Mental Health & Burnout in the Nonprofit Space

Are you tired, stressed-out, feeling a sense of dread at the thought of going back to the office on Monday? You’re not alone. Throughout countless conversations with colleagues at every level of their respective organizations, the topic almost always turns to the fact that people are tired, and many are thinking of moving to another job or leaving the field altogether. COVID, and all that came with it, pushed a huge number of people over the precipice; and the entire country is facing what’s now been dubbed as “The Great Resignation.” The nonprofit sector is no exception.

Frankly, working in the nonprofit space is not for the faint of heart. We go into it hoping to improve the lives of those we care about and the missions we hope to serve. With our rose-colored glasses firmly affixed, we jump in with all the enthusiasm in the world, just knowing we were meant to make a difference and we’re going to see it happen. But then reality hits…

We become the boots on the ground and see the immense need. The rose tint of our glasses starts to fade to clear, and we see it’s big. And it can feel daunting, if not impossible, to be able to truly affect the change we hope to see. Our compassion and commitment often don’t seem to measure up, which can feel minimizing and dejecting. Our workloads are huge and often staffing and resources are scarce. Funding such work demands newer and increasingly creative efforts and the space is already so full. And let’s be honest, the pay and/or benefits aren’t usually all that great, which brings about its own kind of stress. It all can leave you feeling like, “How can I possibly keep up, paddling up this torrent of rushing water I’m in?”

Enter burnout

Again, you’re not alone. There is evidence to suggest that human/social service sector workers are at greater risk of stress and burnout due to the emotive nature of service work. In comparing 26 different occupations, nonprofit work was one among the six professions with the worst experiences of physical health, psychological well-being, and job satisfaction. Nearly half of the workforce state they are consistently exhausted because of their job.

And why is that? Well, most of us wear all kinds of “hats” at our job and it seems everything is a priority. Your outbox will never ever be as full as your inbox, and that inbox needs a *lot* of attention. It can be overwhelming and lead to burnout. So, here’s what you can do to change that:

  • Get yourself as organized as possible. Make your daily planner your trusted companion.
  • Speak to your colleagues and leadership about what takes priority as often as needed and rank them, accordingly, tackling the highest needs first.
  • Schedule breaks, pencil in a date with yourself, set times when you are definitively “off the clock” and stick to them. You need a break sometimes!
  • And set your boundaries on what you can and can’t do. Be transparent and firm about them.

Next: “Find your people!”

In other words, establish cohorts and social supports who can relate to what you’re going through and offer a sounding board for your concerns and stresses. Connect with a mentor. Join online forums. Do whatever it takes for you to feel heard and seen by someone who knows what it’s like.

For leadership:

Firstly, we need to recognize that the boss is an employee too and is facing all the same things their staff do, but with even more at stake oftentimes. They’re answering to the board, to their staff, and to the public and we need to be as empathetic to that as we are our other colleagues.

That said, leadership, as we know, can make or break an organization. So, what can leaders do to help their staff?

It’s all about meeting the employee where they’re at. Employers would do well to be more liberal with granting flexible work schedules, creating a positive work culture, and recognizing that work is not a one-size-fits-all model anymore. And perhaps most importantly, employers should make wellness a priority and recognize that work doesn’t necessarily come first.

Next, we can’t not talk about pay and advancement. Yes, we do this work because it’s meaningful and typically it aligns with our values, but sadly, values don’t pay the bills. And this often means leaving the job for greener pastures. In fact, according to the Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, when asked about their greatest staff retention challenges, the top two issues cited were “inability to pay competitively” (27%) and “inability to promote” (20%).

The same can be said for benefits such as healthcare. Offering an affordable health insurance is one of the largest determinants of whether a qualified employee chooses you over the next organization. In 2016, an American workforce report published by Aflac revealed that 60% of employees said they would accept a job offer with lower salary but better employee benefits. Additionally, 16% of those surveyed said they had resigned from a job or refused a job offer because of unsatisfactory employee benefits. It’s just that important.

And be open! All employees want others to hear and appreciate their opinions, and they can become frustrated if their supervisors are not open to their input. Give them the space to do so. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Now, more than ever, it’s time for us to take a step back and re-evaluate what is and isn’t working and adjust accordingly, both individually and as organizational leaders. Because WE MATTER, our work matters, deeply. And we need to make sure we’re doing what it takes to stay above water. It’s possible, and important! So, take the time needed to assess these things and move forward with growth and flexibility in mind. You can do this!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling with how to shift some of this heavy lifting, please reach out. From supplementing day-to-day staff tasks such as grant writing, project management, and creating marketing materials, to strategic planning, fundraising strategies and software, we are here to help however you need. Visit www.innovnp.com to learn more.

Guest Blog by Jodi Litz of Innovative Nonprofit

Innovative NonProfit is a full-service agency focused on helping nonprofits thrive by providing software, consulting, and hands-on support.  We are uniquely equipped to be your partner in fundraising, organizational structure and strategy, and accountability to help you focus your fundraising, plan for growth, and deliver your mission.

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