When we decided to make our careers in the nonprofit medical sector, we knew that our work would be important as well as challenging. But with the pandemic, our work has become urgent, overwhelming, and – sometimes – even unbearable. Are you wondering if you can continue at this pace and intensity? Are you questioning your decision to stay in your job? Or even to stay in healthcare? If you are, you may be suffering from occupational burnout.
The truth is that you alone can’t avoid burnout. It is a function of the conditions in your workplace. Occupational burnout is caused by the structures and systems inherent in your job. You alone may have very little control over these conditions. Nevertheless, as a leader you can make some key changes in your approach to those structures and systems that will help you – and your colleagues- avoid burning out.
1. Do Less With Less
In modern economic conditions, we always “do more with less.” In fact, we pride ourselves on our ability to stretch scant resources, wear multiple hats, and multi-task all day long. Indeed, these skills are essential to our success. However, when you are feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, you are doing too much at once. It is clear that no one person can do all things.
These times provide the perfect opportunity to refocus:
Avoid Mission Creep
Focus your efforts on only those activities that support your mission. Of course, this requires that you be crystal clear about your mission.
Pick your one to two highest priorities for the next year from your strategic plan. Keep programs that are mission-centered, needed now by patients, and generate some revenue (or at least cover costs). If a program doesn’t meet your mission and serve your patients’ current needs, it should be dropped. If a program doesn’t cover its costs, now may be the time to put it on hold (if it has potential to generate new service lines or other sources of income down the line) or end it entirely.
Expect the Unexpected
Plan budgets for three scenarios: base budget (reasonable expectations), base + (funding exceeds your expectations), and base – (funding falls below your expectations). In tandem with your budget, develop an annual work plan that addresses your chosen priorities and includes time to handle surprises. This way you will be prepared for whatever happens.
Think twice about a tempting grant opportunity or pet project, especially if the full cost won’t be covered. Be confident about saying, “No, thank you.”
Find opportunities to consolidate, partner with, or hand off programs and services to other staff or departments. Most funders like collaborative initiatives and are willing to pay for a shared approach. You may even be able to renegotiate deliverables with existing funders.
Help Your Employees Work Smarter
You can give your employees permission to do less, if they have good reasons. Listen to their suggestions for how to get the work done more efficiently. Ask them what can be eliminated, done less often, or in a new and better way. When appropriate, give your staff time to think and, if possible, push back their deadlines.
Praise Liberally, Honestly, and Specifically
Employees want better pay and more time off, but with a workforce shortage, neither is likely possible. But we can add value through other means as well: appreciation and shared mission are significant and underutilized workplace benefits. Keep praise focused on how successful work supports the mission you have clarified. Research is clear that employees who feel appreciated and who feel they are serving a higher mission may be willing to stay in a position (or even change to a new position) that may pay less if it meets a higher calling, and appreciation of the person and the mission help reinforce these needs.
2. Don’t Let Your Workplace Off the Hook
When there’s a mismatch between what you want and need from your workplace and what your workplace wants and needs from you, it can lead to burnout. However, as a nonprofit leader, you may have more influence in your working conditions than you think you do. Find your voice. Articulate what you and your team need to succeed and don’t apologize for it. Know your worth and expect that you will be treated accordingly.
Model Positive Behavior and Problem-Solving Skills
Complaining and cynicism perpetuate a negative and defeatist culture. Make it your regular practice to give constructive feedback after every big project and ask for feedback in return. Listen to the challenges your colleagues are facing but expect them to come up with proactive suggestions, work with them to develop feasible solutions, and support them by advocating for the solutions that seem most promising.
Communicate regularly with your supervisor(s) and organizational leadership team, asking them to name their own priorities, explaining what is working well and what needs improvement, and requesting specific help. For example, make a compelling case for professional development, more autonomy over scheduling, a better benefits package, or even a raise.
Change the Financial Paradigm
So many nonprofit research-focused organizations are overly dependent on grant funding that comes with excessive regulations. If this is true of yours, think outside the box. Consider profitable revenue streams and lines of service that then help support programs that are less financially self-sustaining.
3. Take Care of Yourself
This is not a recommendation to practice more yoga or take a week off (although those are both great). Since burnout symptoms are experienced on a personal level but are caused by your work, you have to figure out what you want and need to do at work to keep yourself healthy. It requires clarity and strength to find the answers.
Be clear about how to best use your own time and skills. It is a truism that “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” But if that busy person is you, it can feel like failure to admit that you are doing too much. Be honest with yourself about what you can realistically do and what you truly want to do.
Don’t Try To Do Everything Yourself
Empower colleagues to take responsibility. You might need to form a new project team (that you’re not on). You might need to modify expectations – the expectations of others and perhaps your own – about the amount of work you can accomplish. You might need to step back from some of your duties.
Consider a New Job
If all else fails, you may decide that your workplace conditions are untenable and you need to move on. That is not your failure, it is the workplace that has failed to meet your needs despite your best efforts to assert them.
The key to burnout prevention is to be clear about what you have control over and what you don’t have control over. You can only operate within your degree of control. We don’t have control over the economy, the pandemic, and others’ decisions. We do have control over our priorities, our own actions, and how we respond to the actions of others around us. What do you need to do to have more control over your work life?