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Recognizing Non-profit Burnout – and Taking Steps to Achieve Balance

Lori Halley 09 September 2013 2 comments

The summer’s over and we’re all “back at it”. You may have had summer holidays and feel re-charged and ready to tackle the upcoming fall and winter seasons. But for many non-profit staff facing a mountain of work and few resources, or volunteers trying to balance a full-time job and a hefty volunteer workload, burnout can seep back in pretty fast if you continue to set unrealistic expectations. Perhaps now is an ideal time to take steps to find some balance before burnout sets in.

What’s the difference between just being busy and reaching the “burnout” stage?

In a guest post on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog, Tara Collins notes:

“Motivated by passion, you push and push, give and give, until you’re spent. But what good are you to your cause if you’ve lost the drive and motivation for your work?”

Here are just a few of the clues that Collins offers that might indicate work burnout:

  • You find yourself putting out fires every day.
  • You bring home work each night (and you never get to it).
  • You bring home work in a bag (no longer a briefcase because it doesn’t fit). In extreme cases, you bring home multiple bags, dedicated by project content.
  • Your kids are Skyping just so they can see you before bedtime.
  • You think your desk is wood, but you’re not sure any more.

Strategies for finding balance

So if you think you're headed for job or volunteer burnout, here are some ideas to help you tamp down the flames before you fully ignite:

Focus on "energy management":

In a post on Forbes , Anthony Wing Kosner suggests it’s about more than time management, you should think in terms of “energy management”. He notes that:

 “our minds, the thinking goes, only have so much capacity for any one type of activity, so we have to build that limitation into our daily routines if we want to work effectively."

“To re-frame your routine," one of the suggestions Kosner offers is to avoid starting the day by checking your email. Instead, he (and 20 experts) suggests you “start with your hardest work of the day and defer the distractions of email for later.”

Live in the moment - focus fully on the task at hand:

If you are trying to juggle a full-time job and volunteer responsibilities, it can be easy to get side-tracked trying to respond to volunteer-related emails in the middle of your work day. But if you try to set priorities and block out specific time to check emails and return calls, you may find you are more productive and focused on the task at hand. I know from experience that stress can really mount when you obsess about the ever-building “to do list” instead of chipping away at it one task at a time.

Build energy renewal into your schedule:

In his post, Kosner also suggests, we need to “build renewal of our energy into our work day”“unstructured time for [our] mind to both recharge and also absorb what just happened.” He also quotes James Victore who notes: 

“we are losing the distinction between urgent and important—now everything gets heaped in the urgent pile.” 

There’s no question that whether you are a staff person at a small association or non-profit, or a part-time volunteer with a day job, there will always be more work than time. But if you consistently expect your mind and body to cope with a constant state of urgent response, you’ll soon flame out.  Your body’s stress response is like revving your engine to 100 mph for long periods of time while stationary – you won’t get anywhere, but you’ll burn out the engine.

Do you need to "wave your white flag"?

If you’re stressing out even before the season starts, as Tara Collins suggests you might want to “wave your White Flag and surrender” or at least make some serious changes to your commitments and daily routines.

Start fresh this fall

So as the fall season (of event planning, year-end fundraising, membership renewal campaigns and a multitude of other projects) gets underway, try to focus on “energy management” to ensure you find some balance.

I’m not going to patronize you by suggesting this will be easy. But perhaps this fall can offer a fresh start.  If you think about it now, before you get swamped, you can take small steps to prioritize and focus on what is truly important.

More thoughts on juggling priorities and burnout:

Here are a couple of additional posts with ideas for juggling priorities and avoiding burnout:

What strategies can you offer your association or non-profit peers for avoiding burnout?  Please offer your tips in the comments below.

Image source:  Burnout Matches, courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 09 September 2013 at 8:30 AM


  • Julie Tonroy said:

    Monday, 09 September 2013 at 5:58 PM
    Yes, it's certainly critical to have time to refresh and reset so that you can see what is going on from the 30,000 foot level--instead of always the ground putting out fires. Strategy retreats are important for this reason. I believe it's key for orgs to embrace and promote live/work balance among staff and in the larger community.
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Tuesday, 10 September 2013 at 10:03 AM
    Julie: Thanks, I agree that live-work balance needs to be built into the organization's culture.
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