Nonprofit Burnout Syndrome
July 7, 2010 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm burnt out, but I don't want to (and can't, really) quit my job. The only way out seems to be through it, so how do I get through this, do a good job, and stay sane?

tl;dr: I'm burnt out and the workload is about to increase. How do I cope?

I work for a nonprofit advocacy group. I'm the project lead on an issue campaign that's somewhat time-limited (should be won or lost within a year) and very important to me. But I'm burnt out, which is making me unhappy, less effective, and less pleasant to work with.

So far, I've coped by cutting my hours to normal-person levels - 40-50 hours a week - and making my off-hours sacrosanct. However, the campaign is going into a very intense, crucial phase that will last several months. I'm getting pressure from the higher-ups to significantly ramp up our activities. And I agree that this is necessary, but really do not know if I have it in me to put in that kind of emotional, physical and mental energy at this point. The thought of it - the kind of hours I need to work, the way I need to go into superdrive to make this happen - makes my stomach get all knotted up.

Since this started, the burnout symptoms have gotten worse: I cry almost every day at work (in the bathroom, or in my office with the door closed), I avoid work that should be easy, and I go to bed every night dreading the next day.

The thing is, my job doesn't just involve me working long hours. It's an enormous part of my job to inspire volunteers to take on leadership roles and teach them to do chunks of my job. I'm also wrangling a coalition. You can't really fake this part - if I'm not excited to be here, it shows, and the work suffers.

Quitting and getting a new job is not really a great option for me right now, for a variety of reasons (the economy, the fact that I will hopefully be leaving in a year to go to grad school). I should also note that I do not normally have a problem with working hard, and I realize that I am very lucky to have a job at all right now. This is not a laziness issue.

So I need to find a way to get over or through the burnout. Thoughts?
posted by wholebroad to Work & Money (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any vacation time? If you could get away for a week, or even a few days, before the "very intense, crucial phase" really kicks in, it may help you recharge. My wife is a teacher and you sound just like her in.... oh, about March. Without spring break, I don't think she'd make it to the end of the year.
posted by Doohickie at 7:51 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

This Onion article has really inspired me and changed the way I balance my work life and home life. The busier you are with hobbies, social functions, travel, etc. the less work life comes home with you at night and the less you define yourself (and others) by occupations.
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:53 AM on July 7, 2010 [11 favorites]

You need time off. You need to be able to structure your workday so that it doesn't exhaust you. But it sounds like it's too late to do this. So here are my suggestions - I'm not saying do all of them, but maybe one of them will work:

1) Work 4 days a week instead of 5. Yes, you'll put in 10-12 hours on those 4 days, but then you get THREE DAYS OFF.
2) If you can't get a whole day off, then how about coming in late twice a week (tues/thursday usually works well). it will make you feel like you have had a whole day off.
3) Work from home at least once day a week, preferably in the middle of the week.
4) schedule breaks in the middle of the day to do things like errands, going to the park to read a book, taking a walk, or something that is not sitting at your computer and reading MeFi.

You need to present these types of suggestions to your superiors in a way that shows the benefit to THEM. "I've noticed in the past I've been far more effective/productive if I can do X". Also present them as something you'd like to TRY and if they don't think it's working, they can call it off at any time.

5) get help in your non-work life. hire a maid, send your laundry off to fluff & fold, use a grocery delivery service (or get a healthy collection of take out menus OR stock up on prepared meals from a grocery store). Ignore dust bunnies. Now is not the time to take all your blinds down and soak them in the bathtub.
5a) Make sure you are eating WELL and healthfully.
6) when you go home DO SOMETHING that is not the computer, that recharges YOU. if your passion is making handcrafted chocolates, make sure you can still do that, that you have all the supplies you need in the house so you aren't tempted to just sit in front of the television.
7) let yourself sit in front of the television from time to time, but do it mindfully - say, "I am going to sit here and channel surf for the next 90 minutes" and give yourself permission to do it.
8) SLEEP. naps, sleep. get your 8 hours. get naps on the weekends. you have to get sleep.
9) exercise is key to sanity, you are carrying stress you don't even know about, and exercise - even if it's just walking around the block 10 times - will help with endorphins and burnout and everything else. get up early, or go after dinner or before bed (get a friend to go with you if your neighborhood is dangerous).

