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Burnout plagues employees in every industry, but its prevalence in the nonprofit sector is alarming. While those who work in the social sector often have a high level of passion for their jobs, research shows that as many as half of all nonprofit employees are burned out or in danger of burnout.

The cost of burnout goes far beyond the affected individual—it also has a significant impact on the organization itself. Employees who suffer from burnout experience disengagement, decreased productivity and an inability to adapt, all of which prevent them from fully contributing at work. Due to physical and mental health problems, they are also likely to take more sick days. Whether these employees are physically absent or simply mentally checked out, they are not able to do their best work to advance the organization’s mission. Ultimately, burnout often results in turnover as overworked talent leaves for new opportunities they hope will provide better balance. And turnover has become a growing issue in the sector. According to our 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, nonprofit turnover has crept up from 16 percent to 19 percent over the past few years.

Within the nonprofit sector, burnout—and the associated consequence of turnover—appears to be most common among employees in direct services positions. Nearly a third of nonprofits report that employees with direct client contact are the most difficult to retain. While these employees are pouring all their efforts into caring for others, they often fail to prioritize their own care and in some cases feel unable to physically or mentally take time away from work.

But burnout stretches beyond direct service employees as well, affecting everyone from CEOs who are forced to wear too many hats to development directors who feel pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals. It’s evident at all levels and across all job functions: passion only goes so far without the necessary self-care and wellness practices to support it.

In order for the sector to survive and thrive, nonprofits and those who support them must do more to minimize employee burnout and maximize self-care. It is crucial to the health of our sector and its ability to drive change. But prioritizing self-care isn’t about simply checking a box by establishing a wellness program. It’s also about helping nonprofit employees erase their own stigmas and barriers around taking time for their needs. Here are four ways to get started:

Model self-care at the leadership level

A commitment to wellness and self-care begins with the culture an organization’s leaders create and the behaviors they model. If a CEO doesn’t practice self-care, employees are unlikely to prioritize it for themselves. They’ll simply believe overwork is the only way. And the culture of the organization will become one that fosters—or even glorifies—burnout.

Leaders need to prioritize self-care not just for their own good, but for the good of their organizations and their ability to attract and retain talent. The case for doing so is strong: self-care fosters greater employee engagement, and research shows that organizations with highly engaged employees receive 100 percent more job applications. Work units made up of engaged employees also experience 25 percent less turnover within high-turnover organizations and 65 percent less turnover within low-turnover organizations, in comparison to disengaged employee groups.

As a leader, practice modeling positive self-care behaviors by:

  • Delegating responsibility. Think of delegation as an opportunity to acknowledge the strengths of your team members and further develop their skills. Make it clear that your organization values employees who understand where their time is best spent by modeling delegation in your own work.
  • Avoiding positioning yourself as the savior of your organization. Your job is important and your work has an incredible impact—but you are only one person. Relieve yourself of the full responsibility for your organization’s success because it is a shared goal that all employees contribute to.
  • Empowering staff at all levels to be responsible for decision-making. As a leader, it’s easy to fall into the habit of reviewing, signing off and giving input on every project and program, but doing so creates unnecessary stress for you and stalls progress for employees. Give team members at all levels a chance to lead and make decisions so you can take some of the pressure off your shoulders. The added benefit? You’ll foster a culture of collaboration, innovation and empowerment when you distribute decision-making responsibilities to high-potential employees at all levels.
  • Communicating the need for better talent resources to your board and funders. Overworked employees are a symptom of inadequate talent investments. In order to attract and retain talent, you must have the necessary resources to invest in compensation, development and talent management. Advocate for the talent investments your organization needs to be successful, and your employees will take notice.

When nonprofit leaders fail to model self-care and exhibit symptoms of burnout in their own behavior, it causes a ripple effect that can show itself throughout all facets of an organization. The fallout can range from a failure to obtain renewed funding to an inability to deliver on goals and a negative reputation within the community. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to put self-care first because your own wellness is truly mission-critical.

Give explicit permission for self-care during work hours

At many organizations, there’s an unwritten rule that self-care happens exclusively after work hours. But according to Gallup, in 2015 and 2016, the average workweek inched up to 44 hours per week with 17 percent of employees working over 60 hours a week. Even when they leave the office, employees are still connected via technology and log an average of seven hours of after-hours remote work each week. Add lengthy commutes, household tasks and family responsibilities to that workload, and it’s clear that finding time for self-care outside of the workday is becoming increasingly challenging.

With the ever-increasing demands work and life place on our time, it’s now more crucial than ever for those in management roles to give employees explicit permission and opportunities to carve out time for themselves during the workday.

