5 Key Ways to Prevent Burn-Out When You Work for Non-Profits (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)

selfcare-is-not-selfishI have volunteered and worked for non-profits my entire life (because most of the time even when you work 40 hours a week for a non-profit you are essentially volunteering). My first exposure to a non-profit was definitely the church. I started greeting, ushering, and setting up snacks around age 10. Prior to that, I was a “bell ringer” when I was 4 (okay, that was more just because the pastor wanted to humour me, but still…) Eventually, my work with non-profits ended up including several internships, a few of which were paid. Come to think of it, other than a one month stint as a knife sale’s person for Vector (sort of like the Mary Kay of knives), I have actually never worked for a secular for-profit company before in my life. Most recently, I have worked full-time in a non-profit organization called L’Arche for the past 3 years. So it’s fair to say, that I have been around non-profits frequently enough and in a variety of settings to see what really works. What good management and leadership look like and what it doesn’t look like.

Working for non-profits can be extremely rewarding, spirited, and fun, but it can also be draining, disillusioning, and dis-heartening. Many of us initially choose to engage in non-profit work for good motivations (let’s face it, if you work for a non-profit, making money likely isn’t going to be your sole purpose). Yet, it is easy to find ourselves becoming disgruntled when we perceive that we are being overworked for little pay. Additionally, if you have a hard-to-please supervisor, it is easy to become bitter and resentful thereby forgetting the passion you first started your position with. Soon the day-to-day demands can create anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed so that we feel we no long have the time or energy to devote to the areas of our work that we truly care the most about. We may even begin to feel like our skill sets, abilities, and natural giftings are being overlooked, dismissed, under-utilized, or even abused. We may feel like our education is going by the wayside, and that people are not treating us with the respect we think we deserve.

There are a variety of ways we can respond to these ensuing emotions. Some of us, may justify them leading further and further into despair and dismay. Others of us, may plunge right on through, finding new activities to engage in and out of work. At first, this may seem rather counterproductive because if we feel drained and exhausted, it would logically make sense for us to rest, relax, direct, and delegate. But because of the funny ways our brains can work, we often do what is counter-productive, believing that we simply haven’t found our “niche” yet or we are simply going through a phase. There are people who instead of dealing with the cause of their burn-out let it completely permeate and devastate their entire career. They end up not caring, going through the motions half-heartedly, and doing a poor job when previously they excelled at all of their tasks and had a good reputation in the organization. Finally, there are a few of us, and I most definitely fall into this camp, who place the blame on ourselves. We think that because we identify as Christians, we should “do everything without grumbling and complaining.” We believe that it’s our position to help others and provide as much support as we can for them because it’s what “Jesus would do.” We also believe that because we felt a strong sense of call when we first entered the non-profit sector, that to back down or decrease our involvement would be a slight at God. We may worry that these over-arching emotions which over-power and over-shadow everything prove that we are somehow inadequate followers of Christ. We may feel like we shouldn’t feel a certain way, but yet we cannot deny that we do. We feel like we should have more strength to act professionally, but we lack the will power. And because we are not where we want to be, we feel like absolute failures, when in reality, we are likely just burnt-out human beings.

I’ve written quite a few blog posts in the past on the topic of burn-out: what it is, how to become aware of it, and what to do once it’s already set it. I hope that these posts have been encouraging, eye-opening, and informative to you. Yet, I realize that ultimately the most helpful thing would be to provide guidance on how it can be avoided (or minimized altogether). You see, I don’t believe that burn-out has to be an inevitable side-effect of long-term non-profit management. I also believe that prevention is the best cure. While I’ve certainly struggled with burn-out in a number of different settings, I’d like to offer a few examples of how you, as employees can minimize the stress of burn-out in your own professional endeavours based on my own experience and educational training.

#1: Know Who You Work For

This may almost sound like a complete non-brainer, but it’s so vital to our understanding of non-profit work. If you are a pastor, know that you are employed by your church and that your main responsibility lies with your congregants. If you are employed by L’Arche know that your main responsibility lies with supporting individuals with complex developmental disabilities. If you are employed by a pregnancy centre, know that your main responsibility lies with single mothers. This is not to say that you can’t get involved with any other charities or volunteer opportunities. In fact, I would encourage you to become active (whether as a participant or helper) with another group. I certainly did when I was in L’Arche Edinburgh. I didn’t just stick with my L’Arche friends, I became an active member of two church groups and occasionally led worship or Bible studies for them. Nevertheless, we must remember that we only have so many mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual reserves to give and it is up to us to find a balance. When we are working an insane amount of hours, something is going to have to give, and for the sake of your workplace, it would be better for that something to be a few hours at the thrift shop than your job at the church. It is also important that your congregants do not feel neglected as this can also create a heavy sense of resentment. As a wise professor in self-care once taught me, make your actual work 60% of your main focus so that you will still have 40% to give to the areas that you actually care the most amount.

