Is being ruthlessly overworked as an NGO employee par for the course?
November 16, 2011 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I've been working in my current position for a little over a year now, and I love most things about it. But: I'm very overworked, exhausted, and I can feel burn-out creeping in. If I leave to work at another organization, will I still be just as busy? Is NGO work only for the super-committed?

I've been working in my current position as a community manager/communications coordinator at a small, young NGO for a little over a year now. I love nearly everything about the job - what I'm doing day-to-day, the work I'm supporting, and the potential I can see for my career growth if I stay here.

However, I'm intensely overworked. I feel like I'm doing the jobs of three people; I'm often working solid, non-stop 16 hour days and most of my weekends. In theory I have a month of vacation; in practice I don't see any way I could possibly ever take it. We're a young organization - less than 10 years - and scaling very quickly without a lot of core funding (so we can't hire anyone to support operations). Everyone who works here takes on a lot, but I seem to be in a position that has me taking on a lot more than everyone else (mostly because I have some pretty useful skills that no one else here has). Part of this is my direct supervisor, who is aggressively growing our section without much thought for the limited resources we have (um, me) to support this growth.

I do a lot of professional networking, and I think I could easily move on to another organization at this point. But: given that I am very happy with the exact position I have, and I really, really like the organization I work for, I'm hesitant. The only thing that is making me want to leave is how overworked I am, and I'm worried that it's like that for every NGO; I've certainly heard that everyone is at least a little overworked. I've never worked in this sector before, so I'm not sure if what I'm experiencing here is standard. I'm also not sure that any position I move to will be as interesting to me as this one, and if I leave I'm reasonably sure that I won't be able to progress my career as quickly as I'd like (I can see myself as Director of Communications within the next few years if I stay; that could take a long time to achieve if I were to leave for another organization).

I should also mention that I really value my free time: I have an outside project that I work very hard on and love doing. In my current position it is badly neglected, leaving me feeling stressed out, guilty, and annoyed.

Is this just a normal thing I'm going to have to learn to deal with? If I move on, will I still have just as little free time & regret giving up a good thing?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I work for a very successful nonprofit and have been in the field for most of my career (over a decade, with several different organizations). I don't know if I've ever worked hours like you are now for more than a few days in a row. This is somewhat typical of small startups of any kind, but not the nonprofit field as a whole.

Nonprofit workers do typically pour a lot of ourselves into the work to a degree that I don't always think is necessary or productive. What would happen if you cut your hours and just accepted that not everything would get done?
posted by lunasol at 7:42 PM on November 16, 2011

I should also add that I'm currently filling two positions in my department and logging about 50-60 hours/week. But that is very temporary, and it feels brutal, even as someone with so much nonprofit sector experience. So, yeah, your hours are not the norm.

I see that you posted this anonymously, but feel free to PM me if you want to talk about the field. Burnout is no fun.
posted by lunasol at 7:47 PM on November 16, 2011

Since you have "pretty useful skills that no one else has" I would think this would give you some bargaining power. Is there anyone you can talk to about how overworked you are?

There are those who say you just have to suck it up and keep going to be successful, but I don't agree. Everyone has there own limits and something will give if you feel constantly overworked- probably your health, either mental or physical. I think you are approaching your limits and that's why you are asking this question. If you agree to take on more and more work, people will always expect you to. I think you should a.) think about what you are willing to do and b.) talk to someone about your workload. If there is no way to lessen your workload, then it sounds to me you should look at something else (another job) that will give you a better work/life balance.
posted by bearette at 7:53 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've volunteered at NGOs where the staff were overworked, but we're talking a handful of weekends a year plus 9-11 hour days here and there, or being "on call" every night but having a couple of people who they could pitch that to on specific days, or having a season of insanity where for a month or two out of every year it was 14 hour days but the rest of the year it was much more normal. Bad pay everywhere, yes, killer hours all the time for years on end everywhere, no.

