Four smart ways to avoid burnout for nonprofit professionals

publication date: Jan 23, 2017
 | 
author/source: Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman

Beth KanterWorking at a nonprofit can be a pressure cooker.  Trying to manage huge workloads with limited resources, can easily trap us into thinking that working nights and weekends after a full day at the office is the answer.  Overworking will not only steal your clarity, but ultimately zap your energy. 

We’ve all heard the advice on a plane to “put your oxygen mask on first,” but we roll our eyes and call it cliché. That simple statement is probably the most powerful piece of advice you’ll ever hear about the importance of taking care of yourself first above all others.  

In our book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout, we lay out the symptoms and causes of burnout and the remedies through deliberate self-care. As we were writing the book, we began to recognize that we were feeling stressed out. Our solution was to put into practice many of the things we were researching and writing. We’ve distilled them here for you.

1. Take Care of the Basics

Aliza Sherman

Every human being depends on what we call the Wellness Triad, the three most basic and essential needs we have as human beings to be at our optimal health and peak performance: Sleep, Nutrition and Exercise.

“We are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis,” writes Arianna Huffington in her book The Sleep Revolution.


How do you get good and sufficient sleep when there’s so much to do? Start with a bedtime ritual for yourself. If you’re a parent, you probably have or had a bedtime ritual for your children, but yours may have looked like ours: Stay up late to try to get things done and finally collapse from sheer exhaustion – or wake up in the middle of the night panicked about the things we didn’t get done that day.

A bedtime ritual of bath, reading, a cup of herbal tea, meditation, or other calming activities, can bring your brain noise down a few notches and allow you to settle into a less agitated state to get some rest. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t fall asleep immediately.

In terms of nutrition, the smallest incremental changes can completely transform your energy levels and affect your ability to both think and rest. Cutting down caffeine and sugar can literally change your life. Drinking more water is something we all know we should do but most of us fail to do it regularly yet it can help you avoid the depletion and energy ebb of dehydration. Replace packaged, vending machine snacks with fresh fruits and vegetables. Put a fruit basket at your desk or in the break room at your office to tempt yourself and others to snack well.

In terms of fitness, simply adding any type of movement in your day can invigorate you and could save your life. As Nilofer Merchant points out in her popular Ted Talk, “sitting is the smoking of our generation.” Buy a standing desk so you can alternate between sitting and standing – or set one up using books, crates or other objects you already have in your office to prop up your computer.

Set an alarm to stand up, stretch and walk around at regular intervals throughout your day. If you’re on the phone a lot, switch to a mobile phone so you can walk around your office while talking. Hold “walking meetings,” literally bringing people together to meet while walking around the office or identify walking paths at your office.

2. Completely Disconnect

The ubiquity of our mobile devices has made us more mindless about how often we use them. We’ll be the first to tell you that technology is awesome, but we need to learn good habits around using our tech devices, and we’re suffering because of it.

Engaging in Tech Wellness starts with a better awareness of how our devices are interfering with our relationships and our ability to pay attention. Shut off your device entirely when you are in a meeting unless you are using it to support your participation in the meeting.    

A few changes at home can also have a positive impact on your brain and even sleep. Set up a charging station at the door and leave your devices there so they don’t interfere with your time after work to unwind. Keep your smartphone and other electronics out of the bedroom so you can decompress and relax at night. Don’t use your smartphone as an alarm clock, especially because you’ll be tempted to check it the moment you wake up and start the vicious cycle of tech abuse all over again.

3. Go On Real Breaks

Your body and brain need downtime to replenish your energy.  Take a break from your computer and walk outside. Don’t use your computer keyboard as a lunch tray. Just a few minutes can refresh and reset brain so you can perform your work with more focus and energy. And if you’re someone who is accumulating vacation time without taking it, you’re hurting not only yourself but your organization as well.  Furthermore, if you don’t use your vacation time, you are essentially working for free.

Use your vacation time and take real vacations where you are completely disconnected from work, emails and the mobile devices that connect you to work. Invest in a digital camera to take vacation photos and leave your smartphone off and tucked away for emergencies only. You’ll return to work with more clarity and perspective that will serve your organization and cause far better than staying late at the office scrambling to finish your tasks.

4. Set Boundaries at Work

You may not be the boss at your organization, but you are the boss of you and should stand firm when a work request interferes with your day-to-day health and wellbeing. We’re not talking about the demands of relief workers in war torn countries but rather the more mundane but destructive requests to sacrifice your time, your breaks, and your health to do more with less.

Just say no to requests that obliterate the lines between your work and home life. Set strong boundaries to protect your schedule and set up your schedule to take advantage of times during the day when you have peak energy, taking breaks during those times when your energy wanes.

Prioritize what is important to you, not just at work but in your life, and make time for the things that really matter – like family and friends. Having outside interests and putting them into your schedule as essential appointments help you bring more creativity and fresh ideas to your work.

Bottom line: You are your first priority. If you burn out, you can take others down with you. If you really believe in the mission of your organization and the people you serve, make sure you are the best you can be to make real change in the world.

Beth Kanter @kanter was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and is the award-winning author of The Networked Nonprofit books. She is an internationally acclaimed master trainer and speaker

Aliza Sherman @alizasherman is a web and social media pioneer; founder of Cybergrrl, Inc., the first women-owned, full-service Internet company; and Webgrrls International, the first Internet networking organization for women. She is a motivational keynote speaker and the author of eleven books, including Social Media Engagement for Dummies.

Together Aliza and Beth co-authored The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout



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