Managers and leaders can give that permission to team members through casual interactions and conversations. This can be as simple and straightforward as saying “I noticed you seem really stressed. Let’s go for a walk and talk about how your colleagues or I can help” or “You know, you haven’t taken any time off lately. Let’s talk about what I need to take over in order for you to have a four-day weekend.” While they may not seem like much, these simple acknowledgements can be the nudge many employees need to find time to prioritize wellness.

Offering more formal opportunities for self-care in the office, such as lunchtime chair massages or a weekly yoga class, can also set the tone for on-the-clock wellness across your organization. Paid time off to volunteer is another worthy option. With the permission—and more importantly, the participation—of those in management roles, staff members will feel comfortable taking a moment for themselves during work hours. While a midday break or occasional early end to the workday to make time for wellness activities may cause a small short-term dip in productivity, the benefit ultimately outweighs the cost.

If you’re ready to take permission for self-care to the next level, consider inviting employees who meet a certain set of criteria for tenure or performance to take a sabbatical. For-profit and nonprofit organizations alike are beginning to realize the value of allowing an employee to step away from work for an extended period of time in order to “reset” and gain a new perspective that they can then bring back to their job. For some organizations, a sabbatical program can be the ultimate expression of the priority placed on wellness and retention.

Offer resiliency training

Managing the demands of nonprofit work requires a high level of resilience. But what does resilience really mean? According to research from the University of Utah School of Medicine, resilient individuals have the ability to cope well with stress, crisis and adversity. They bounce back from setbacks, learn from their experiences and apply that knowledge moving forward.

Resilient employees work with a sense of confidence, purpose, humor and optimism. Resiliency comes more naturally to some nonprofit employees than others, but it is possible to learn to be resilient, as well. Resiliency training provides employees with tools and strategies to manage stressful situations so they can continue to work and live to their fullest potential, and it can be a valuable addition to your nonprofit’s wellness strategy. While it’s best to offer resiliency training proactively, it can also be helpful when an employee has experienced a traumatic event in their personal life that affects their ability to work.

Resiliency training builds new attitudes and behaviors, giving employees the ability to better protect themselves from the effects of stress and anxiety. Resiliency training programs may help employees develop strategies for:

  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Engaging in “single-tasking,” rather than multi-tasking
  • Taking breaks to manage energy and focus
  • Cultivating compassion
  • Stepping back from a problem to approach it rationally, rather than emotionally

Create partnerships to gain in-kind donations for non-traditional wellness offerings

Committing to wellness and self-care is the first step. Finding the funds to make wellness programs and strategies a reality is another matter, and for some nonprofits, it can be a real challenge. But wellness programs and self-care offerings don’t have to be a major burden on your organization’s budget. Just as your nonprofit is creative when it comes to finding resources for mission-specific programs and initiatives, there are many creative ways to fund wellness offerings.  

We’ve seen nonprofits offer a variety of well-received wellness programs as a result of in-kind donations. Here are a few examples to spark your own creative ideas:

  • A chamber of commerce received sponsorship at a nonprofit’s event in exchange for free tickets to a wellness conference.
  • A volunteer yoga instructor donated in-office yoga classes twice a week.
  • A bowling alley donated lanes and food for a nonprofit’s annual staff team-building event.
  • A local meditation center donated mindfulness classes to a local nonprofit in exchange for access to the nonprofit’s donor database.

While one-time in-kind donations are valuable, your organization should also explore ongoing partnerships. Consider:

  • Writing a volunteer job description for a wellness coordinator who will be responsible for creating a steady stream of ongoing in-kind donations that foster wellness.
  • Encouraging staff to include wellness within their in-kind donation outreach. They could even publish a “wish list” of wellness opportunities that they would like for themselves and for the community they serve.
  • Appointing an employee committee to advocate and create wellness programs for fellow staff members.

Of course, the type and amount of in-kind wellness donations you’ll be able to secure depends on the level of investment and pro bono work available from potential partners in your community. Don’t be afraid to start small when it comes to formal wellness offerings and then accompany them with other strategies discussed here, from modeling at the leadership level to offering resilience training and giving explicit permission to prioritize self-care.

The takeaway

Your organization will reap significant returns on its investment in wellness and self-care. Employee engagement, retention and productivity will improve, and you’ll likely attract higher caliber talent, as well. Your employees will undoubtedly benefit, but the biggest impact will be on the people, communities and causes you serve. With a healthier, happier, more engaged workforce, the nonprofit sector can do more to address society’s most pressing needs, from hunger and homelessness to social justice and animal welfare. For the health of your employees, your organization and your mission, don’t wait to invest in wellness. Take these first steps today.

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