I also swear by the Bach Rescue Remedy.
posted by micawber at 7:54 AM on July 7, 2010 [10 favorites]

No-one you works with wants you to have a burn out. You come first. Whether it's volunteering or not.

I'm sorry, but you need to take time off.

And if you need some harsh words: you are replaceable.
posted by devnull at 7:58 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I figure that if you work for a nonprofit, that your superiors would be understanding of the burnout you're experiencing. I think you need to take a vacation immediately before your burnout gets even worse (and it sounds bad right now). You may think that you CAN'T leave and take off for a vacation (which does not indicate you're lazy!) because otherwise who would run the campaign?!? when in reality, I'm sure there are lots of capable people who could pull things together - get a group of your volunteers to take the helm while you're gone, get a couple of keeners from the coalition to step in as well. If you give people a chance, they may surprise you. And I wouldn't advise being available while you're on vacation - that would kind of defeat the purpose of it.
posted by foxjacket at 7:58 AM on July 7, 2010

Are you suffering from depression? Have you talked to your doctor?

Seconding exercise! You might also try a little bit of meditation and find time to be in a natural environment.

I hope you feel better soon.
posted by mareli at 8:05 AM on July 7, 2010

Micawber mentioned working four days rather than five. I do this, with vacation time all summer long, and I can't express how much this helps my stress levels stay down. I get so much more done around my house, and I go meet up with friends more. Addtionally, I find it less stressful than taking an entire week off as I have no huge buildup of work when I get back, AND, I don't feel like I should have planned more to do when I am off.
posted by kellyblah at 8:17 AM on July 7, 2010

Thank you all so much. This is all really helpful advice. Extra thanks to micawber for your great list. To address a few points/questions:

- I do have vacation time, but haven't been using it. I'd been planning on banking as much vacation time as possible to cash it out when I leave for grad school, but that seems like sort of a silly plan now.
- I've been eating much better than I used to, and that helps, but I have not been getting the exercise I need.
- My work schedule is very flexible. As long as I get the work done and make the meetings I need to make, no one cares how much or when I work. This is a blessing and a curse.
- I am not depressed but I was recently diagnosed with ADHD and began treatment for it. This has helped me get more work done but also made me realize how much work there actually is to do, if that makes sense.
posted by wholebroad at 8:33 AM on July 7, 2010

And if you need some harsh words: you are replaceable.

This is actually music to this nonprofit worker's ears. :)
posted by wholebroad at 8:34 AM on July 7, 2010

I figure that if you work for a nonprofit, that your superiors would be understanding of the burnout you're experiencing.

My experience unfortunately runs converse to this, in nonprofits and social services there is a sense that employees can be worked to death because it's a nonprofit and, hey, we're all here on a mission. I've worked in extraordinarily toxic environments where grave risks were taken with my personal safety in order to stretch agency resources as far as possible and when I voiced my concern about my safety and my mental health to my superiors I was told I should probably look for another job because apparently I didn't have the level of dedication they were looking for.

All I can say to the burnout thing is, I hear ya. I just found out that for the third year running I'll not only not get a raise but will have my already paltry salary cut into with furlough days. If there was an agency out there that did work I believed in that wasn't facing the same conditions I'd go there but that agency doesn't exist right now. I'm trying to take more vacation time, half days, basically use up all the paid leave time I have on top of the furlough time I have no choice but to take. I get concerned that my taking time off negatively impacts my clients but me being at the end of my rope doesn't help my clients, either. All of my social worker friends are in this same boat, we're all burnt but we've got no options right now because the bad economy has wreaked total havoc on our funding streams. Hang tight, man, unfortunately tough times aren't going to be over any time soon.
posted by The Straightener at 8:42 AM on July 7, 2010

Have you considered writing? I know it seems silly, at least it did to me at first, but I've found that throwing myself into writing something, anything really, can help me shake up the thought processes and stresses that weigh me down. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation or even the subject matter - just sit down, clear your head and write. is where I go to get my daily writing fix in, but you can do it in a journal, on a scrap sheet of paper or anywhere else that's convenient for you.

I've also found that taking a bit of time away, and I mean FAR away, really helps. Take a week and travel somewhere fun, pamper yourself and just enjoy being away from the phone and the stresses of the daily grind.

Best of luck!
posted by BrianJ at 9:05 AM on July 7, 2010

"You need to present these types of suggestions to your superiors in a way that shows the benefit to THEM."

