*This post was originally published in June 2016. We’re reposting it now because TIME OUT is coming back on September 27th, 2017! The purpose of the event remains the same – for leaders of social change to reflect, learn and connect. Join us for a TIME OUT, not because you’re bad. Because you’re being TOO good!

A few years ago I decided to take a break from being a nonprofit Executive Director. In fact, I swore I would never be an ED again (please note current role – ED!). I had experienced some difficulties with Boards of Directors and after 12 years of leading a range of different types and sized organizations at local and national level, I was done.  I was exhausted, fed up and not feeling the buzz I used to get from making things happen to help create a better world.

So I decided to run my own business. I thought life would be better outside the nonprofit sector. It wasn’t. Apparently, according to a quite famous quote ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ The problem wasn’t the sector. It was me. Sure I enjoyed running my business as a story coach and consultant. I really enjoyed meeting new people in other sectors and learning new things about leadership and organizational development. But my ‘job’ was really no different. In fact, I found myself ensconced in admin, a part of my work as an ED that was ‘not my favourite’ as my son says when he sees broccoli coming his way. I don’t mind the occasional dip into paperwork and I positively geek out when it comes to budget setting. But it isn’t what I would choose to do everyday.

So the grass wasn’t greener on the for profit side necessarily. And I still felt tired and distracted. What I didn’t realize was that I was fully burnt out. It wasn’t just my work as an ED that had caused it. Life got in the way too. But it was in my work that I most noticed it. Work I had previously loved had become a chore. I had never really looked for gratitude from the people I worked with but I was feeling wholly unappreciated. And truthfully, a little bit sorry for myself (okay, a lot!). I was also REALLY angry. At my previous Board. At the sector. At myself.

Finally, I decided to face the burnout. I took a closer look at what it was and realized that I was a poster child for the condition. All the signs and symptoms were there just waiting for me to me to pay attention.

According to Psychology Today,

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

(Found at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them)

In our recent ED survey, PLC found that 92% of EDs are experiencing some level of burnout. 90% are feeling some degree of isolation. That’s also a sign of burnout. We tend to isolate ourselves when we are feeling the above symptoms. These numbers are not surprising but they are worrying. We are in the business of making other people’s lives better and we can’t do that if we are not functioning effectively as leaders or organizations. It has to start with us.

So, here at PLC we decided to offer a ‘TIME OUT” for senior leaders in the sector. A day of doing all the things that counteract burnout: connecting with others, learning something new, re-discovering our passion and self care. We know it’s just a day but we hope it’s the start of something bigger. That leaders in the sector will get better at taking the time to prioritize themselves and their own needs sometimes and model it for their staff.

We can’t do good if we don’t feel good.

I have done the work myself in adjusting my approach to life and my job. I am back at school doing my Master’s in Education – thereby feeding my own growth and development. I have embraced the idea of work/life integration. If I want to pick up my son from school and work later in the evening I do that. I follow my own compass and actively take time out to relax and rest. It’s still a learning curve as I give myself more time and discover that I don’t really know what my outside interests are anymore. Work has taken up so much of my life that I don’t really have any hobbies. So for now, reading non work related books and taking walks are my downtime activities. I’m getting better at this relaxing thing though. The other day, I sat on my deck in the sunshine doing exactly nothing for about 20 minutes. Try it! You will like it. I promise….

Here are some of my other tips for reducing stress and the potential for burnout:

Touch things only once. I heard this from a productivity expert once and it really works. Deal with whatever it is when you come across it so that you haven’t got a whole bunch of thing piling up that cause you anxiety.

Make a decision and make it the right one. We are not going to get to perfect so sometimes we just have to decide and get on with whatever comes from it.

Take regular breaks. When everyone smoked we were better at this. We would either go for a smoke ourselves or join others as we knew that’s where the best conversations happened! Schedule a break from your desk and your environment at least twice a day.

Take naps. Seriously, if you are feeling fatigued, a 20 minute power nap will revive you. Arianna Huffington, the owner and editor of Huffington Post has started a whole movement in the corporate sector about sleeping more and napping. And you know we are always being told to act more like business in the nonprofit sector! They are napping and so should we.

Work at home more. As leaders, thinking time is crucial and we just don’t get it when we are surrounded by people who need us. If we are constantly in reactive mode due to not taking time for strategic thinking, we are not doing our job. Plus, working at home once or twice a week may actually increase your productivity thereby leaving you feeling more responsive when you are back in the office! And yes, your team can function without you for a little while each week…

Say no. This is hard to do. Especially when there is so much to do. But you can’t save the world today. Or even next week. The work we are doing is long haul and saying yes to everything that is coming your way won’t help you preserve your energy. Social change is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves.

Have more fun. I know. We are dealing with hard stuff. Many of us are dealing with the hardest stuff that life has to offer. But we still need to laugh and feel light. In fact, the more hardcore your work is, the more important this is. Schedule team fun days. Develop a lighter attitude to the work. It’s crucial to model this for your staff as they watch you for cues on how to be at work. If you are finding the fun, they will too. And they will be better workers for it.

If you are a leader in Peel or anywhere in Ontario I hope you will take the time for a TIME OUT with us in September. You don’t have to be an ED. Senior Managers are most welcome as are those working in the public sector.

Are you thinking that you are too busy? This event is for YOU!

Join us and take a TIME OUT

Until next time!


This week’s blog was written by Lianne Picot. Lianne is the Executive Director of Peel Leadership Centre, an organization growing leadership and organizational capacity in the non-profit sector. Lianne is passionate about great leadership, storytelling and creating opportunities for transformational learning. Connect with Lianne at lpicot@peelleadershipcentre.org.

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