Preventing Nonprofit Employee Burnout

By Ilia Jones | December 2021


The nonprofit sector has long had an issue with employee burnout. The combination of tight budgets, small teams, long hours, and a never-ending To-Do list takes its toll over time. While awareness of burnout has increased and many organizations are doing things to mitigate the type of work and environment that causes burnout, the problem persists.

Employees may feel more empowered than ever before to speak up about feelings of burnout and to request time off for rest and recuperation. However, eventually, the quick fixes simply don't work as well anymore.  

Stress reduction is especially pertinent given the uncertainty and disruption of the past couple of years. 

And with no clear end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, the burden of stress and worry we've all been carrying is starting to feel heavier than ever. 

What Nonprofits Can Do To Prevent Employee Burnout

As the saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." And with burnout, this is undoubtedly the case. It is much easier to bounce back before approaching and experiencing the full effects of burnout. This means that nonprofit organizations have to be proactive in preventing burnout from impacting their employees.

Create a Culture That Cares

As a charitable organization, no one can accuse your nonprofit of not caring. But in any profession where helping or giving is the day-to-day, not putting individual needs first can lead to exhaustion, disillusionment, and eventually, burnout. 

To prevent burnout in your employees, create a culture that is understanding of people's needs and strives for work-life balance. This can mean having flexible remote work options and expanding sick pay to accommodate "mental health days."

Another way to encourage self-care among your staff is to encourage taking time off and set better boundaries between work and personal lives. You can create rules around sending emails after office hours or ask managers to check in with staff burning the midnight oil to see if they need help with their workload. 

And lead by example. Company culture only changes when it is being supported from the top down. 

Set Attainable Goals and Deadlines

Especially in fundraising efforts, it can be tempting to shoot for the stars and set ever-higher goals. It's good to dream! But setting targets that beyond "stretch goals" and loom on some distant, unreachable horizon isn't going to have the motivating impact you're hoping for. 

Your organization is likely operating with tight budgets, and small teams made up of people who wear many hats and have many responsibilities. It can be tempting to urge your staff to dig in, try harder, and put in the hours needed to meet your goals or deadlines. But over time, the short-lived productivity could lead your team to exhaustion, and you could even lose valuable employees. 

Instead, set attainable goals and deadlines that are reasonable and account for setbacks (which always happen at some point!). Your team will be refreshed by feelings of accomplishment and a job well done, rather than drained and disappointed. 

Welcome Open and Honest Communication

While no one is expecting your leadership to moonlight as therapists for their teams, they can encourage open and honest communication around mental health. Inviting people to be more honest and open about how they are doing can prevent a sudden mental health crisis or unexpected request for time off. 

It can be uncomfortable and even seem unproductive, but taking a few minutes to check in with staff in a one-on-one or regular team meeting can start the conversation. If you have an HR department, this can be something that they can help facilitate.  

Everyone wants to feel as though they matter! When people feel as though they are seen and heard, they are more likely to feel rewarded by their work. And that feeling of achievement can go a long way in preventing burnout. 

Tips to Deal With Stress and Prevent Employee Burnout

Stress is, sadly, unavoidable in modern life. However, as we've discussed, we do have some control over the amount of stress we put our employees or ourselves through. And, luckily there are ways to deal with the stresses that we have less control over. 

The Importance of Completing the Stress Cycle

Stress is the automatic response in our bodies to an outside factor or circumstance. The donor management database crashing creates the same response in the body as being chased by a tiger. One of these situations endangers our lives, and one of them is unfortunate but isn't deadly.

As Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain in their book "Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle," an unexpected event triggers a biological stress cycle in our bodies, which engages our fight or flight response. But, societal norms don't generally allow us to do either of those things.

So, we need to find other ways to process the cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our systems. Luckily there are several (societally accepted) ways to process our stress and complete the stress cycle:

  • Get moving
  • Breathe deeply
  • Have a friendly chat
  • Laugh
  • Talk to loved ones
  • Ask for a hug
  • Cry
  • Do something creative

Now, not all of these are appropriate for the workplace. But educating your organization on the things they can do can go a long way toward a less stressed-out team!

Ways to Promote Stress-busting For Your Employees

Every team is different, and every nonprofit has a unique culture, but don't let that stop you from brainstorming ways to promote better physical and mental health. 

Perhaps you could add a gym membership reimbursement program to your benefits package or bring a yoga teacher into the office for classes to help get people moving and breathing

Or, keep a stash of art supplies in the office to help people unleash their creativity. 

Even keeping a joke calendar in the break room or common area can help lighten the mood and might bring a chuckle to someone's day. 

Prevent Burnout for Healthier, Happier Employees

Stress is unavoidable, but burnout is. Anything you can do to give your employees a supportive environment and mitigate the pressures of running a nonprofit will pay off in the long run.

And equipping them with the tools they need to manage stress and complete the stress cycle will help them with any stressors they face outside of the office as well. 

Here's to a healthier, happier, and less stressful year ahead! 



Topics: Tips and Tricks

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