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Combating Compassion Fatigue — Finding Balance in the Nonprofit Workplace

| Updated September 18, 2018

How to facilitate work/life balance among your staff

An unwavering commitment to a cause is a common trait of many people who work for nonprofits. So is a desire to do the job well, especially when outcomes directly benefit those in need. But when all that zeal meets an unrelenting stream of job challenges — limited resources, labor-intensive processes and difficult projects, to name a few — it often leads to burnout, also known as nonprofit compassion fatigue.

Signs include exhaustion, irritability, joylessness, reduced productivity and absenteeism. Over time, this not only undermines health and relationships, it can have a significant impact on employee retention and your nonprofit's ability to deliver on its goals.

Warding off this level of professional fatigue requires a strategy — one that promotes a healthy work culture and sustainable high performance. And there's no better place to start than at the top.

What you do matters more than what you say

Nonprofit leaders have a tough job. Not only are you driving social change, you're doing so in the face of increasing demands, diminishing resources and daunting organizational objectives — all of which set the stage for burnout.

To reverse this pattern, establish ways of working that are sustainable over the long term. Better yet, make those habits stick. Leaders who walk the walk have an even greater positive effect on employee engagement, stress levels, retention and job satisfaction.

On a practical level, that means taking steps like the following:

  • Be honest with board members and staff about limits — and then respect those limits
  • Delegate responsibilities when it makes sense
  • Don't micromanage
  • Create an environment of appreciation by extending thanks
  • Communicate clearly with staff and encourage feedback by providing feedback
  • Take regular breaks throughout the day

Set realistic boundaries and expectations for employees

Occasionally, everyone must work evenings or weekends to get the job done. But when this becomes the norm, it can quickly lead to burnout. You can address this in a number of ways:

  • Establish and enforce reasonable work hours
  • Prioritize work to clarify the projects that can — and can't — wait
  • Hire more staff or recruit additional volunteer support if getting work done requires continuous overtime
  • Encourage people to take lunch breaks rather than eating at their desks

Discourage being "on" all day, every day

One of the downsides of technology is that it opens the door to around-the-clock communication and a sense of urgency regarding every contact. But that takes a considerable toll. So much so, in fact, that in 2016 French lawmakers implemented a "right to disconnect" measure requiring organizations of 50 or more to ban emailing employees after work hours. The amendment came about because studies show that it's increasingly difficult for people to distance themselves from work during off hours, which in turn undermines rest and relaxation.

In other words, ditching the devices is a good thing. Everyone needs regular breaks to refresh themselves and perform optimally at work. So don't be afraid to follow France's example — establish strong boundaries regarding after-hours email and other job-related communications.

Start the day with the hardest work, not email

A 2012 report from McKinsey estimated that the average knowledge worker spends 28 percent of the workday on email. People do this not only because they want to respond in a timely manner, but also because reacting is easier than being proactive. Problem is, spending almost one-third of the day on email eats away at energy that's far better spent doing actual work.

In "Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind," the clear and consistent advice from the 20 experts who contributed essays was this — don't start the day with email. Instead, encourage employees to do the hardest work first to ensure that it gets their best, most focused energy. Save email, texts and calls for later.

Make it easy for employees to take care of themselves

Access to employee assistance, health insurance and workplace wellness programs can go a long way toward encouraging staff to take care of themselves and reduce stress. If your organization doesn't offer these benefits, do your best to establish a culture that reduces stressors — including taking time off.

Americans are notorious for not using their full allocation of yearly vacation and sick time. According to the travel website Skift, almost 42 percent of Americans didn't take any vacation days in 2014. And in a recent release of the OECD Better Life Index, the U.S. ranked 28th among advanced nations in work/life balance — just nine spots from the bottom. The U.K. was ranked only four places higher, and a 2014 survey found that one in three people across the U.K. struggles to cope at work because of depression, stress or burnout.

To facilitate work/life balance:

  • Encourage everyone in your organization to take the maximum amount of vacation allowed
  • Hold all-staff meetings to discuss workload and job challenges
  • Gather input via anonymous surveys if staff members are reluctant to speak up
  • Rotate staff to give employees working on challenging projects a break
  • Provide time-management training to offset unproductive work habits
  • Offer flexible hours or remote working options to offset stress and help employees feel more control

Finally, remember that delivering on your organization's mission takes time. Consider your goals as a marathon, not a sprint — then pace yourself and your employees accordingly.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

References

Social Velocity: Preventing social change burnout

Third Sector Today: 10 tricks to avoid nonprofit burnout by Yvonne Hudson (2015)

CharityVillage: Burnout: Signs and strategies for every nonprofit professional by Jodie Shupac (2011)

Wild Apricot: Recognizing non-profit burnout and taking steps to achieve balance

The NonProfit Times: Why smart employers care about work/life balance (2015)

Joan Garry Consulting: My biggest professional mistake by Joan Garry

Harvard Business Review: Your boss's work-life balance matters as much as your own by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath (2014)

Poynter: 10 tips for preventing staff burnout in spite of more work, fewer resources by Jill Geisler (2012)

Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates: Preventing executive burnout by David Lassiter

The Muse: How to avoid burnout when you're saving the world by Rebecca Andruszka

AlterNet: Being progressive shouldn't be hazardous to your health: Here's how to avoid our culture of overwork by Michael Bader (2012)

Forbes: Experts agree, don't start the day by answering your email by Anthony Wing Kosner (2013)

Boston Globe: Why are Americans so afraid of vacation? by Christopher Muther (2016)

OECD: Work-life balance

The Huffington Post: Way too many Americans took zero vacation days in 2014 by Leigh Weingus (2016)

Independent: 'Depression and burn-out' at work afflict one-third of employees by Charlie Cooper (2014)

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Seasoned writer covering a spectrum of industries, including nonprofit, financial services, health care, insurance and technology