As a leader in a mission-driven organization, it can feel like a badge of honor when your employees work long hours, refuse to take a vacation and lie awake at night wrestling with the struggles your organization faces. But these types of behaviors, if left unchecked, can lead to employee burnout, which often causes long-term problems for not-for-profits. Burned-out staff can be ineffective at their work, spread disillusionment among your team and, many times, will leave the organization in search of a workplace with better balance.
In fact, the current trend in the business world, including not-for-profits, is to allow employees a more flexible, balanced work environment. If you are not taking steps to create this type of low-stress environment, you could lose your employees to other organizations that are. So how do you create the right culture where your employees can be productive without using themselves up in the process?
1) Build a strong foundation in the “why” of your work
Employees who are passionate about your mission will be your best spokespeople and advocates - and that enthusiasm can help to overcome some of the potential for burnout. Whether it is rescuing animals, shaping national policy or advocating for equal access to education, make sure your employees not only know what you do but also know how their personal work fits into the mission of the organization. It’s key for leaders to ensure that everyone—from bookkeeper to IT manager to grant-writer—sees the “why” behind what you do and understands the essential role they play in helping your organization achieve its mission. Here are some tips for doing this:
- Connect your employees’ goals to their impact. Don’t just set a goal for your employees to plan a fundraising event or to send out a mailing to donors. Draw the line between that effort and the intended result for the cause you serve. For example, when asking a development associate to find donations for a silent auction, paint a picture of the results of the event—how the money raised will impact your programs. Hopefully, this will encourage the employee to pass on this vision to your potential donors as well.
- Celebrate your successes with everyone. Make sure your staff gets as much direct exposure as possible to the people or cause you serve. When I worked as an HR director for a not-for-profit that worked with youth, we made sure to include our staff in events recognizing the accomplishments of the young people we served.
2) Create a culture where stepping away is encouraged
When you encourage employees to take real time off, it allows them to recharge and come back with clarity and enthusiasm. It can feel difficult for under-resourced organizations to function without key personnel but there are a few steps you can take to make going on vacation less stressful for your employees and their teams:
- Encourage cross-training and backup support. Teams that share projects and understand each other’s work are more resilient and able to handle absences, whether planned or unplanned. Encourage staff to support each other on projects cross-functionally, and when vacations are planned, use the lead time to delegate key roles and prepare staff to cover.
- Set the example for your organization. If your employees get emails from you at 3 a.m. and never see you taking a break, it’s likely that’s what they will think is expected from them as well. An executive director I once worked with at another not-for-profit organization took three weeks every summer to take his family on a vacation. He also came in late once per week so he could read to his daughter’s class at school. He taught us all that no matter how important your role in the organization, you have to feed your personal life as well.
- Cultivate a network of outside support. Sometimes, outsourcing work can be the best answer. Staffing Agencies can temporarily fill mission-critical, front-line roles until you hire the perfect candidate. Have a bench of consultants you can call upon to take on an occasional project.
- Work with an organization like TriNet to outsource not-for-profit HR tasks such as benefits and payroll - and to have an HR expert always on call.
3) Feed your staff
When I say “feed your staff,” I’m not talking catered lunches and bagels in the breakroom - although these steps are always welcome. Keep your staff at their best by encouraging their personal and professional growth, and ensuring that they feel appreciated and supported by your organization. Ways successful not-for-profits do this:
- Provide opportunities for professional development. Even if you don’t have a huge training budget, you can find opportunities to help your employees grow and develop their skills. Use your network of board members and donors to find mentors for high-potential staff. Allow an employee to take on a new project outside the scope of their role and assign a colleague to mentor them. Send staff to occasional local training events to help hone their skills and prepare them to take on more.
- Recognize your team for their hard work. I still remember early in my career when my manager gave me a spa gift certificate after the successful completion of an intense project. It reminded me to relax and enjoy my success - and I’ve given out many similar gifts since. The key is to create a genuine culture of appreciation and celebration. Read this article from the TriNet blog for other ideas for employee recognition.
- Promote available wellness resources. It’s likely your health benefits include an employee assistance program. Make sure you promote this free resource to help with everything from finding child-care to short-term counseling. You can also offer in-office wellness support, such as ensuring that you serve healthy food at events or create a walking group at lunch. You can even consider having someone come in to teach free weekly yoga classes.
As you think about addressing potential burnout in your not-for-profit organization, consider creating a dialogue with your team about their experiences. Are they encountering some of the challenges of burnout? Ask your employees what would help them to keep from getting burned out. Share your intention to create a space where balance is encouraged, then make sure you follow through on those commitments.
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