centered work, what can we and our organizations do to maintain satisfaction and effectiveness?
Here are a few ideas:
7 Great Burnout-Prevention Strategies for Staff and Nonprofits
Are you feeling too busy to take care of yourself? Does your nonprofit has too many pressing issues to take up the challenge of creating a culture that reduces the risk of burnout? I suggest that these are the very mindsets that keep us reacting to the pressure of the moment while ignoring the real costs of staff burnout.
To reduce burnout and increase compassion satisfaction requires that we prioritize our own self-care and that our organizations not only encourage us to do this, but also value support for staff and demonstrate those values in their practices.
Here are seven ways to do that:
1. Block off at least 30 minutes between meetings, or an hour after several back-to-back meetings.
2. Schedule self-care time. Enter time for self-care in your calendar, and protect that time as you would protect the time for an important meeting.
3. Make use of the time that’s available. Janice takes 15 minutes to close her door, allowing her body to relax as she breathes slowly and deeply. Sam slows down for a minute to take three deep, slow breaths before logging in to lead his webinar. Wendy arrives at work a half hour early, so she can free-write, clearing her mind and preparing for her day.
4. Plan a long weekend at least once every quarter, and use annual leave. Schedule time off it in advance and protect that time as a commitment to self. Team members can cooperate to assure there is enough coverage on site when others are taking time off.
5. Remove some things from your to-do list. List the things you do in a typical day or week. Go through the list to see what you could eliminate, spend less time on, or ask someone else to do.
- Joanne did this and decided to hire a yard service to free her up from some of the home maintenance chores.
- Karen enlisted her family to take on some of the chores she’d been handling, explaining that she needed their support so she could spend some time on her creative projects.
- Jim delegated some of the tasks he’d held onto after his promotion to a larger leadership role. “I realized that it was actually unfair not to delegate,” he explained. “I had become a bottleneck, because I really couldn’t get everything done. My staff members weren’t getting the opportunity to grow, because I wrongly thought I was protecting by not delegating. Instead, I was keeping them from taking on a chance to grow professionally.” It took some time to re-balance everyone’s work load. He and his team ultimately saw the need to create a new position. Jim successfully presented the case for doing this to the agency’s senior management team.
6. Make self-care as a topic on your team meeting agenda. Sandra puts self-care on her team meetings’ agendas.The team talks about self-care strategies and organizational policies and practices that contribute to — or help prevent — burnout. Team members brainstorm ideas for positive change at the individual and organizational levels.She carries the organizational ideas to leadership team meetings. Agency leaders learn what staff see as working well, and where they perceive there to be problems. Leaders commit to practical steps for improving burnout prevention practices and policies. As an example, the leadership team decided to collaborate with staff in reviewing caseloads and general job expectations to determine if these should be adjusted.
7. Build trusting workplace relationships. Provide reflective supervision, and adopt the principles of relation-based practice as a philosophical and practical basis for strengthening workplace relationships. When staff members experience such relationships, they will create them with colleagues and with those that they serve. These relationships are the medium through which effective work gets done. Positive connections with others support personal and professional growth, promote resilience and help prevent burnout.
Take a Long-Term Perspective
Burnout may seem inevitable, but I believe it can be prevented. When we take a long-term perspective, establishing practices that encourage regular self-care, and providing all staff with needed support, encouragement, and resources we preserve the ability to keep doing what matters most. In the process we strengthen our own and our organization’s capacity to continue building a better world.