Your alarm clock goes off at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m.  You grope around in the dark, searching for the off button, while rubbing the sleep out of your eyes with your free hand.

In the still of the night, you turn on your laptop and start replying to the flood of emails you didn’t get a chance to respond to the day before. Your eyes are burning with fatigue from working until 1 a.m. for weeks, but this is your only chance to get things done in peace and quiet before your kids wake up. 

The morning passes quickly, and before you know it, you’re scrambling to get the kids showered and fed, while stuffing some leftover pizza in your mouth in the process. 

Another day has begun and you’re beyond exhausted. Most importantly, you’re beginning to lose some of the spark and passion you had when you first started as an Executive Director. 

Does this situation sound familiar? For some EDs, it’s sadly become their norm.

This is classic burnout. By definition, burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands of your life.

Burnout can happen to everyone, “but there are many reasons why people who work for nonprofits struggle with burnout and often experience something extreme before they change their behaviour,” says Beth Kanter, author of ‘The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit.’  When you are at the stage of burnout, the passion that once drove you to your calling can be wiped out. You’re too tired to care about the cause at hand and can barely remember why you started in the first place. You’re strictly in survival mode. 

Why does this happen?

As we have seen, EDs are known for being passionate about their jobs. After all, it’s their devotion to their organization’s mission and commitment to the cause that makes nonprofit work a part of their identities. 

However, this absorption and intense commitment can stand in the way of practising self-care. Directors often wind up spending more time away from their core personal purpose (doing good) and that results in a conflict of meaning, which can be draining.

The way nonprofit professionals work or overwork can cause stress, but stress can also manifest in an organization due to the nature of the work itself.  If left untreated, these stressors can result in what is referred to as compassion fatigue. SaraKay Smullens, author of ‘Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work,’ describes compassion fatigue as “the overall experience of emotional and physical fatigue that social professionals experience due to chronic use of empathy when working with clients who are suffering in some way.” 

Now, compound stressful work with bad habits such as sleep deprivation, lack of proper nutrition, inability to set boundaries and stress in your home life, and it’s a recipe for physical, mental and emotional.

According to author Beth Kanter, there are many ways to work badly, and almost all of these can be avoided. Laying out specific ground rules for how and when to work and how and when not to work is a start to managing your organization’s workflows. Constant interruption from emails, phone calls, texts, meetings, and office drop-ins, for example, can be highly disruptive in a given day and can impact focus.

Doing things that align with your mission, however, are energizing. The long hours (60 to 80 per week, in some cases) are not necessarily what causes burnout, but rather the activities, which feel draining instead of purposeful. Evaluations, fundraising, selling, positioning, appealing to grantors and continually quantifying impact is important work, but rarely the core personal mission of an ED. Burnout CAN result when there is too much emphasis on these activities and not enough on the more rewarding aspects of the job. Identifying this and accepting it can be a start. But the reality is, the work has to be done.

What can be done to avoid burnout in the nonprofit workplace?

There are many habits you can develop with practice to incorporate into your daily activities that will benefit the entire team and have proven to boost productivity. Here are a few: 

  1. Block off specific chunks of time to focus on projects, such as report writing and planning and ensure that answering emails be done at certain times of the day only. “Chunking” feels good because your task has a beginning and an end. 
  2. Identify times in the day when you and your team members are the most productive and capitalize on it. Studies show that we can only work for 90 minutes at a time before we lose focus. 
  3. Play at work. That doesn’t mean foosball tables are now mandatory, but social play even with adults, helps increase motivation and efficiency in the long run. It could be something as simple as kicking the ball around, colouring in an adult colouring book, or playing a quick game of cards with a team member. There’s a reason all the top developer companies have play areas for those working long hours! 
  4. Take your breaks. How many of you have spent lunch breaks sitting at your computer, with your laptop as your lunch tray? Physically get up from your desk and go for a walk, stretch your legs and enjoy some time away from your work at hand. 
  5. If a half hour or an hour is too much time to spare all at once, encourage employees to take mini breaks throughout the day. For example, all staff breaks at 3 p.m. and participates in a short team-workout activity. 
  6. Lead by example. If you’re constantly leaving work late, working on weekends and sending out texts at 10 p.m. to  your employees, they may come to believe they have to do the same in order to succeed. In actual fact, the opposite is true. 
  7. Take time to unplug. As much as technology has been a blessing, it’s also created an environment in which we are always “on call.” In the span of the last 50 years, we are working more and more. Take time in the evening to unplug. 
  8. Along these same lines, keep your smartphone out of the bedroom so you aren’t tempted to check it during the night. And that goes for your laptop, too. Being able to unplug and disconnect can lead to improved relationships with others, as well as reduce stress. Smartphones, contrary to common behaviour, are not body appendages. 

Burnout is not inevitable. In fact, just recognizing that you are in danger of it and envisioning a picture of what life will be like without burnout can bring a sense of optimism. Speaking to other EDs and asking them what has helped them can be very beneficial; we all need a sounding board on a regular basis. If there are opportunities to connect with other EDs as part of your professional activities, do. Take advantage of workshops and conferences where you will be with both new and experienced leaders, so you can make it a priority. You may be able to dramatically reduce the amount of work you do with the right spark of an idea shared by a peer.


Self-care tips from PLC’s Vanita Varma

We spoke with Chief Executive Officer Vanita Varma, from Peel Leadership Centre, about some of the things she does to relax and stay on top of work-life balance. Here’s what she had to say:

What’s your favourite way to relax?

Reading a book with classical music in the background and of course with a big cup of tea…..and let the world roll by!

Wonderful! What are you reading these days? 

 ‘Dare to Lead’ by Brene Brown. Excellent reading for leaders on how to lean into courage and vulnerability and to lead with care and connection. We need brave leaders who show up with whole hearts and are willing to have tough conversations. As Brene Brown notes, “The greatest barrier to courageous leadership is not fear—it’s how we respond to our fear. Our armour—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability—move us out of alignment with our values, corrode trust with our colleagues and teams, and prevent us from being our most courageous selves.” 

What’s your hidden talent, that can also help you relax and destress?

Not many people know that I can knit quite well and I learned that skill from my mother.

What tips can you share to balance work and family life?

  • As a leader, look at integrating work and life as a ‘flow,’ rather than trying to balance them separately. At times, the work will need extensive physical, mental and emotional energy and other times, the family priorities will take over and it helps to accept work-life as an integrated flow vs. carrying the weight of two different demands that have to be balanced all the time.
  • Remember to pause often and breathe consciously and mindfully. Nothing remains constant, be it a good or not-so-good situation and ‘this too shall pass.’
  • Keep the perspective that work is just one part of our lives and that there’s more to living and thriving in other roles that we play as a friend, volunteer or being a part of a family.
  • Ask for help – seeking help when feeling overwhelmed is a strength and not a weakness. 

By the PLC Team 

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