And I agree that if you always agree to take on more stuff, people will always give you more stuff. I speak from a standpoint of being one of those fools who never takes vacation time they've accrued. No one will protect you from this - it's up to you.
posted by SMPA at 7:59 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Any non-profit that is expecting and allowing that type of schedule is not an organization you want to work for. If you're not happy with that schedule, start looking for another job.
posted by tomswift at 8:15 PM on November 16, 2011

Are you sure you really have to take this much on? I mean, have you tried just saying no? Or simply leaving after eight hours? I'm not being snarky, I'm just honestly suggesting that perhaps your boss doesn't actually know how overworked you are if you're not telling her. You haven't mentioned talking about your workload with your boss at all.
posted by unannihilated at 8:24 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

You need to cut your hours to something sustainable. If something happens to you - illness, family problems - your NGO will have a catastrophe replacing your hours and skills quickly. You need to talk to your boss and if your organisation is not sympathetic and starts trying to fix this, update your resume and leave. It is NOT sustainable. I am currently transitioning down from a similar position, and it's really hard. For my team in Cambodia, I have to enforce holiday leave and decent hours to prevent burn-out, and it's always our best staff who are at risk because of their passion for the work. But long-term, decent hours mean much much better work and that the organisation will thrive.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:33 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Part of this problem may be a community manager issue rather than strictly a nonprofit issue. If you're doing the sorts of things I've done at previous jobs (dealing with customer feedback, social media, planning media outreach, that sort of thing) it can totally suck up every single moment of time you give it.

The #1 hardest thing to learn is when to say no - or, more specifically, "We don't have the resources for that right now." Because you are a resource, and if you're working more than 40 hours a week on average, you are not a sustainable resource. Now, forecasting how many actual man-hours something will take is hard for everyone, and even harder is making yourself walk away with stuff left you could theoretically be doing, but you absolutely must learn both of those things - both for your own sanity and for your company. CMs break in interesting and occasionally very public ways.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:44 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been with my NGO for more than 10 years. My first few years were very much like that as well, and there are periods like that now, depending on what's going on. (We are currently three people doing the work that used to be handled by 7, so I know exactly how that goes.) The thing is, everyone in your office likely knows that kind of schedule is not sustainable in the long run - everyone in my office certainly knew that, including my boss. I realized that most of that was me putting the pressure on myself; it wasn't external pressure as much as my desire to do a good job and prove myself valuable, particularly in the first year. Then that set the precedence, and it became a pattern that was burning me out. Once I realized that, I began slowly cutting down on my own hours to a more sane amount. I set a no-weekend-work-unless-it's-truly-important rule for myself, and set boundaries on how long I was willing to work each day. Even if I don't feel like I can take long vacations every year, taking long weekends as "mental health days" works too. Don't fall into the trap of not using your vacation days!

Although I could work non-stop for the next year and still not get through everything that needs to get done, there is now a balance - it's not 9-5 for sure, but it's sustainable. Certain things don't get done like I wish they would, but the important stuff gets done right. And sometimes I even have time to do non-essential things like filing the papers on my desk! It means walking away from things that I could be doing at the end of the day, but it's the only way.

Your boss does NOT want you to burn out or to quit - it's more expensive to train someone new when you are doing a great job. You just have to stand up for yourself and occasionally say "no, I can't do that." Then negotiate a sustainable timeline for specific projects, and prioritize. It's hard, but it's worth it in the long run - not only for you, but for your NGO as well.
posted by gemmy at 9:10 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Reminds me a lot of a position an ex-girlfriend was in a few years ago. She worked for a youngish Non-profit in Chicago where she easily put in 70-90 hours a week, and that was not atypical among her co-workers, often many people were there both Saturday and Sunday, I picked her up a couple times at 7 and the office was mostly full. It was a well run organization where the upper management was mostly former young executives from the local financial sector, and they worked the rest of the staff like entry level I-bankers. Unfortunately they were payed on scale of kindergarten teachers so there was, yeah, a lot of burn out.

