Why we’re all burned out and what to do about it
At Candid, we often talk about trends we’re seeing in the social sector. Unfortunately, an undisputable trend these days is burnout. So, in this blog, I’m leveraging my PhD in Psychology to share a bit about what burnout is, why it seems to be everywhere in the nonprofit world, and what organizations, leaders, and individuals can do about it.
How to tell if you’re burning out
While burnout might seem like a buzzword, it’s also a concept backed by decades of research. Psychologists consider burnout to be a “psychological syndrome” that emerges as a response to chronic job stressors. Burnout is characterized by three main symptoms:
- Overwhelming exhaustion: feeling worn out, fatigued, or just not having the physical, emotional, or psychological energy needed to get through your workday.
- Cynicism towards work: feeling negative, irritable, or jaded towards your colleagues or clients, or a loss of belief in your work or organization.
- Lack of accomplishment: struggling to be effective or efficient at work, noticing lower productivity or capability, or feeling low on morale and coping skills.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America survey found that the majority (57%) of U.S. workers reported experiencing burnout symptoms this year.
What causes burnout
To stop burnout, we first must understand why it happens. To this end, the Job-Demands-Resources model offers a simple equation: burnout = demands > resources.
Essentially, burnout occurs when the demands of your job (e.g., deadlines, fundraising goals, meetings, customer complaints, toxic coworkers) outweigh the resources you have to meet the demands (e.g., budget, team members, skillsets, technology, time, emotional support).
This model highlights three important things to understand about burnout:
- Burnout isn’t about too many demands but demands without enough resources. This explains why some folks seem to manage lots of demands without burning out (they usually also have lots of resources).
- Burnout isn’t about a person’s ability—it’s about the situation. Anyone can and will burn out if they are placed in an environment with too many demands and not enough resources.
- Everyone’s burnout equation is somewhat unique. There are practically endless combinations of demands and resources, so even people on the same project may experience different levels of burnout.
Why burnout is rampant in the nonprofit sector
Burnout is a problem everywhere; however, there is reason to believe the nonprofit sector is being hit especially hard. Decades of research suggest that individuals in “helping” or “caregiving” professions (e.g., healthcare, human services, community support) are particularly susceptible to burnout. This description applies to many, if not most, nonprofits. On top of this, nonprofits are infamous for being expected to do more with less—which is literally the recipe for burnout. For example, the Overhead Myth essentially rewards organizations for heroically meeting demands without resources.
The global shifts and crises of the last few years have exacerbated these issues. On top of a deadly global health crisis, COVID-era job insecurity increased stress for many. COVID-related furloughs, downsizing, and resignations also often meant that remaining employees were expected to do more with less. Additionally, while the recent shift to remote work has decreased demands (e.g., a long commute) for many, the blending of work and home life has increased demands, as well (e.g., working while also helping your child with homework).
It’s no wonder that a recent report on the State of Nonprofits in 2023 by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that 68% of nonprofit leaders are somewhat or very concerned about burnout.
How to beat burnout
The good news is that burnout isn’t inevitable or irreversible. The simple cure for burnout is to do less. Decrease demands. Take time off. Rest. Relax. Reset. Of course, this is easier said than done. So, here are some concrete steps to decrease our collective burnout:
- Funders can help by recalibrating their expectations of nonprofit partners. Consider increasing resources by providing more funding to cover indirect costs and general operating support. Also consider easing demands (e.g., deadlines, reporting, grant applications) when possible.
- Organization leaders and HR professionals can decrease burnout by ensuring employees have the resources needed to match the demands of their work. This could include developmental opportunities, paid time off, fostering inclusive and non-toxic work cultures, encouraging work-life balance, hiring extra help when needed, having sabbatical or leave policies, or offering flexible work hours. Normalizing rest at the organizational level is crucial. This means not condoning a ‘workplace warrior’ culture (e.g., don’t call employees, who pull all-nighters “great team players”). It also means explicitly stating rest norms (e.g., no emails on the weekend) and arranging for collective rest whenever possible.
- Managers can prevent burnout by creating human-centered norms with their team. This means modeling work-life balance, expressing gratitude, and supporting growth. Managers also play the critical role of assessing team members’ workload—a major burnout factor. Managers should have regular workload discussions to determine what should be added, removed, deprioritized, or extended. They can also set clear job and performance expectations and consistent messaging about priorities (lack of clarity is exhausting). Finally, managers should find ways to offer autonomy and control. Feeling in control of your work life can go a long way towards decreasing stress. For example, can team members have control over when or where the work gets done? Proposing new projects? Determining developmental opportunities?
- Individuals can take steps to monitor their burnout out level too. Burnout may be a result of the environment, but individuals aren’t powerless. Reflect on the demands your job places on you—can any be removed? Talk with your supervisor to (re)align on priorities and block time to work on what’s most important. Also consider the demands you might be placing on yourself (e.g., perfectionism, unrealistic goals, negative self-talk). Another important way to decrease demands is to disconnect by logging out at a certain time each day, going on vacation, or setting aside time to unwind. Finally, consider what you can do to shore up your resources—whether that is building up your social support, learning new skills, getting a good night’s sleep, making time for exercise, or simply doing things that make you feel happy and accomplished.
The good news is we’re also seeing another trend in the sector: the recognition that wellness is a workplace issue. Not long ago, burnout was a niche topic of occupational health psychologists. The fact that it has become mainstream means that the sector is finally recognizing that the way we work needs to change.