Volunteer Management Review

Avoiding -- or Surviving -- Burnout by Nan Hawthorne

According to The Management Center's soon-to-be-published book, TOFU - Time Out for You, "Employee burnout is one of the most insidious problems facing nonprofits today. Hard to recognize and difficult to deal with, burnout creeps up on us unnoticed. When feelings of cynicism, hopelessness and physical and emotional exhaustion are seen as the norm instead of an urgent warning sign, we know we are in deep trouble."

Like volunteers themselves, nonprofit -- and government -- volunteer program staff can fall prey to unrealistic expectations about what it means to "do good." One's own beliefs about self-sacrifice can be at the root, but society's censure for anything about charities they perceive as "self-serving" can get under your skin. HMO staff and attorneys are not the only butts of unkind jokes and accusations these days.

Burning out takes a huge toll. It diminishes our productivity and effectiveness. It damages our health. It strains relationships. It erodes our spirits and souls. Authors Christina Maslach & Michael Leiter (The Truth About Burnout, 1997, Jossey-Bass Publishers) sum it up: "What might happen if you begin to burn out? Actually three things happen: you become chronically exhausted; you become cynical and detached from your work; and you feel increasingly ineffective on the job." Quite an impact from something that is entirely avoidable.

What causes burnout? The expression comes from electrical terminology. It occurs when a circuit or wire is carrying too much electrical load for its capacity. The result is everything gets fried. The metaphor is apt: Human burnout occurs when a person is carrying too much load for her (or his) capacity. The result is the person gets fried. We can only take so much negative stress before we become physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

The cause is environment, but by "environment" we mean all the influences and conditions that make up our workday, including:

1. The expectations we bring to work about why we are there, what we do, what we want from coworkers and managers. When we are unrealistic about ourselves, the work itself and the others we work with we overreact to problems that arise.

2. Our own critical self-talk. It is healthier to step back and put our performance into perspective. We have responsibilities that do, in fact, come first: our own health, our families, our friendships. You have a simple contract with your employer: You do your best to contribute to the organization's success within your particular role, and in return it pays you. No more, no less. Self-fulfillment needs to come from within us.

3. The psychology of hierarchy in a workplace. Most businesses, including nonprofit businesses, are based on a military model of rank and authority. Instead of regarding everyone from the director to the temp as team members with a common goal and different roles, the message our "leaders" put out is that they are better than we are, that we serve them, not the mission of the organization. As a result we feel undervalued and overworked.

4. The impact of our own lifestyles. Everyone needs "downtime" to rest and reenergize. We all need enough nutritious foods to fuel us. We need physical activity. We need to laugh, to touch, to cry, to sit and do nothing. The person who deprives herself of these is an empty shell ready to crack.

5. A lack of support or outlets. We need others for the occasional venting session or for a reality check. We need to play as well as work. We need to balance our activities so one does not devour all our time and energy.

It is important to the individual and to the leaders in an organization to recognize the need for balance, confidence, respect, and understanding each of us has. Avoiding burnout is a team effort. Those organizations whose leaders fail to see this become impaired by the resulting problems they cause or simply do not prevent.

On a lighter note, here are some fun tricks to keep you un-fried or, if you are already toast, to restore your enthusiasm and heart for the work:

Change your environment. If you can, reposition your office furniture. Bring pictures for the wall. Have fresh flowers on your desk everyday. Take a new route to work. If you work from home, shut the office door at night.

Do something incompatible with stress. In a sense, this is changing your inner environment. Shut your office door for five minutes and dance, sing, draw with crayons. Go outside and blow soap bubbles or fly a kite. Stop answering "How are you?" with the truth. The more you say "Wonderful! Fantastic!" the truer it becomes.

Identify the things that bother you and turn them upside down. Does your supervisor put you down? Assign a dollar value to each incident and then go buy yourself something with the "earnings."

Start thinking like an entrepreneur. Think of your program as a business and yourself as the owner and discover how empowering it is to feel less like a flunky and more like a pro.

Throw a (private) fit. Barbara Sher, author of the "Wishcraft" books, writes that inside each of us is a rotten little tantrum-throwing brat who is trying to come out. She recommends allowing yourself the occasional controlled "hard times" session of uncensored venting to release the tension and restore sanity.

Get away. If things have built up too high, take a half a day off and go see a movie, visit an art gallery, play miniature golf, walk in the park, or do anything else as unlike your job as possible.