The typical way people dealt with it was quit and move to for-profit sector for 2-4x the money. I guess the managers were okay with a decent amount of 'churn' in order to get people's ambition and energy to work for the company. Some people 'negotiated' for lower work load. One bright guy that worked under my GF wanted 9-5, and he got it... and he got his work done because he was *really* talented in his position, but he didn't really advance at the same pace as someone like my GF. I know the company often debated changing the culture so that the average tenure of someone at the company was longer than 2-3 years, but for whatever reason they decided to stick with the start-up culture. Your company may be more open to 'normalizing' the work load of its employees, but asking for less work as alternative compensation has the drawback that your co-workers see exactly how much you work, even though they won't see your pay-check. Some people, when they got burnt out, got really snippy with people who were working less. Just extra office politics to think about if 80 hrs is the norm at your place.

I guess my answer may be 'it just may be the culture of the company' and it's up to you to figure out if you'll last there. From what I remember, it gets better after the first year, mostly as you get more secure in your position and more experienced with saying no or working with your managers. You can PM me you want and I can give you more details of my former GF; like you she is very much into professional networking ;-).
posted by midmarch snowman at 10:06 PM on November 16, 2011

I am an old guy who could possibly have been working longer than you have been born. I say that because working needs to be sustainable if you are going to do it for 40+ years. I have worked for myself, for large firms and for smaller shops. The most important thing I have learned in all my years working was to prioritize and address your priorities using time management. I translate that to say that get the shit that has to get done, done, make progress on the less important items, do minimal necessary work on marginal items and never ruin a weekend or stay past the 10th hour doing low priority items. And, in all my years working, I have yet to see a person who could not be replaced, but except for a few, I never wanted to have to replace anyone. My point is your boss will want to keep a good worker and will understand and appreciate your wanting a life.

Slowly start to cut back. No Sundays. Then no Saturdays. When someone, even your boss hands you something new, quickly assess its priority for the organization then for what you already have on your plate. If it is not a top priority, my reply would be, "I can definitely do that project, but not by Friday. I can have it for you 2 weeks from tomorrow (longish time frame compared to expectations) I have all those other projects I am working on as well as the everyday fire drills that need tending. That person will find someone else to do the item or drop it altogether. You'll be down to 50 hour weeks in no time.

The only caveat, and another poster addressed it up thread, is if they are paying you like an I-banker, then work your hours. If pay is like I suspect, simply cut back.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:34 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You have to learn to say No. You will only be overworked if you let yourself be overworked. Companies, no matter what kind, will get as much out of their 'resources' as they can. Unless you're paid by the hour or you have a contract that specifies you have to work 80-100 hours per week, just stop doing it. Like JohnnyGunn suggests, do it gradually so that it not so obvious an abrupt. If there really is 80-100 hours of work per week that really needs to be done, they will find the money to hire another employee when you cut back your hours to 40-50 per week or they will find that actually it didn't really need doing anyway.
posted by missmagenta at 1:46 AM on November 17, 2011

This is not uncommon in young, ambitious, progressive non-profits. And by "this," I mean two things: everyone being overworked and the constant pressure to do more with less, and the opportunity to amass a major amount of experience and advancement in a relatively short amount of time.

You need to set some personal limits to avoid burnout for yourself, and you need to push back strategically to encourage a plan for more sustainable growth for your organization, or you're both going to crumble.

For the latter, you can start with "what if I get hit by a bus," and "it will be bleedingly obvious on grant applications that this is not sustainable." Take advantage of all the highly-regarded free advice out there on nonprofit models and best practices and financial security and employee burn-out on sites like Foundation Center, GuideStar, Chronicle of Philanthropic, and other grantseeking sites. And here's a few other links: Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, Center for Civic Partnerships.

Needless to say, avoid saying "WTF, which of us is more crazy?" It's true, but not very politic.
posted by desuetude at 12:01 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

« Older Adjust/Renegotiate mortgage on property that is...   |   Why do birds migrate? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.