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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Avoid Burnout When You’re Saving the World

Everyone has to deal with burnout at some point. Between long hours, demanding clients, and a never-ending pile of work, eventually, it can all become too much to handle. And in this economy, there’s no reprieve: Workers are more likely than ever to skip their vacations, fearing that if their bosses find out they can live without them for two weeks, they might be able to survive without them, period.

But if you’re a nonprofit employee, the burden is slightly different. In addition to an intimidating pile of work on your desk, you face a steady stream of people whose lives often depend on you and your organization’s assistance. And in my experience, that can cause an entirely new kind of burnout.

So, to stay at the top of your game in the nonprofit sector, you’ll need a new strategy to fight that feeling of professional fatigue. To help you get through it, here are two of the most common causes of nonprofit burnout and a few ways that you can overcome them.

Burnout Cause #1: The Grind Never Stops

Many industries have an ebb and flow. Accounting firms, for example, are busiest in the winter and early spring—creating some downtime in the summer. Employees are able to relax a bit, take their days a little slower, and maybe even use some precious PTO.

But there’s no such downtime when it comes to serving the needy and fundraising to keep a nonprofit organization running—this never-ending demand means constant deadlines and a steady stream of emergencies. (A chicken pox outbreak in your summer camp program, the dropout of an essential funder, or even something as common as a broken printer can have big consequences when you’re up against a deadline and don’t have the cash to consider alternatives.) As a result, I’ve seen many of my nonprofit friends experience a severe case of burnout.

How to Deal

1. Schedule Time Off

Spectra, a writer and activist, recommends what she calls “rest stops” every six weeks. “The truth is, I’m a workaholic,” she writes. “If I don’t plan or schedule my self-care ahead of time, it’ll never happen; I’ll just keep going and going, until I crash.”

Take a look at your schedule and see if you can plan similar rest stops, even if it’s not a whole day off. If you know your deadlines and dates of big events ahead of time, plan breaks around them. Big report due on Thursday? Take off early on Friday. If the last week of every month is packed with committee meetings, schedule a half-day off the following week to recover.

2. Prioritize

In many nonprofits, employees are encouraged to treat everyone and everything equally, including every task (urgent or not) on their to-do lists. And so, you likely have dozens of lukewarm funding prospects, non-essential program tweaks, or filing projects vying for your time and attention.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Not everything needs to be done immediately—or even at all. Proofreading programs for the fundraising gala? That can easily be moved off your plate and onto an intern’s to-do list. Organizing research for a new report that could change government policy? Now that’s a worthwhile use for your time. Focus on what’s really important, and you’ll find that you accomplish much more—and feel better about how you're spending your time.

3. Take Some Time to Think

It’s also helpful to put some time on your calendar for deadline-free work. Whether you spend the time brainstorming, big-picture thinking, or reading about your field, you’ll feel better having a chunk of time each week when you’re not running around the office like a madperson. For example, I take an afternoon every month to shut off my computer and dive into a pile of (offline!) industry news. This not only allows me to relax a little, but it also helps me to stay on top of new developments in the nonprofit world.

Burnout Cause #2: Other People’s Lives Are on the Line

You probably got into nonprofit work because, on some level, you wanted to help others. Whether you’re working with people directly or you’re part of the “overhead” (i.e., an administrative or fundraising position), your job affects all the people your organization is helping.

That makes it hard not to feel guilty when you want—and need—to take a break. After all, who are you to prioritize yourself when so many people are depending on you?

That’s the trap that many of us fall into. Sometimes, it’s even reinforced by our bosses, colleagues, friends, and family. For example, a few years ago, I went on a business trip to my organization’s headquarters in South Africa. On my day off, I visited a gorgeous beach and posted a picture of it on Facebook. While any other corporately employed young professional might receive comments like “Glad you got to take a break and see the sights!” I was chided for taking a vacation instead of helping schoolchildren. Who wouldn’t get burnt out with those expectations and social pressure?

How to Deal

1. Find a Community

Remember that you’re not the only nonprofit employee trying to balance your needs with taking care of others. In fact, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to surround myself with people who can relate to my situation. Try scheduling dinner or a happy hour with your colleagues or finding an outside group of nonprofit workers on Meetup. Even spending a few minutes on a site like When You Work at a NonProfit can give you a giggle and make you feel less alone.

2. Create Redundancy So You Can Really Disconnect

Even when you do take a day off or a vacation, it's hard to fully disconnect when there's work to be done and people to be helped. But remember, time off isn't exactly off if you spend it checking work email.

To ensure work can be done even when you're not there to do it, start keeping your colleagues in the loop about all your projects—even training them to take over for you in a pinch. You may not have a pool of assistants or temps to pull from, but there's bound to be a volunteer or someone in another department who’s trying to break into your field and would love the opportunity to learn more.

Once you feel confident that you're not completely abandoning the people you're trying to help, you'll feel a lot less guilty about getting away.

3. Leverage Funding

If you notice that burnout is an organization-wide problem, consider talking to your donors about it. There are plenty of foundations that understand this problem and may be willing to kick in some cash for an employee wellness program—which could mean in-office doctor visits, an ergonomic analysis, or even group yoga. And as a bonus, employee wellness will likely become a priority—because if your organization has the funding for it, your boss will make sure that money doesn’t go to waste.

Finally, at the end of the day, remember that you are only one person. You alone cannot save the world. You have an important part to play, but it’s only one piece of the bigger picture.

So, you should feel OK about taking some time for yourself and doing whatever it takes to make you a happy, productive employee. When you do, you’ll be less likely to burn out—and that will help everyone in the long run.

Photo of burnt out employee courtesy of Shutterstock.