Signs Your Nonprofit Staff are Heading to Burnout (and you too!)

Take a breath in, then out. Your work pile just got bigger. Your board wants you to host another event, your best volunteer just left, and you’re starting to question how long you can keep this up…

For some, this doesn’t just happen once in a while. It seems like slogging through, and always being buried in a backlog, is just normal for many nonprofit leaders.

That’s why I’m anxiously counting down the days to The Digital Nonprofit 2019 conference in June! (Go here to get tickets) Beth Kanter will be presenting a keynote talk titled The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Linking Self-Care and Wellbeing to Organizational Impact – just in time for many nonprofits who need to hear this message.

But, even through the struggle, nonprofit work is very rewarding. You still get rushes of satisfaction that keep you going. That’s why it can be hard to step back and have the awareness to contemplate if you’re burning yourself out.

But what about your staff or volunteers?

It’s much easier to work on ourselves, but what about recognizing issues with staff or volunteers?

Are you working them to the point of burn out?

Probably not intentionally. Often, the pressure of working long hours, and giving it that extra push to get it all done, sneaks out of nowhere. It’s an unwritten expectation that’s absorbed through the culture and accelerated by our own compassionate, helpful personalities.

What’s the harm in asking?

As a leader, you might have the perception that “I’m not forcing anyone to do anything. I just asked, and they jumped on the idea”.

It’s fantastic that you have such inspired employees or volunteers. However, the reason they’re working for a nonprofit is likely a desire to help others. This makes it so easy for them to say YES.

I know because I’m the same way. I used to volunteer to lead music at church. It started out occasionally, then once a month, then somebody left and I was doing it almost every week. What was initially a fun contribution, turned into an overwhelming obligation.

When I hear of a need, my immediate reaction is, “I can do something to help”. I pile on the work and tend to overload myself. The kicker? I’m totally excited to do it, so you wouldn’t know it’s even an issue!

Well, you wouldn’t know until later… I eventually had enough and dropped out of that music role completely.

So as a leader, it’s your job to help your staff recognize signs of burnout. You need to be conscious of the culture you’re creating and actively battle against it to keep your people refreshed, passionate, and productive.

In her new book, Beth Kanter revealed key signs of burnout for nonprofit fundraisers, but it also applies to you and your nonprofit staff and volunteers. Beth’s new book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, co-written with Aliza Sherman, is also her inspiration for her upcoming keynote presentation at The Digital Nonprofit Conference 2019, June 11 in Vancouver.

Visit the event page to register for tickets

1st Sign: Irritation at Small (seemingly insignificant) Things

You might hear of a staff member that’s causing issues with people and getting overly frustrated at printer jams. Yes, people have bad days, but if this happens frequently, it might be time to check in with them (or check in with yourself), as burnout might be around the corner.

As Beth Kanter explains it, “every nonprofit fundraiser has to put up with some annoyances, but if you’re feeling like you’re at your wit’s end at the start of the day, you might be burning out. Left unchecked, this can evolve into angry outbursts and serious arguments both at home and at work.”

2nd Sign: Frequent Distractions and Lack of Focus

This can be a bit hard to recognize in others, and it can also have multiple causes, but when you’re getting overworked and stressed, an obvious symptom can be distractions. You end up finding yourself, or your staff, seeking out more chit chat than usual. Or those phones are out frequently, and Facebook is on the computer screen more often than usual. When productivity is dropping like this it could be from feeling so overworked that sitting down to pick 1 task out of the 100 seems impossible. Finding distractions is much easier.

3rd Sign: Feeling Sluggish and Tired Despite Sleeping Well

Again there can be a variety of reasons that your staff could seem tired, and to uncover this sign you probably need to start having conversations with people. Begin by asking them questions with genuine concern about their health and their sleep. Ruling these out will help you determine if this is a sign of burnout – or simply just a cold that won’t go away.

If you feel you’re too close to the situation, try asking other colleagues about the employees in question. Often people are more comfortable chatting to people who are not their direct boss.

4th Sign: Consistently Working Overtime

This can be a difficult one because if it’s a reality, it’s usually because there is work that NEEDS to be done, right? Well, that might be the case, but if you or your staff are constantly working overtime, it means they’re not refreshing.

Former FBI agent, Chris Voss, says that people are up to 30% smarter when they’re in a positive frame of mind. I would say relaxation and time with family and friends helps you to be in a positive frame of mind. So you can do the math on how productivity and performance would be dragged down by being overworked.

Get Back a Healthy Workplace

Of course, this doesn’t apply to just your staff, it’s your volunteers, it’s your board, and it’s you too. We’re all susceptible to getting burnt out. These signs don’t always result in quitting, but it can lead to a lot of contagious negativity in the workplace, poor health, and a drain of resources.

So next time you’re saying hi to an employee, skipping your lunch, or getting frustrated at nothing. Think about Beth’s 4 warning signs of burnout. Once identified, then you can dive deeper and take action.

If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic, come hang out with NetSquared, Beth Kanter, Vu Le, and over 200 other nonprofit leaders at The Digital Nonprofit Conference 2019.

Register for tickets today (limited availability for early bird pricing!)