Five myths that could be causing staff at your NFP to burn out

It’s no secret: in the NFP sector, burnout happens.

A 2008 US survey of 6,000 NFP staff – the largest survey of its kind – reports that burnout is rife amongst not-for-profit professionals working hard to deliver on their cause.

Back on home soil, the story is no different. An average Australian worker puts in around six hours of unpaid overtime a week – possibly even higher among those working in the not-for-profit sector.

But according to one NFP leader, there are some common myths about the sector that feed this culture of burnout, contributing to a cycle where:

You exit one nonprofit, disenchanted and exhausted, and enter another, full of hope for the mission and the promise of social change [before leaving disenchanted and exhausted]. Thus continues the cycle, again and again.

This cycle doesn’t affect only early-career employees; I’ve seen it happen at every age and at every career stage. Nonprofits themselves embrace the pattern as inevitable. Countless are the meetings where I’ve heard people reference, with a collective sigh, the “2.5 year lifespan” of the nonprofit employee.

Ann-Sophie Morrissette is the Director of Communications and Policy at Los Angeles-based organisation the Downtown Women’s Centre.

In a recent post for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, she warns that the sector as a whole is “risking . . . a highly talented, passionate, and committed workforce that cycles through rather than rises up.”

And she names five myths in particular that perpetuate burnout in workers in the NFP sector:

1. Higher pay doesn’t make a difference

Your staff are passionate about what they do and motivated by the cause – so isn’t that enough to keep them happy?

Not so, according to Morrissette. While the not-for-profit sector is lucky to attract amazing staff dedicated to making a difference, passion doesn’t pay the bills. Volunteers aside, no one is there purely out of the kindness of their own hearts – they’re doing a job.

Staff should be paid what they’re worth – particularly since they’re often revered as the sector’s most precious resource. That includes advocating to donors and governments at all levels to fund decent staff salaries.

2. Wellbeing involves more yoga classes

Wellbeing in the workplace has emerged as a hot topic in recent years.

But according to Morrissette, many leaders stop after recommending their staff participate in self-care activities like yoga and meditation.

In advocating an alternative, proactive approach, she cites former Google HR executive Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules!, in which he espouses a simple rule: “Make life easier for employees”.

How? It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.

For example, you could start a program that encourages staff to bring their pets into the office, provide an office fruit bowl, start having walking meetings, or cater a healthy lunch once a month.

3. External communications trump internal ones

Think about the communications your organisation puts out to supporters, clients and donors. Whether an e-newsletter, a Facebook post or your organisation’s website, it’s fair to suggest the content has probably been considered and analysed very carefully to ensure maximum engagement.

So how does that compare to the communications your staff receive?

More often than not, there is no comparison. But when you consider that your staff are your organisation’s greatest advocates – and potentially its biggest critics – it’s clear that the way you communicate with them should be more than an afterthought.

Indeed, Morrissette says you should invest the same amount of strategy, planning and execution into internal communications as you do external.

4. Your organisation is like family

The emotionally charged work common to many not-for-profit organisations means staff are often bound together by their mutual passion and shared experiences. And that can lead to what Morrissette calls “one of the most harmful myths in the [not-for-profit] world”: that everyone is part of a ‘family’.

That might be okay when things are going smoothly, but hit rocky times, and it will become painfully obvious that a “family” is not really what the organisation is.

Your staff are professionals, and a clear distinction between professional and personal life is paramount to an NFP’s health – and the health of your staff.

Work, after all, is still work – no matter how emotional the investment or how close-knit the team.

5. Not-for-profit leaders can’t change things

According to Morrissette, not-for-profit leaders can “underestimate and underplay the influence they have on junior staff”.

Eating lunch at your desk, never taking a sick day, sending emails at 10pm – staff notice these behaviours and perceive them to be the norm; that it’s simply what needs to be done to fulfil the mission.

The most effective leaders recognise the power they hold – and embrace their role by setting an example – ‘walking the walk’, so to speak.

That could mean committing to an email blackout period beyond a certain time each night, taking a deliberate break every day for lunch, or taking regular leave for holidays, for example.

If your organisation would prefer investing in long-term staff who grow to potentially become leaders, rather than “cycling through” disenchanted and exhausted employees at a rate of knots, then perhaps you need to raise and challenge these myths in your organisation too.

How do you address burnout in your organisation? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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