What to do about burnout when you can't be replaced immediately?
August 10, 2010 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I run a small charity that works with several hundred children with about 40 staff doing operations and two people working with me on fundraising and management. I'm unpaid and fulltime, and completely burnt out but it's not a job I can quit or handover immediately - I'm doing a transition to half-time, but it will take another six months, due to the specialised work. How do I stop myself from just setting fire to my desk one day?

About a year ago, we recognised I couldn't handle the workload alone, and started bringing in staff and volunteers. Given another six months, I should be able to cut back hours.

But this weekend, one of my pets died. I'd had the week off very ill (and still trying to keep up with email) and it was the first day I felt healthy again. Sitting with my dying pet, knowing I had a valid reason not to go to work on a day I was healthy was the *best day* in ages - which is crazy.

So I need practical solutions for the next six months of crazy as I shift out.

And -how do I manage the guilt of leaving when I know how necessary the work is? It's the kind of job where if I quit immediately, kids would go hungry and get hurt. We once had to take in kids from a charity where the founder did just that, and it was awful.

Logically, if I stayed on, we could reach even more kids, except for the minor snag of me going crazy and setting my desk on fire.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any workable options? For instance, how did the office get by when you were out for a week? Are you the top guy, or is there a boss you can go to and explain how burnt out you are?

If you have a boss, I would explain in no uncertain terms that you are burnt out, you are worked beyond what's reasonable, and you need some time off. Working four days a week is preferable to you walking out, right?
posted by kpht at 10:04 AM on August 10, 2010

Read up on compassion fatigue. I used to work for a nonprofit animal shelter, and what with daily euthanasia, pet abuse, pet abandonment, lack of funds, constant revolving-door staff turnover, taking grief from the general public, internal politics and micromanagement, it was very, very hard on me and my co-workers and volunteers, even though we knew we were doing some good in the world. Towards the end of my time there, when the burnout was becoming obvious, a few of us were sent to a compassion fatigue seminar along with some people from one of the other animal shelters in the area, and I remember it being pretty helpful (though I did ultimately have to quit the job anyway to maintain my sanity).

I'm sorry I don't have any specific book or site recommendations, just a subject to look into. I'll dig around in my boxes to see if I can find my handouts from the seminar, but it was three years ago, I might have ended up tossing them. Practical tips that I recall included very basic stuff to keep in mind like remembering to take care of yourself physically, as well as emotionally/spiritually, remembering that you can't save the world by yourself, being willing to delegate responsibilities, all the little things that can get swept out from under you when you are deeply involved in any kind of caregiving situation.
posted by Gator at 10:06 AM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Can you work out a flex time arrangement? Maybe work 80 hours in 9 days, instead of 10, so you have one day a week off every two weeks? This wouldn't be a huge adjustment to your actual work day, I'm guessing, or a hugely disruptive amount of time off. And then, every two weeks, you'd have a valid reason not to go into work on a day you're healthy.

As for the guilt of leaving - setting fire to your desk isn't going to help any kids. The quality of your work will improve as you phase down. And by stepping back your hours, you're making space to involve more people in helping the children you work with, which is better for the kids and more sustainable for you.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:06 AM on August 10, 2010

You need help - i.e. people who you can delegate some of your responsibilities to. There are a lot of good, honest and qualified people out there - just praying for a volunteer job where they can use their skills. Find them. Get a team going. You don't lose sight of the original heart song - you're just singing with a chorus instead of solo.
posted by watercarrier at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Concerning everyone involved, is it better for you to take a little time off here and there, than suddenly having a mental breakdown and quitting? YES. This is preventative maintenance for your mental well-being, not being selfish.

Take some time for a break every day to get out of the office and read a fun novel or do something physical - a short walk or yoga in the park, for example. Go home at 2:30 once in a while when you're feeling spent. Just a little break might be enough to restore you somewhat and tide you over. If not, take a full day off here and there - things can wait a day until you return.
posted by lizbunny at 10:39 AM on August 10, 2010

Lots and lots of nonprofit leaders do this to themselves. Find others to talk to. And accelerate your transition by shortening your hours or going in one less day a week.

If you're in a major metro area, there may be organizations that can help with this sort of transition. (I work for one, in NYC). Exec Directors of small nonprofits tend to work so hard that they drive themselves insane over time. Then they begin to be bad leaders. Get help before it gets that way.

Your board should also have your back... where are they?
posted by Erroneous at 1:11 PM on August 10, 2010

Thank you for what you are doing. I entered foster care at age 3 and grew up as a child of the system. I was raised by the kindness of strangers and was lucky enough to have people like you in my life. Unfortunately I never thought about saying thank you back then, and have always felt I owed a moral debt to all those people that made a difference in my life. That is why I've volunteered for over 30 years. Currently I work 100+ hrs a week running an animal rescue. I understand and empathize with your situation. Something that helps me is taking a few moments here and there, I detour through the park or down a well gardened street when running errands or stop for a quiet cup o' coffee, just a couple of minutes that are stress free can make a big difference. Recently I have arranged to go into work after hours, silence and solitude increase my productivity. Can you do that or maybe work from home a day or two a week. Steal a few hours here and there to take a deep breath and regain your balance. Wish I could be more helpful, good luck.

Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. -- Margret Meade Keep The Faith
posted by misspat at 12:42 PM on August 11, 2010

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