Annahid Dashtgard spent many years as a young leader in the nonprofit sector. She worked hard, she was committed, she was inspired. She was exhausted.

“For all the talk of community, I found very little personal support,” she recalls of that time. Work demands were unrealistic, finances were tight and the leader felt increasingly lonely, asking herself, “Why am I working so hard to save the world when on a personal level I’m struggling so much? It didn’t make any sense.” Seeing people around her in the same boat was no consolation.

Upon hitting burnout — a common affliction of those in this sector — Dashtgard figured it a good time to cut her losses and get out. Hoping to regain balance, she spent a few months at a yoga retreat, adopted a regular meditation practice into her life, underwent personal therapy and unplugged for a while, knowing how addicted to work she had become and the importance of getting out before getting back in.

Today Dashtgard is back but “in a different way”, as she puts it. Her commitment is still strong – but it’s now re-focused on her work as senior partner of Anima Leadership, offering professional development services for individuals, teams and organizations in support of transformative change. A big part of her job is helping organizations avoid getting stuck in an environment heading for burnout.

Burnout redux

Since burnout not only impacts people’s lives but significantly affects organizational effectiveness, addressing its causes before it hits hard seems a worthy investment. The reality is, any sector can struggle with the challenges of the ‘overworked’ – and they do. But nonprofits seem to be affected disproportionately. Why is that? And what new ideas are people coming up with to counter it?

As Dashtgard explains, social mission-driven issues are emotionally loaded to begin with. Add to that reality the fact that people are generally hired on the basis of their knowledge and skillset with no regard for their emotional capacity or self-awareness. It’s a perfect setup for triggers to go off at every turn. “People are literally walking around emotionally crippled,” she explains. That could easily lead to loss of productivity and spill into one’s interpersonal relationships too.

For organizations in the social services arena, the situation can be even more dire, adds Jenny Katz. Like Dashtgard, Katz speaks from a place of personal experience. She worked as a frontline worker for many years before starting up Frontline Partners with Youth Network, an organization that supports other frontline workers dealing with youth.

The common misperception is that burnout is caused by the work and the people we’re trying to help, offers Katz. But that’s where workers actually get energized. “Burnout comes from the structures they’re working within, organizational bureaucracy and the ways in which success is being measured.”

General strategies

With that in mind, what can people do to counter these ingrained challenges? One piece of advice may be to move away from the martyr mentality, offers Natasha Golinsky, founder of Next Level Nonprofits, equipping EDs of small organizations with tools to succeed. The sector and those working in it need to realize that a worker who’s on call 24/7 doesn’t make them invaluable. “It just means you’re terrible at time management,” she says. “You can’t put yourself on the altar of a cause and lose your life on it.”

Nonprofit leaders should also improve their volunteer support systems, she suggests, ensuring these highly skilled helpers are leveraged and managed properly. Not only would that help staff and leadership manage their time better, it would keep the organizational system moving more smoothly. Ensuring effective strategies for delegation and accountability is important too, she adds, as is implementing tools for measurement and auditing the organization’s work.

And let’s not forget about the importance of promoting work/life balance. “Taking time off is important,” Golinsky says. Jules André-Brown would agree. Support facilitator with the Spectrum Society for Community Living for over six years, André-Brown is as committed to going on vacation every six months as he is to his demanding job. Beaches are nice but trips that “renew” are his favourite. In fact, he recently went to Indonesia on a four-day volunteer project.

And once work is done for the day, he’s has made it a point to de-stress at home with some play time, having recently bought himself a video game system. “It helps me get unstuck by stopping and doing something that’s just fun.”

Staying in control of technology

André-Brown actually has a very unique relationship with technology. Before starting his workday, he goes to the local library to check his email, where a one-hour time limit on computers forces him to curtail his email usage. The approach helps him complete his work in a more time-focused way once in the office.

Managing your distractions is key to balance for many, offers James Watson who runs Spring Dialogues, a networking event with an emphasis on dialogue for sustainability practitioners. “Being disciplined and understanding when you’re most efficient and scheduling that in is important,” he shares. Likewise, he’s a fan of software that blocks you from going on social media. “You can be in the middle of writing something and then get sidelined for 15 minutes and don’t even realize it.”

At a recent workshop entitled, ‘Strategies to sidestep “sustainability burnout’, the networking group talked a lot about the need for taking breaks, effective scheduling and eating healthy. They also thought it important to focus on a niche to counter the tendency to “take on the world.” By focusing on one area, he explains, people feel more comfortable in what they’re doing and face a less overwhelming knowledge gap, all of which can play a vital role in one’s work life.

From the inside out: Mind-body-heart strategies

But for many, burnout strategies need to delve even deeper, on building inner strength. The most important strategy Jenny Katz adopted against burnout was starting her own organization. But for those not looking to do the same, she suggests they develop their own political analysis and define their own criteria for success, regardless of the definition of success of the organization. “It will help you feel you’re not trying to address things drop by drop but looking at structural issues.”

And find other people doing your work so you can feel validated in your experiences and know that what you’re experiencing is not okay. “Workers need to organize and do basic self-esteem and assertive work to see what it’s like to stand up to a bully,” she adds, advising folks to practice assertiveness with friends and family until they’ve gotten the hang of it.

Connecting with your body and heart is good too – meditation, spiritual practice, poetry, art, creativity, dance, movement, song — says Katz, who today is focused on a new venture, Peel Onions, offering healing work and consulting to grassroots organizations.

Dashtgard would probably agree. There’s a new focus these days on emotional intelligence and laying down the scientific rationale for why cultivating self-awareness and empathy toward others is important, she explains. “Recognizing your own trigger reactions and how much energy your reactions consume is important.” So is looking at the wider perspective and adopting mindfulness practices, with its focus on breathing.

In fact, having a meditation or peace room set up in the building for people to go to is a great first step for organizations looking to incorporate these strategies into their work. Organizations who don’t pay attention to the emotional field and don’t help people set themselves up sustainably may be undermining their impact, Dashtgard adds. Establishing the practice of asking employees about their emotional level during meetings could be helpful too, as can flexible or remote work arrangements.

Bottom line, according to Dashtgard, is that, “the revolution needed in the sector is a personal, inward one, as opposed to outward where we need to sharpen our analysis or strategy.” It’s a matter of building a more solid foundation that allows for greater impact. “Because the issues we’ll be facing in the next century won’t be smaller than the ones we dealt with in the past and we need people to run the marathon, not the 100 meter sprint.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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