Did you jump out of bed this morning before your alarm, eager to get to work and get at it? If not, you’re not alone. Increasingly, many workers are suffering from a case of the Mondays, even when it isn’t a Monday. Gallup research regularly examines employee engagement around the world: they find that perhaps only 33% of employees are fully engaged in their work.
The question of how to get motivated (or how to get your staff motivated) is an important one in any sector. We talked with a number of experts to find tips on motivation for people working in nonprofits and charities.
What motivates people in nonprofits?
Anecdotally and based on our own experience, we know that people go into nonprofit work for quite different reasons than the factors that motivate people in for-profit careers.
Dr. Michael Bassous who specializes in human behavior at work, and who has worked in the nonprofit sector, says, “Whereas workers in the labor market are generally motivated based on the fulfillment of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the emergence of each level of needs rests upon the satisfaction and fulfillment of the previous level...for many nonprofit workers, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be inverted or un-sequential; esteem and self-actualization needs may be of same significance as lower needs – physiological and safety needs.”
Jennifer Moss, cofounder of employee engagement platform Plasticity Labs and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work says that while lack of employee motivation is an epidemic, employees in nonprofits are generally more engaged.
This is because employees in the nonprofit sector are more often driven by the cause. As Bassous says, “The role of organizational mission, vision, and values in influencing the level of motivation among workers in nonprofit organizations, mainly mission as incentive, is prevalent.”
What demotivates people in nonprofits?
But while employees are attracted to the sector because of its purposeful nature (increasingly true among Millennials and younger employees) and are often willing to make substantial trade-offs for their cause, this isn’t the end of the story when it comes to motivation. In fact there are several ways in which nonprofit employees are particularly prone to become demotivated.
Plain old fatigue is increasingly a problem for employees across sectors: Robin Bender, founder/facilitator of MegaHealth says that Tired All the Time (TATT) Syndrome is one of the number one reasons people go to the doctor, while the US-based General Social Survey finds that compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted with nearly half of people surveyed saying they are often or always exhausted due to work.
For people working in the nonprofit sector, however, there’s also a different factor at work: compassion fatigue. Moss says, “Compassion fatigue can be a by-product of caring about what you do. People who are purpose-driven in their work can become demotivated by being depleted and exhausted from giving.” Bender adds that this is a result of “constantly giving without giving to yourself.” The General Social Survey of 2016 found additionally that the more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel at work.
Another demotivating factor for people working in the nonprofit sector occurs due to a loss of hope resulting from outside factors. Plasticity Labs regularly assesses happiness among workers in Canada and the US: Moss notes that while a three-point dip would be considered a significant decline, after the 2016 election, happiness scores dropped by 30 points. This was true in Canada as well as in the US. One marker of happiness that has not rebounded in such assessments has been hope. Moss notes, “Hopelessness is hurting nonprofit organizations.” Less political factors can also play a role in demotivation: one former ED in Alberta notes that the downturn in the provincial economy has had an enormous impact on motivation.
Factors beyond our control also lessen our motivation: surveys of nonprofit employees by TalentMap show that increasing numbers of staff are disengaging as they don’t have input into decisions and directions that affect their own ability to contribute to their cause, distancing them from that sense of purpose that engaged them in the first place.
So, what to do?
Bender, whose background was as a disability manager and who today offers Mental Health First Aid workshops, says, “It is particularly important that anyone who looks after other people take care of themselves.” Moss adds, “I constantly say that we need to put on proverbial masks on first before we help others, but we don’t tend to do that in purpose-driven roles.”
In the big picture, Bender says this means paying attention to your health and well-being, and how you are coping, and communicating that, especially when you need help — before you get burned out.
It also means becoming better at setting priorities: not everything can be done at 100%, immediately. Bender says, “This means creating boundaries around how much you can give. You can be absolutely committed to the mission, but don’t sacrifice your health to it — partly because nothing is more important than your health, and partly because if you neglect your health, you won’t be able to contribute.”
Bender encourages clients to create a self-care plan and to actually use it — beginning with changes as small as adding more water to their diet.
Practical motivation tips
Sometimes, we may be generally practicing good self-care but we just don’t feel like working on a particular day. Here are some tips for building motivation on those days:
1. Don’t wait to feel motivated. Psychology writer Oliver Burkeman notes in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking: “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated...If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realize that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.”