#2: Take Care of Your Health (Physically, Emotionally, Mentally, Spiritually)

We are people, not machines. We need time to rest and tune-out the rest of the world. We need time to relax and have a break, and so, when we push ourselves past the brink of exhaustion, we end up with some fairly serious repercussions.

In order to be at our ultimate peak of service, we must take care of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs first. We cannot give when we are running on half-empty, or as one of my missionary friends puts it “we must practice selfish unselfishness.” In a nut-shell, we must practice self-care. Self-care is a buzz word that those of us in ministry or helping professions constantly hear, but what exactly does it entail? There is no “how-to” method for applying these techniques as they are so individualized based on personal preferences and styles. However, there are some overarching trends and themes that many of us would be able to benefit from.

Physical Self-Care: Physical self-care means taking care of our bodies. This can include things like going to see a GP regularly, being properly hydrated, and eating healthy. You’d be amazed at how many mood-swings and snaps could be avoided if we simply drank water and carried a bag of almonds around with us! You’d also be surprised to know that ministry is one of the professions where you have the highest chance of becoming overweight. Physical self-care also means addressing specific health concerns and struggles that we already have. For example, I have a terrible back, but in my profession of providing personal care to adults with disabilities I must do lifts and transfers frequently. For me this looks like: asking others for support so that I don’t have to do a transfer myself, knowing the proper way to transfer a client so that it presents the less strain to my back, practicing stretches before and after, learning the proper way to use a lift, and going for regular massages. This is just one example, but it gives you a general idea that we need to be self-aware of our own shortfalls and limitations in order to function the best we can within our job (while also utilizing the strengths and experiences of others on our team).

Emotional/Phycological Self-Care: Phycological Self-Care revolves around taking care of our feelings and thoughts. This can include areas like regularly scheduled sabbaticals, making times for hobbies, and scheduling in opportunities to spend with families and friends. It is important to find this work/rest balance, to take time for self-reflection, and to also have friends outside of the specific ministry or organization you are serving with.

Spiritual Self-Care: Spiritual self-care is all about finding time to spend WITH God not just FOR Him. Now that I have begun job searching for a full time pastorate, I am very appreciative that more and more churches are putting in their job descriptions that they are looking for an individual who can find this balance. A few churches even let pastors use some of their office hours just for prayerful intercession, Bible reading, and devotional practices (and more churches should hop on board!).

#3: Take Advantage of Organizational Opportunities for Support, Mentorship, and Training

Many non-profits are fully aware that you cannot put in these long hours and this strenuous work on your own. That’s why several organizations offer (or subsidize) personal coaching, spiritual direction, accompaniment, mentorship, or even counselling options. Many also provide professional training and staff bonding opportunities. My best piece of advice is to take advantage of these seminars, conferences, and retreats. While some may mock the idea of spending a weekend in the woods team building with people you barely even know, I have found them to give me new perspectives and even build lasting friendships. Ask your organization if they have policies and incentives for these types of resources and if they don’t, ask if they know of local agencies which they might be able to refer you to.

#4: Accept Organizational Opportunities for Self-Care and Run

While many of us blame our non-profits for our burn-out, we also have to take some responsibilities for ourselves. A good non-profit does not want to wear you thin, but rather sometimes this sense of exhaustion stems from our own inability to say no, our natural proclivity to be people-pleasers, or even our own unrealistic expectations (including that no one can do the job as well as we can and therefore failing to delegate roles to others). If we are honest with ourselves, a lot of what runs us ragged is not the job description itself (although that can highly contribute), but a sense of control. Many organizations recognize the difficulty volunteer (or almost volunteer) work presents and thus not only give the above opportunities but even offer time off for personal, health or family reasons. When you’re offered these opportunities don’t worry about offending someone or not being there for the sake of the company (relax – they can manage without you for the day). Take up the offer and run!

#5: Know Your Limit, Work Within It

I am a passionate person. That’s the word I would use to describe myself the best. I have always attempted to give 120% to everything I do, but the truth is that we really only have 100% of ourselves to give and that 100% needs to be divided into a variety of different tasks. It is good to be passionate, but we also must realize that passionate people are much more likely to face burn-out and exhaustion sooner and in more profound ways that those who are not. It is both the blessing and the curse of being a creative, go-getter type of person.

A wise professor once said, “you can either do a lot of things poorly, or a few things well.” So ask yourself, “what at the things I absolutely NEED to do (because they are on my job description)?” Then ask “what are the things I am really interested in doing and would LOVE to do?” Knowing the answer to these two questions is already half the battle. Figuring out what is not life-giving that you can let go of in order to make time for more life-giving practices is the other half.

One thought on “5 Key Ways to Prevent Burn-Out When You Work for Non-Profits (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Prevent Burn-Out When You Work for Non-Profits: The Other Side (Part 2 of a 2 Part Series) | Zweibach and Peace - Thoughts on Pacifism and Contemporary Anabaptism

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