Work-Life Balance in the Nonprofit Sector: Avoiding Burnout

By on Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Miami Herald recently ran an article discussing the work-life demands faced by nonprofit CEOs. Many nonprofit leaders work significant overtime, balance complex demands from competing audiences (donors, clients, board members, staff), are tightly connected to their jobs and are stressed to balance family responsibilities.

There are many for profit companies that demand a lot from their employees too. So why is burnout such a big deal in the nonprofit sector? Perhaps it’s because we think that if we are mission-driven, we will automatically be happy all the time? Or that if we love a cause, we love our jobs too? After all, this is work we CHOSE to do, right? So shouldn’t we be happy? But the reality is that sometimes nonprofit work is tough. Sometimes the problems are overwhelming, the needs are great, and the workers are few. Sometimes it feels you are pushing a big rock up a really big hill all by yourself.

Then there’s the blurry line issue that many nonprofit workers have. We got involved in our causes because we care – not just a little – a lot. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for many years, I have observed and met a number of nonprofit staff who had very blurry lines between their personal lives and work. It’s easy to allow the desire to do good, to trump personal life and obligations. Technology makes it very easy to leave a smart phone on to check an email or respond to an issue. It’s one thing to handle one burning problem – it’s another to allow your job to overwhelm your personal life completely.

I am guilty of it too. My family is accustomed to putting up with me taking media calls at odd hours, to getting dragged to nonprofit events on the weekends, and to tolerating my own often blurry interpretation of work life balance in their lives. My wake up call arrived after we adopted our daughter who was an infant. I took her to a nonprofit board meeting that ran into the late evening, in her car seat, where she slept blissfully. It was a board I had served on for many years. As I buckled her car seat in for the drive home, I realized – my life has changed – I can’t do this right now and keep up my other nonprofit full-time work. I just couldn’t. I was sleep deprived with a new baby at home and managing a sizeable nonprofit client workload.  So I resigned. It wasn’t easy, but I know the cause will still be there when my daughter is older and I have more free time.

Our sector can have some serious issues with burnout. Some nonprofits have embraced work-life balance as an important (and critical) part of doing business, recognizing that having stressed out employees with brains fried to mush is not productive. But more could be done. This dissertation outlines how nonprofits boards can play a role in promoting professional development and preventing burnout. Here are some links with resources on avoiding burnout:

Recognizing Nonprofit Burnout: And Taking Steps to Achieve Balance – Wild Apricot Blog

How to Avoid Burnout When You’re Saving the World – The Daily Muse

Being Progressive Shouldn’t Be Hazardous to Your Health: Here’s How to Avoid Our Culture of Overwork – AlterNet

A Recovery Plan for Fundraisers Facing Burnout –

Talk to Us: What helps you avoid burnout in your work? Got any tips or resources to share? How do you stay fresh in your approach to your work?

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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