2. Create a simple routine or habit to get motivated, just as sports players have pre-game routines that help signal to them that it’s time to play ball. Keep in mind that it takes longer to form a habit than we think: according to researcher Philippa Lally, it can take months to form a new habit. Leadership coach Kathy Archer adds, “We only have so much willpower in a day and it gets depleted. Create a habit where you don’t have to think or motivate yourself – and take the thinking out of it.”
3. Reduce any friction that stands in the way of motivation. Moss had a colleague who struggled to exercise and so slept in workout clothes and put his shoes at the end of the bed.
4. Practise the Pomodoro Technique where you work for 25 minutes without interruption, and then take a break.
5. Mix it up. Bender says it’s important to bring a playful approach to our work, to find new ways of challenging ourselves, rather than slogging through the same old-same old in the same old way.
6. Talk to yourself, says Archer. Be aware of the thoughts that make your brain wander, and talk yourself into doing a task, rather than out of it. She adds, “Assess your resistance. What are you afraid of? If you really did that task, where might it get you? Do you really want that? Are you properly resourced for it?”
7. Use what psychologists call “structured procrastination”, where you turn to smaller, easier tasks even if that means ignoring the bigger task really needs our attention.
8. Practice gratitude. Especially for people struggling with low hope, Moss recommends the nightly practice of gratitude journaling, noting that science shows that gratitude is very influential on motivation even for seemingly unrelated activities. Similarly, she encourages people to step back and look at cycles within organizations and society both to understand and reframe what is going on, and to also build resiliency by seeing how struggles have made them stronger.
9. Schedule self-care late in the day. This is Bender’s favourite tip, she says, because it means that people always have something to look forward to, regardless of how their day has gone.
10. Don’t rely on caffeine to keep you going. Instead consider walking meetings, drinking water, or simply getting up and walking around for a few minutes.
11. Feeling sick? Go home for the afternoon rather than going through the motions.
12. Come back to your passion and where you can have an impact, Archer advises, rather than remaining stuck in the heavy weight of frustrations beyond your control.
13. Reward yourself after accomplishing a task. This could be as small as allowing yourself to check social media after finishing a task.
What can organizations do?
It’s highly ironic, says Moss, that many nonprofit organizations committed to caring for their clients make their own employees unwell. It’s also costly: research shows that lack of employee engagement costs $450 to $550 billion annually in the US.
By contrast, Bender says, “Organizations that put people first are way ahead of the competition and are well recommended as great place to work.”
Organizations can encourage employee wellness and thus engagement in a variety of ways, including holding walking meetings, creating spaces for mindfulness and prayer, or making vacation days mandatory. Bender suggests individuals and organizations can also track sick days used as an indicator of wellness.
One key way an organization can encourage employee motivation, says Moss, is to keep all staff connected with the front lines of their mission so they can see how their work impacts the big picture of the mission. This could be done through staff visiting clients or through videos and storytelling about the impact on clients.
Know when to fold ‘em
Sometimes, the Mondays arrive early: if you find yourself with an impending sense of dread every Sunday night because you have no motivation to return to work, it may be time to re-evaluate.
Bender says, “Everyone has days where they have to push through and find motivation, but it depends on how frequently this happens.” She advises clients who have lost their passion to figure out what has contributed to them feeling this way, and to make the necessary changes to take care of themselves and to recover their passion.
Sometimes this means leaving the organization. Bender says, “Even if you love the cause you are working for, if your values aren’t aligned and especially if your organization doesn’t treat its employees well, you will likely get more tired. You won’t be able to fulfill your passion for the cause because you will become sick.”
Moss says, “We tend to blame ourselves if something isn’t working, but knowing you aren’t happy and are becoming depleted is a reason to leave.” Moss also advises people in this situation to get support in place before leaving—such as a therapist—so leaving can be a healthy decision.
There’s probably no human being who wakes up every single day completely thrilled about their work, but whether our lack of motivation is temporary or ongoing, as people who work in a caring sector, we have a responsibility to pay attention to our own needs and that of our employees so that we can truly accomplish our mission of doing good.
Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.
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