Burnout in the non-profit sector

In a thought-provoking and important piece for AlterNet, psychologist Michael Bader examines the common phenomenon of burnout in progressive organizations:

Progressive leaders, activists and organizers don’t take care of themselves very well. They get burned out and either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t know how to fix it. . . . It undermines their energy, passion and imagination, and it spreads like a virus through their workplaces and families. Almost every aspect of their lives takes a hit–health, relationships with friends and family, creativity, judgment, concentration, and mood.

Bader points to chronic understaffing, the burdens of constantly fighting defensive wars in an age of right-wing power, and a self-sacrificing “martyr culture” as contributing to burnout among progressive change agents.

Prescriptively, he draws upon lessons from organizational psychology and coaching to recommend how to address burnout, while urging that any fixes must “start with self-compassion and an ethic of self-care.”

Non-profits generally

It strikes me that Bader’s excellent commentary applies to the non-profit sector generally. I don’t necessarily equate “non-profit” with progressive political leanings, but I definitely see the connections between non-profits and dedication to cause-oriented work.

Non-profit employment attracts those who are drawn to changing society for the better. This can be a good thing: How many people get to earn a living doing something they believe in? However, it also feeds burnout tendencies that are exacerbated during difficult times. And nowadays, this is a brutal time for all but the most privileged non-profit organizations.

Bader’s call for an ethic of self-care may seem elusive to those who are fighting the good fight, but if you find yourself in this situation, take a look at his article and share it with others.


Related posts

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Next on the economic hit list: Public and non-profit sectors (2009)

14 responses

  1. Hi David,

    Thanks for your post and article link. I find many parallels in nursing, especially with regard to a culture of overwork. In healthcare, many of us are being squeezed to do more and more despite appalling statistics re: medical errors. It is almost taboo to take care of yourself as a nurse and this insidiously informs our culture at every level.

    The culture is so tough to challenge. When I work as a per diem nurse on an Alzheimer’s care unit, I am often frustrated by our lack of support staff. I ask for more staff but there are endless excuses and lack of management advocacy. Partly, I believe b/c the supervisor believes in being a martyr and therefore expects us all to be.

    My supervisor suggests I should be able to administer medications while keeping my eyes on the community, (including 3-4 people with dementia who wander around, touching people, eating any thing, bumping into stuff, pulling/pushing other people in wheelchairs along with visual impairment sand unsteady gaits). I was so stressed out Sat night after 12 hours that I couldn’t sleep and called work at 4;30 am to say I couldn’t come in on Sun.

    I think progressive leaders have a responsibility to role model healthy self care and if we realize that changing any status quo is going to take a lonnnnngggggg time, it makes sense to stay healthy and have a healthy team.

    Something like that,

    • Beth, for the life of me, I don’t know how nurses manage to do it. It is one of the most challenging jobs around.

      I agree that changing the culture will take considerable work and will not occur overnight. Once a place has a dominant culture, so many forces conspire to keep it that way….

      • Thanks, David. It feels helpful to acknowledge it. May I share with you and your readers my recent YouTube called: “Interruption Awareness: A Nursing Minute for Patient Safety”?

        Here’s the link, it is 12 min. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGK9_CkhRNw

        I hope it inspires dialogue and awareness. Important first steps even if long-term culture change requires much more.

        Take care and thanks for all of your work,

  2. I’ve found similar problems among Social Security Administration staff and among union activists. There is always much more to get done than there is time in the day and these folks are driven by a desire to help their clients and/or members. I always cover burnout in my classes to my union brothers and sisters because it’s better to balance one’s life and be there for the long term than burn out in a flaming heap! I think that any type of work that is dedicated to helping others or to a cause lends itself to this problem. How do professsors do, David?

    • Carol, in academe the burnout question points in different directions: For part-timer faculty who cannot get full-time gigs and thus must teach multiple courses at different institutions to earn a living, the burnout factor is obvious. For full-time faculty at institutions with super-heavy teaching loads, a similar problem exists.

      The other burnout factor is the culture of academic institutions. For all the pleasure derived from teaching, scholarship, and community service activities, the institutions themselves are often somewhat dysfunctional and lacking in effective leadership. Dealing with that side of academic life does take its toll, especially when bullying-type behaviors enter the picture, which is not unusual.

  3. Thanks for this particular article, David, and your recognition of and sensitivity to this particular issue. I lived it, I loved it, I thrived and excelled in it, and in the end it nearly killed me (no exaggeration).

    Nothing like being systematically and insidiously bullied (with top Board backing) out of a 17 yr career where your your job was to advocate for patients suffering from the very medical condition that you actually have yourself. Sick culture. Too many Queens (and Kings), among many, many other pertinent work-related problems re the nonprofit sector.

    • Creda, one of the all too common personality traits in this sector is those who love The People but who aren’t as caring about people.

  4. I can contribute a quote from Gabrielle Roy’s “Street of Riches” which has resonated with me since adolescence…

    “To earn one’s living! How mean, it seemed to me, how selfish, how grasping! Must life be earned? Was it not better to make a gift of it once for all, in some beautiful impulse?…or even to lose it? Or – again – to stake it, to gamble it… Oh, anything! But to earn it, pettily, day by day!….That evening it was exactly as though someone had told me, “For the mere fact that you live, you must pay.”
    I think I never made a more disconsolate discovery: all life subject to money, every dream appraised in terms of its yield.”

    I try to think now more in terms of how I spend my life than in terms of how I earn my living.

  5. Pingback: Nonprofit Blog Carnival - Self-care for nonprofit staff and fundraisers

  6. Hi there,

    I just discovered your blog and it is a great resource for anyone who has been bullied. I live in Vancouver BC, Canada and I have worked for 15 years in a neighborhood that has the poorest postal code in Canada. There are many nonprofits in the area. Some people work in the area out of a desire to create change or alleviate suffering and some people are there for more sociopathic reasons. There are many powerless and vulnerable people accessing services.
    One can be a big fish in a small pond, and one can use the rhetoric of social justice to hide behind unethical actions or excuse them.

    There is a lot of government money going into the area and a plenty of careerists.
    If the work is not being done well, it is the most vulnerable people who suffer the consequences. Staff who are passionate about social justice will often work harder and take on more to prevent this. and they are more likely to be bullied and overloaded with work,
    The bullies tend to focus more on gaining promotion, status and authority than on the needs of the patrons and volunteers.
    I believe that some executive directors and higher management can often be unaware of their own class discrimination of some staff and volunteers and patrons. People are afraid to challenge them for fear of negative consequences and they are easily manipulated by bullies to see the people lower down the chain as the problem.

    From my experience, the bullies are the ones who seem to care the least about the organizations mandate and seem to be driven more by a need to exert power over, and to always be gaining social and/or monetary capital,

  7. Unfortunately it is often the most passionate and hardworking people who burn out and leave much to the detriment of the organizations patrons. It would be a good thing if government funded organizations were independently audited from time to time with equal feedback from staff, patrons and management to get a clear snapshot of the health and efficiency of the organization. Aside from suffering to targets and loss of service to patrons, bullying must cost a fortune in terms of sick time, and energy being spent on surviving and coping with the dysfunctional work environment rather than channeled into providing the best possible service. Sad for everyone except the bully.

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