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Avoiding Staff Burnout At Your Nonprofit 9 Months Into COVID 19

Alarm clock JPEG

We’re in a place that would have been hard to imagine back in March.    Nine months into the COVID- 19 pandemic, and we are still having to fear our neighbors, make difficult choices around work and school, and for some, manage a tricky work-from-home situation.

Nearly 20 percent of Americans struggle with anxiety in a normal year,1 and in 2020, nearly one third have reported feeling some kind of anxiety or depression around the pandemic.2

This increase in stress and anxiety can lead to a rise in employee burnout at your nonprofit, or  total mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion that comes with high amounts of stress over a prolonged period of time. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, the risk of burnout remains the same for remote employees as it does for in-person staff: 43 percent.3

Isolation, the blurring of work and home environments …  It all brings an increased risk for your nonprofit staff. So how can leaders of non profit organizations identify burnout in themselves, and their employees, and how can they help to mitigate it?

Symptoms of burnout for remote employees who work for nonprofits

Burnout for remote employees working for non profits look very similar to the kind of burnout you’d observe for in-person staff at any NPO.

Be on the lookout for employees who suddenly:

  • Display a lack of concentration, focus, or newly developed attention issues
  • Develop an increase in anger or irritability
  • Seem disengaged, withdrawn, or demoralized
  • Are repeatedly late, forgetful, or absent altogether
  • And/or struggle to meet deadlines

If you’re noticing a rise in any of these symptoms of burnout amongst your staff, there are things you can do to help them even though you aren't at your nonprofit's headquarters. 

How employees can help themselves

Encourage your employees to look out for their own mental and physical health—but make sure you’re creating the kind of environment where they can do so!—We’ll get to that in a minute.

All of us can manage our symptoms of burnout—or avoid it entirely—by doing the following:

Keep moving. Daily exercise does a world of good for both physical and mental ailments. And it doesn’t have to be an intense boot camp class! Taking a walk, doing yoga, or even a quick dance break in your living room are all great ways to move your body every day.

Stress written on wood blocks

Eat healthy foods. Food is fuel, and when our bodies are bogged down with foods that don’t make us feel good, they have less energy to power us through the good stuff.

Make time for social connection. Be open and connect with each other—including your coworkers—about your struggles and fears this year. They are likely widely shared and can create a sense of community and trust.

Don’t go it alone. Ask for help when you need it! It’s better to keep everyone in the loop when you’re struggling to meet a deadline or wrap your mind around a project. Chances are ...  you aren’t the only one.

Don’t stress about the time clock. Put more emphasis on deliverables than hours logged. Our ability to spend time uninterrupted at our desks at the nonprofit office may have decreased significantly this year.

As long as you’re getting things done, it matters less how much time you’re spending in front of the computer.

Limit news intake. There’s staying informed, and then there’s total media overload. Choose one or two reliable sources of news and check in with them on an intentional, limited basis.

Stay playful! Engage in icebreakers and virtual activities with your team in good faith. They might be cheesy, but you’ll probably end up smiling in the end!

Set boundaries, and stick to them. Don’t answer calls or emails outside of normal work hours. If you’re working after hours, draft your emails to coworkers, and either schedule them or save them in your drafts folder until the morning.

Set deadlines in advance

If you need something from a coworker, be clear about when you need it back. Consider giving them more time than you normally would—generous buffers can help us all better manage our time.

Leadership can set the stage

As you’re encouraging your staff to take a kinder, simpler, approach to their work, you must do the same thing! Create an environment where work can continue in a way that avoids ultimately unproductive burnout.

Allow flexible work schedules. Focus more on the deliverables your staff is producing than the hours they’re logging.

Adjust the workload accordingly. Being flexible on hours isn’t worth much if the workload still requires staff to be on-call around the clock! Especially as this long year comes to an end, decide what is truly necessary and important, and ask staff to focus on those initiatives.

Set and stick to “communication hours,” outside of which staff are not expected to be available for calls, replies to emails, or via other communication channels.

Keep communicating and sharing resources, even more than you think you need to. Staff with managers who communicate poorly are 23 percent more likely to struggle with their mental health during this tough time.4

Don’t make assumptions about what your nonprofit staffers need. Check-in with your employees regularly, and provide ways for them to give anonymous feedback just in case they aren’t comfortable sharing with you directly what they really need.

Model balanced behavior. Saying “I’m taking a walk during this meeting” or “I’m blocking out an hour this afternoon for an online yoga class” can invite others to follow your lead. Just make sure they know they can!

Encourage and model vulnerability. We’re all scared, tired, and at least a little bit angry right now— it’s okay! Embracing and sharing these feelings can create a sense of community that’s sorely needed during this isolating time.

When you’re considering a return to your nonprofit's office space, let people choose when they join you. You’ll avoid causing undue stress over a hard return date some employees may not be comfortable with. Remember that everyone has had a different tolerance for risk during the COVID- 19 pandemic.

We’re almost there

With a better understanding of COVID- 19, and vaccines looking more promising every day, there seems to be light at the end of this tunnel –  but we’re not through it yet!

As we enter the holiday season, which can be difficult for folks in normal years, creating a culture of trust and empathy for your nonprofit's staff will be vital in staving off employee burnout for the long haul.

“Add the Pin below to re-read this article, or refer to it later if times get tough and you need a fresh perspective on the many approaches for managing  stress in today's workplace. Because of the necessity for social distancing, work is no longer the destination we go to, but a new virtual state of mind. Find out what people are doing for mental health, and personal preservation — especially for nonprofits.

Staff Burnout graphic - man with gears coming out of his head

Endnotes

  1. https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
  2. https://hartfordhealthcare.org/about-us/news-press/news-detail?articleid=26831&publicId=395
  3. https://hbr.org/2020/09/preventing-burnout-is-about-empathetic-leadership
  4. https://hbr.org/2020/08/8-ways-managers-can-support-employees-mental-health


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