Effective self-care strategies: How to recharge the right way to avoid burning out

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After the strong response to the article about the cult of busyness and the piece we did on the importance of finding flexibility within the 9 - 5 grind, we recognized that there was much more to the story of why nonprofit professionals are feeling so overloaded: it may be because we have succumbed to martyr complexes, are mirroring the crises of the people and situations we serve, or that we just have too much on our plates. But whatever the cause, simply clocking out on time or taking our scheduled two weeks of holidays in a year is not always enough to fully recharge our batteries.

Emily”, a young nonprofit staffer, confesses she struggles with insomnia. “Even though I try to leave work at work, I often wake up in the middle of the night and think of fifty billion things I need to do.”

At a recent conference for a national nonprofit association, more than half of the attendees engaged in a spontaneous group discussion about how people could find joy in their work. One person who was there said, “People were very vulnerable and emotional when they talked about the struggle they have in finding a balance that allows them to live their work with joy rather than dominated with fear of failure.” She added, “It reinforced to me that so many people who work in the sector struggle with this. How do we create a culture that allows all of us to have fulfilled lives and longevity in our careers?”

For Eva Cairns, managing producer at Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, this has been a work in progress. “I’ve been in arts administration for 29 years and had two major burnouts in that time. It took me until my late 40s to realize that I needed to provide myself with specific tools to protect myself, my family and my employer from these kinds of crashes.”

The hard reality is that many people struggle with the challenge to unwind and be refreshed — a survey of executive directors done by the Peel Leadership Centre in 2013 found that 91% felt burnout — and that the cliché of crashing in front of Netflix with a bag of chips or a glass of wine has too often become the most likely form of self-care practiced, with the same kind of semi-collapse when it comes to holidays.

We thought it was important to talk with people who struggle with this challenge to unwind as well as those who have found keys to self-care success.

So what’s the problem?

It’s called the Zeigarnik effect and it describes a familiar phenomenon: people focus on and are disturbed by incomplete tasks. Unless we’ve left an empty inbox and a completed mission behind us, those of us working in the nonprofit sector are often unable to really leave work behind.

Lianne Picot, executive director of the Peel Leadership Centre, notes that the stresses of nonprofit work are very real. “You get one grant and you’re onto the next. You don’t know what’s coming and whether the rent will be paid. Executive directors are responsible to find money for their own salaries and those of their staff. And then there’s the cause. Homelessness isn’t solved. Domestic violence isn’t eradicated. It’s hard not to feel all the pressures — and it’s even harder to let them go.”

Eileen Chadnick, principal/coach with Big Cheese Coaching and the author of EASE: Manage Overwhelm in Times of 'Crazy Busy, notes when we feel overwhelmed, our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is used for making good choices and complex thinking, gears down and instead our amygdala takes over, launching the well-known “fight or flight” response. Chadnick says, “Hello overwhelm, goodbye capacity.”

And that’s when our work and our mission suffers, and figuring out how to relax and find true refreshment stops being a luxury and starts being a necessity. “If we operate in crisis mode,” says Picot, “we can’t serve people well, which is what we are here to do.”

Cairns agrees. “When I had problems in the past, I actually attached a lot of importance to the notion of being able to be seen as a kind of heroic super-achiever. When I hit the wall, when I did not want to go to work anymore in the morning, started to see job as drudgery, started to see everything a problem as opposed to positive opportunity or challenge, I realized I had to take action.”

Chadnick says that in order for our brains to do their best work, we need three things: a moderate amount of stress (what she calls a “sweet spot”); quality sleep; and a positive mood. We talked with a wide variety of nonprofit professionals to find tips on how they do just that.

Establish rituals

Rituals function as signals — whether that is someone putting on their lucky jersey to watch a sporting event or people finding practices that help to let go of work at the end of the day. One nonprofit professional suggests switching your watch to a different wrist after work, changing clothes or even putting your work in a box to signal the end of the work day.

When it comes to holidays, Chadnick says, some people surprisingly don’t change their voicemail or set up email out of office alerts. She recommends doing so, and that this can be a signal to others, helping manage their expectations.

Get off the grid

While Cairns deliberately plans a short daily email check-in during family holidays and finds this reduces her stress so that she knows what she will be facing upon her return to the office, many more people find that a key to true refreshment (whether for an evening, a weekend or two weeks) is to get off technology altogether.

Many of the people we spoke with gleefully reported finding ways to go somewhere they can’t get cell reception or wifi — whether floating in a lake, travelling to a foreign country, visiting relatives on a farm or taking a cruise.

Others restrict themselves voluntarily by choosing not to bring a laptop home or to lock their phone away. One person, who works from home said she has a “ruthless devotion to digital sundown” at which point electronics are shut off.

Another benefit of getting away is described by people who work in nonprofits in smaller towns. One person said, “I love where I live but I can’t go anywhere without running into people I know. Getting out of here sometimes and exploring a new place is so helpful.”

Although Cairns opts to stay connected, she stresses that she only works if it needs doing, and doesn’t sneak off to work. She adds that her chronic insomnia disappeared once she decided not to turn on her computer to work in the evenings.

