Feeling Burned out? 7 Steps to Get Back Your NGO Mojo

July 25, 2017

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You’re probably so busy that you don’t have time to read this post. But, please stop multi-tasking and resist the pull to check your phone.

I have an important question: Lately, when you walk into your non-profit job in the morning, what’s the first feeling that hits you?

If your answer was some variant of “stress,” you’re not alone. According to the World Health Organization, stress causes 300 billion dollars in lost productivity each year for US businesses due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and employee turnover. Over 75 percent consider it to be a major concern; half aren’t taking vacations; and half are looking for new jobs.

Non-profit employees are certainly no strangers to workplace stress. Whether your organization is large or small, your employees are likely to wear several hats. You may wear at least 10 yourself, from running board meetings to changing toilet paper rolls. But even big-hearted, tolerant, non-profit staff have a breaking point.

Financial uncertainty, infrastructure, attracting and retaining board members, improving branding/communications, affording and retaining quality staff, the changing public policy landscape, and meeting the increased demand for program services — some of the biggest concerns cited by non-profits in the Center for Non-Profits’ most recent non-profit survey — and countless other day-to-day issues all fuel to heightened anxiety in our teams.

How do you know if you or your staff are at risk for burnout? If you’re currently suffering from three or more of these symptoms, you need to take a closer look and consider making adjustments.

  • Absenteeism – While supervisors should encourage staff, and themselves, to take sick days and mental health days when needed, you’ve got a real problem when employees continue to show up late or if no one is showing up at all.
  • Inability to concentrate – Are you not crossing off even the small tasks on your to-do list? Are you easily distracted by social media, noises in the hall, bagels left in the conference room? Do you have brain fog?
  • Loss of memory – Are you forgetting meetings, co-workers’ names, to pick up your child from school, etc.?
  • Anxiety – Are you no longer confident in your ability to handle familiar tasks? Are you easily panicked?
  • Depression – Just can’t shake a bad mood? (Don’t take this symptom lightly. Take a look at Symptoms from the Mayo Clinic and talk to your healthcare provider- Free, confidential mental health information and referral available at New Jersey Mental Health Cares.)
  • Inappropriate outbursts – Do you take it out on others, no longer following office etiquette, engaging in excessive office gossip, etc.
  • Lethargy/exhaustion
  • Avoidance – Lately are you procrastinating, missing deadlines, always having an excuse?

There’s no way to completely rid ourselves of stress and it’s actually not all bad. But here are seven steps we can take to manage stress and bring back enthusiasm for the mission.


Work smarter, not harder

Try separating your day into productive chunks of time. Tackle the most important tasks during your natural energy peaks. If you need total brain power and a quiet office for grant writing, schedule that task for early morning before the rest of the staff arrives. Procrastination is often the result of not wanting to do something or not knowing how. Discuss realistic deadlines with your staff and check in on progress. Lack of planning is a huge cause of stress. Learn more about project management for non-profits.

Show technology who’s boss

Is technology truly our friend? The reality is technology is how we work and how we play (we like the birthday post from our college roommate; glad the library sent us a ping our book is in). However, too much IT, or out-of-date equipment and software, can make our day harder, not easier. Take technology breaks – make a phone call instead of sending an email and enjoy a two-way, human connection. Give yourself a social media timeout and stop comparing your “status” to others. Technology moves rapidly but our brains don’t. Just because someone sends you a message doesn’t mean you have to respond immediately. Consider checking email only three times a day instead of continuously. Set limits with a new staff policy: All emails will be responded to within 24 hours.

Get organized!

While some of us claim to thrive with a messy desk, we’re in trouble if we can’t find our to-do list or our car keys. Make prioritizing a priority. Ask for your supervisor’s input on what needs to be done that week. Have your supervisor work with you on priorities. When managing capacity, think of the “triple constraint” of scope, cost and time. Most likely you won’t have all three so pick two and work within those parameters. By not over promising, you’ll feel more in control and less stressed.


Go with the flow. Easier said than done, but our approach to stress is how we see the world. When something unforeseen happens, is the world against you or is it just an isolated moment? I’m a magnet for the longest grocery store lines. It’s not my intention, but I always pick the one that will soon be changing cashiers, the paper will get jammed, the person in front of me will need a price check, etc.  I can stand there huffing and puffing and rolling my eyes, or I can take a moment to relax and catch up on my magazines.


Take care of yourself

Get your 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Don’t skip that healthy breakfast. Strap on a pedometer and take your 10,000 steps per day — get everyone moving by initiating walking meetings. Drink enough water! Do what you can to make your workspace healthy with gentle full-spectrum lighting, cross ventilation — open a window — cut back on noise pollution by instilling quiet hours, etc.

Take breaks — 15 minutes in the morning, afternoon and at least 30 minute lunch. Help build a culture of health in your organization.

Be present in the moment. Find time to laugh, have an organizational puzzle to work on together or by yourself for quiet time in the corner of the office. For adults, play is often considered “goofing off” but it’s where creativity can start.

Inoculate yourself from toxic individuals

Poor relationships at home or at work can cause burnout. Acknowledge your own feelings and protect yourself. While some of us may have supervisors with unrealistic expectations, we often put time pressures on ourselves. However, it’s not uncommon to see post-traumatic stress disorder come from the workplace. We can be traumatized by clients that come in for services, coworkers, etc.

  • Reacting versus responding – In a difficult situation, start with taking a deep breath. By responding and not reacting, we’re moving from our primitive brain to an executive brain.
  • Share the responsibility  Take turns having someone on call if you’re a crisis organization. When dealing with negative people, remember you’re going home to your life, not theirs.

Learn to say NO

Just because you’re legally allowed to work 50-60 hours a week doesn’t mean you should. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you someone who knows your limits. Take charge of your own work/life balance. At the end of the day, you will never conquer your inbox.

Take your allotted vacation and actually “vacate” from work. Even if you can only afford, or prefer a “stay-cation,” make sure to stay away from work. No checking emails while gone. Make the day before you leave the office a prep-day without taking on new projects and don’t schedule anything for the day you return to catch up. Leaders must respect their staff’s time when they’re not in the office and must lead by example by not staying late themselves.

Don’t be a work martyr!

Understand that good self-care makes you a good provider. Talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to creating more work/life balance. Take steps toward changing policy and procedures to put wellness front and center as an integral component of your organization’s culture.

Talk to your board and staff about implementing a variety of work format options including flex-time, telecommuting and job sharing which can significantly boost morale. Consider making wellness plans part of each staff member’s performance measures. Your staff absenteeism, health care utilization costs and turnover may go down, while staff productivity will upswing. Start by putting your life vest on first so you don’t drown, and then your staff won’t drown and you can focus on keeping afloat the people, causes, and communities you serve. 

And think about leaving work on time tonight. 

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Yvette R. Murry (MSW, LCSW) is the president and CEO of YRM Consulting Group, LLC, a firm specializing in the areas of non-profit excellence, executive leadership, team engagement, cultural competence and community engagement. Yvette is also the chairperson of the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s statewide umbrella organization for the charitable community.