This bears repeating. Whatever you choose, this is very valuable advice.
posted by azpenguin at 9:14 AM on July 7, 2010

Doesn't help you right at this moment, but when I plan projects, I plan them with my vacation time built in. I work for a NGO and I work crazy hours (many unpaid) so I completely understand. I had a crying session the other week because I was really ill but HAD to fly to a distant country to plan a project. It sucked.

See if you can take control of your schedule - revise the project timeline and put in some breaks, put them right in the project timeline. You need to take charge and feel confident about the wave that you feel you are being swept along on. Some other great advice upthread. Good luck :)
posted by wingless_angel at 10:43 AM on July 7, 2010

I've been you (non-profit worker, serious burnout, crying at work, etc.) and I would like to stress/reiterate two things:

1. Don't underestimate how serious this can be - I ended up in a very big mess, and under a doctor's care - you need to stop the descent, and you need to stop it now.

2. You are not indispensible, as mentioned above. It's actually a sign of burn out that you lose the perspective that helps you realize this. You can step out/scale back and it can be managed by those above you.

I'm now an ED (after taking 2.5 years out of the field to recover), and I can say that the sympathy of non-profit managers to those suffering burn out is largely dependent on whether they have ever seriously burnt out (not throwing the term around lightly.) You should be able to get a feel for how you manager is about it and if they are supportive, work with them to develop a plan that allows you to manage things during the upcoming crucial time. Discuss the option of delegation - again your loss of perspective may make this hard to see, but sometimes it doesn't matter if a task is not quite done to your standard as long as it was done by someone other than you.

And stop hoarding your vacation days! It is ABSOLUTELY NOT worth it to keep them to cash out if you are in no shape to start Grad School as a result. Take some time now, and take more than a week - at the point you are at, a week will not be enough.

As someone who went through a stage where I had to walk around the block at least 3 times every morning until I had stopped crying and calmed myself so that I could go in the front doors, I can only say that you won't really realize how wrong things are right now until you come through the other side. In the interim, find the help you need, and if you can't get it in your organization, look for it outside, starting with your doctor. It's important to gain a solid outside perspective on things, since being burnt out, yours is perspective is suspect right now.

Good luck, and take care of you. Me-mail if you'd like.
posted by scrute at 8:50 PM on July 7, 2010

1. Stop hoarding vacation days. Take a week or two off *before* things get out of hand. If you can't take a whole week, take off four Fridays in a row. Make sure that for 2 of those 3-day weekends, you get out of town, even if it's just to go to a boring town down the road. You need to get some mental space, and a change of scene works pretty well for that. Bring your partner or a friend with you and make a rule that you can't talk about work. Have a nice dinner out, get a massage, see a movie (comedy!), whatever.

2. If your time is flexible, people will expect you to be on call at all times. Each Monday morning (or Sunday evening, at home with a glass of wine) set yourself a schedule for the week. Get a calendar that other people can access or view, via email or on a whiteboard or something. Block in the following things:
- your appointments
- 1 or 2 hour blocks where you're working on different aspects of the project
- lunch breaks long enough to walk somewhere for a quick meal
- half an hour at the beginning of the day, after lunch and/or the end of the day for clearing email/messages and other small admin tasks
- a few deliberately empty sessions.

Then encourage people to come and hassle you with their random/unplanned/small stuff in those empty sessions, not during the times when you have to focus on a particular task/person/group.

Just because they're not setting any guidelines, doesn't mean you have to be available all the time. Make your own boundaries and if they don't like it, tough. You are replaceable, so they can take you on your terms or not at all.

Do take care of yourself - it's a fantastic thing that you're seeing the burnout signs early rather than waiting until you melt down in front of a crowd. Well done, a lot of people would just ignore the signs.
posted by harriet vane at 2:56 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to give a quick update. Things have gotten better. I talked to my boss about working a 4-day week, and surprisingly she was totally against it. But on reflection, I'm actually not sure that would be such a great idea for me anyway - it wouldn't really encourage the kind of balance I need. She encouraged me to take vacation or comp time on Fridays when I need to. I took last Friday off, which was great, and I've scheduled a vacation for August, when I'll get to hang out with family in the mountains.

I'm still getting too much pressure to do too much, but I'm feeling more calm about it. I'm also looking for a therapist to talk about this stuff with - if anyone in Seattle has any recs, let me know!
posted by wholebroad at 3:19 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

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