Get outdoors, get active and get more sleep

Basically your mom was right. Research now clearly shows that getting outdoors plays a strong restorative role in health — reducing stress, blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, the production of stress hormones and possibly even mortality. One nonprofit professional said, “Whether it's a quick walk to the neighbourhood park or a day trip to the coast, being outside helps me relax and realize that the world is so much bigger than me. Plus it gives me time to enjoy the beauty of nature and make memories with my kids.”

Exercise is another key to true restoration. Tara Hurford, Catholic Schools Program Officer at Development and Peace, says, “I’ve realized there are some things I can’t ever cut out of my schedule: getting 30 minutes of cardio a day keeps me sane and helps me feel more alert and focused and better all around.”

Too often sleep is discounted as non-essential — with millions of Canadians suffering from what researchers call sleep deficit. One researcher observes, “In the past, it was thought that if you were to be sleep deprived you will...be less alert, you will have cognitive deficits. But now, we know that it also affects your body, your metabolism, how your body regulates your cardiovascular system.” Another nonprofit employee notes that, “Nothing is better for me in terms of recharging than sleep, whether it’s a nap or a few good nights' rest.” Chadnick suggests making a plan for rest and sleep, noting “Doing nothing can be a goal.”

Concentrate and immerse yourself

For many people, a real key to being able to unwind is somewhat counter-intuitive: to throw themselves into something they love that is completely unrelated to work. People may think what they need is just to crash on the couch at the end of the day, says Chadnick, but the science of positivity shows that as humans we need to be fueled and that making time for activities and people we love leads to more fulfillment and relaxation.

This can be something quiet (one person says, “If I have had a really stressful day I will sit and read for hours to get back to a neutral standing.”) but for many people it needs to be an activity that is “complicated enough that I don’t have the brain space to think or worry about anything else while I’m doing it.” The people we polled listed a wide range of activities: beekeeping, making soap, sailing, karaoke, lifting weights, teaching karate. Of making soap, Sylvia Ceacero, CEO of SHARE Family and Community Services Society says, “it requires concentration for a couple of hours. While I make them, the world disappears and I come out at the other end recharged and relaxed.”

Cairns says of the karate classes she teaches, “It started out as a shared activity with my sons that simultaneously built exercise into my life and was a consistent, structured vehicle for stress management. Over time, I have found it liberating to be part of something that is a community service and has nothing to do with my work.”

Cairns says, “Most of us in nonprofits are very passionate about our fields, but it’s important to realize that it’s okay to have more than one big passion in life and that they can complement or support one another.”

The role of organizations

In their book, The truth about burnout: How organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it, authors Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter debunk the common myth that workers are solely responsible when they suffer job burnout, and that instead employee burnout is a sign of organizational dysfunction. This is where author and PhD student Zoe Krupka cautions against a culture of overwork when she writes, “No amount of multivitamins, yoga, meditation, sweaty exercise, superfoods or extreme time management, as brilliant as all these things can be, is going to save us from the effects of too much work. This is not something we can adapt to. Not something we need to adjust the rest of our lives around. It is not possible and it’s unethical to pretend otherwise. Like a low-flying plane, the insidious culture of overwork is deafening and the only way we can really feel better is if we can find a way to make it stop.” Organizations play a vital role in preventing burnout for their employees. Here are some top tips from the experts we spoke with.

1. It starts at the top, says Picot. “Leaders need to stop saying how busy we are or how hard it all is, and instead need to model taking time out whether for self-care or reflection. We need to shift the culture and activities that support the culture — if people are told at a staff meeting they could go to yoga at two o'clock, but overachieving peers look at the few who do with disdain, this actively erodes that. Leaders need to keep learning, remember why we are in the sector and find opportunities for gratitude and fun.”

The Peel Leadership Centre is holding a leadership forum called 'TIME OUT" this fall that addresses this issue.

2. Give paid time off and flexible vacation as needed. Ceacero says, “My board is supportive of my taking time off as I require. In fact, many a time, my chair is the one saying, ‘You've been working very hard. Time for a holiday! We must look after you.’ Leadership means demonstrating that we care for our employees and their well-being, not just their ‘well doing’. We give so much to our clients, stakeholders, partners and volunteers, that having time away from it all is not only sound but is the responsible thing to do.”

3. Help staff sort through priorities. Hurford says her boss is genuinely available to her staff to help them decide what is important and what they should say no to. “She reminds us that we aren’t doing brain surgery. She works and travels a lot but she also models taking time off and helps staff feel taken care of."

4. Put supportive structures in place. One nonprofit professional confessed he often chooses not to take time off because he know his work will continue to pile up in his absence, and that he will cut trips short to address a work issue. He suggests that where possible organizations should support staff by sharing the workload in their absence so that they don’t come back to a huge backlog when they do return.

Eva Cairns says, “People won’t hear anything until they are ready to hear it. But to someone who is ready, I would say: Give yourself a break because in the long run, if you love what you do, you want to build a sustainable relationship to that work. You will be a better practitioner for it and you will be just as strong a member of the community you are part of, but you don’t have to be a martyr to do that. We often lose senior leadership —sometimes because of money but also sometimes because people feel they have to leave in order to bring balance back to their lives. It was important for me to develop tools to help me stay engaged with a community I love and work I’ve invested in.”

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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