Nonprofit work can be incredibly fulfilling and impactful, but it can also be exhausting, overwhelming, and lead to burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Sadly burnout is far too common in the nonprofit sector, where overwork and lack of resources are common challenges.
The problem is many of us continue to work through burnout, either not recognizing it or not feeling we can take a step back to deal with it. That's not ok for you, your team, your clients, or your family, and it's certainly not ok for the nonprofit sector!
It's important to note that burnout is a gradual process and doesn't generally happen overnight. It's essential to pay attention to warning signs and take action before you hit burnout. Robert Cole, an American psychologist, wrote The Call of Service, which discusses the path to burnout.
The first step to prevent burnout is to increase your awareness of what it is and recognize the warning signs of when you might be headed there.
According to Cole, we move from weariness to cynicism. Next comes despair and, following that, bitterness. We then slip into depression before we hit burnout.
I remember the first time I was on antidepressants. It was right before I almost quit my job. I'd hit burnout and had trouble even remembering what I'd once loved about the work. I'd become so embroiled in conflict, toxicity and negativity.
Looking back, I now see that the weariness, cynicism, despair and bitterness were all there before that. I just tuned them out, assumed black humour was part of the job, and every leader is exhausted. I didn't know that those were not the mark of strong leadership. Instead, they were signposts along the way to burnout.
Look at the following stages on Cole's pathway to burnout. Do any of these sound a bit too familiar to your daily experience?
If so, stop and acknowledge that. Just pause and be aware that while this may seem "normal" in our sector, that doesn't make it "right." It's not ok, either. There is another way. It begins with choosing a different path.
I want to insert the original version of the serenity prayer here.
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
Notice that the prayer asked for courage first. And that courage was for things that MUST be changed, not things that simply can be changed. I believe we MUST change how we experience leadership in the nonprofit sector. But there is another way, and it will take courage from you, me, and a few other brave souls to start the tides of that change.
When I was aware I was burning out, I went to the doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. That isn't the path for everyone, and I don't know if I'd take that path again now. But it was the best I could do at the time.
I also did several things that boosted my confidence (You can find 4 of those confidence boosters here). The confidence boost helped me return to leadership with my head held high and ready to reengage intentionally and with passion.
It started with awareness, then took courage.
If you are on the path to burnout and want to rekindle your passion for nonprofit work, you might be interested in the 5-day challenge I created to help you rediscover your passion and purpose in your work.
Join the 5-Day Challenge: Conquer your love-hate relationship with your job.
March 20 - 24th
Are you tired of feeling stuck in a job that no longer excites you? Join the upcoming 5-day challenge and shift your mindset to reignite your passion for your nonprofit leadership role.
It's time to shift your mindset and reignite your passion for your job.
How it works:
When you sign up, you'll be invited to join each day to gradually make shifts that will rekindle your passion for your job.
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Women leaders often hit a point where they find themselves in over their heads and wondering if they have what it takes to lead.