Episode #035: 6 Ways to Prevent Burnout in Nonprofits

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause membership or movement, I made this podcast just for you.  

Well, hey there everybody, it’s Tobi Johnson, the host of Volunteer Nation, and super excited to join you for another week of volunteer engagement goodness. So this week I want to talk about preventing burnout. So we’ve had a pretty rough couple of years. People are building back, but people are also still getting sick from c-o-v. And so we wanna make sure that we have our volunteers and our teams working to their top potential and not burning out. 

And so I wanna make sure that we, first of all, understand what causes burnout and what it is, and then how to prevent burnout. And this is a particularly special and supplemental episode for our VisionWeekers. Thanks for joining us for VisionWeek. It’s been a lot of fun. And as you built out your strategic plan, you probably started to think about, well, am I able to get all this done? 

And secondly, am I gonna burn everybody out with my strategic plan? So before you finalize your strategic plan, I want you to also think about some of these tips and just take a circle back around and take a final look and just make sure you can prevent burnout in some of the strategies you’re using. Okay, so let’s get started. 

Let me kick off with a little bit of context. It’s been a challenge the last few years. I remember in 2022 feeling a lot of anxiety. I was really struggling with anxiety and I had to take specific steps to start to address it. And the way I did was with meditation, with a daily routine, talking to a business coach. 

There were a lot of things I had to do to overcome that anxiety, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to. You know, most of the time I’m not plagued with anxiety, which is great. But then I started to lose my vigor and passion for my work. There was a period of time earlier this year where I just didn’t feel it, and I’m not a person who dislikes her job. 

I love my job. I love the fact that I get to lead people who help other people. It’s a great opportunity. It’s a great. I love my business. I love doing my podcast. I love talking to you. I love teaching my students. I love leading my members. There’s nothing really about my job I don’t love. There’s a few things I don’t like as much, but really it’s been a great experience and I’ve had my business for over a decade. 

But something came along this year of all years, and I just lost it for a little while, and so I had to continue to take time out. I had to continue to talk with my business coach. I had to continue to meditate and work on getting back to loving my job and good news again. It didn’t really take too long. 

But I have to tell you that preventing burnout doesn’t happen just because we wish it were. So it starts with a plan to prevent burnout. And so as you think about putting together your strategic plan for 2023, I want you to think about what you need to add to that plan so that you have a proactive plan to prevent burnout, you have an action plan, both in ourselves and in our volunteers. 

We want to have a proactive plan rather than waiting for it to happen and then figuring out what to do. It’s better always to cut it off at the pass. So it needs to be part of our strategic planning process, and that’s why I’m recording this episode and it’s specifically for our VisionWeekers, but everybody else gets to benefit as well. 

So let’s start off with what is burnout exactly, because I think a lot of people don’t really understand what it is. From the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions, they argue. 

One is feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, so you may feel depleted or fatigued at work. This is often a stress response, you’ll notice, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to burnout in and of itself. So it’s not just about being fatigued, right? The second domain or dimension is increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job. 

So, you know, you might be on the job, you might feel more irritable. Small things might make you hostile or angry. I have noticed this in myself from time to time, like the tiniest thing would set me off. You know, like, wait a minute, what’s going on? You may feel detached from your work and start cutting corners or just doing the minimum to get by. 

We’ve heard about this and read about it in the news. You know, it’s been called “quiet quit.” And because of this you might be making more mistakes. So we’re just not as focused and really engaged in our job. And we’re also maybe a little bit cynical about our job. So when I started to lose my mojo for my job, as I shared earlier, it was really that increasing mental distance from my job. 

And you know, if you think about it, it really is a coping mechanism. That our bodies and our minds are starting to say like, hold up. This is too much. And so sometimes our minds and our subconscious takeover, and I think that’s part of what happens in burnout.  

Now let’s talk about the World Health Organization’s third dimension of burnout, which is reduced professional efficacy. So we’re just not as effective as we used to be. So you might also, because of that, start really beating yourself up and questioning your own competence. You might have low morale because you have reduced productivity. 

And because of this you might even struggle with your mental health. And I think about that and I wonder, in some cases if you’re a high achiever and you don’t feel like you’re achieving like you think you should, that can cause anxiety or depression, right?  

So you have these three dimensions of burnout, feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or cynicism and reduced professional efficacy or productivity. 

So it’s usually burnout is a combination of some of these things. It also refers specifically to a phenomenon in the workplace. So it’s not really applied to other areas of our life. You’re not burned out on your relationship or you’re not burned out on being a mom. Those are different types of conditions that might happen for folks.  

When we’re talking about burnout, we’re talking about the workplace. Okay? So it’s an occupational phenomenon. Now, in the show notes for today, I’m posting the information for the World Health Organization if you’re interested in learning more. So check that out in the show notes on our website. 

So now we know what burnout is. It’s not just about feeling tired, right? How do you know if you’re at risk of burnout? And how can you prevent burnout? So, rather than simply being burned out or not burned out. Christina Maslo, and Christina Maslo is one of the preeminent researchers in burnout, she has studied it for years, was one of the first people to identify it, and she has just researched over the years. 

Over the years on burnout in the workplace and has identified five levels of people’s work experience related to burn burnout, and I think these levels help us understand the phenomenon with a little more subtlety. So she identifies five domains of one’s burnout, so negative scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy. 

So in order to be categorized or classified as burned out, you need to exhibit all three, negative scores on all three. And she has a Maslow’s Burnout Inventory. You can look it up online. Overextended is another kind of workplace stress, right? Rather than burnout, you’re overextended. 

This means that you only have strong negative score on exhaustion only, so you’re overworking or you have too many tasks, but exhaustion is the only thing that you’re experiencing. So that’s over. Ineffective is about your negative score on professional efficacy, so your lack of productivity, that would be ineffective. 

So that’s only one aspect, not the full burnout, all three. Disengaged is a strong negative score on cynicism. So sometimes people aren’t burned out. I mean, they’re not exhausted. They’re not necessarily overextended, but because they may not have a lot of control in their work, they may feel cynical about their job. 

So cynicism, that creates a level of disengagement. Employee engagement, on the other hand, is sort of the opposite end of burnout. Strong, positive scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy. So none of those things are impacting us in the workplace. So you can either be burned out, you can be engaged, or you can be somewhere in the middle with some of those issues. 

So overextended, ineffective or disengaged. In the show notes, I’ve posted a link to how to measure burnout accurately and ethically by Christina Maslo and Michael Lighter. It’s a Harvard Business Review article. You might wanna check that out as well. So there’s lots. If you just Google Christina Maslow, you’ll find lots of information or the burnout MBI, Maslo Burnout Inventory. 

You can actually take it, there’s a small fee associated with it, but it might help you if you feel like you’re burned out, you might wanna diagnose. And how much to the extent your burnout. So that’s a little bit on both what is burnout, but also how to start to predict what elements of burnout or exhaustion or efficacy or engagement are impacting you. 

And after the break, we’re gonna take a quick break. After the break, I’m gonna give you some tips to prevent burnout and some things you might wanna think about, including in your strategic plan.  

So let’s take a pause for a quick break from our discussion on how to prevent burnout while working in non-profits. And after the break, I’ll offer six ways to plan to prevent burnout. So stick around. I’ll be right back.  

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Okay, we’re back with our discussion about how to prevent burnout, and I’m gonna share six burnout busters you can include in your wellness plan, which should be part of your strategic plan. I don’t know, gang. I feel like every strategic plan going forward needs a wellness plan as part of it. 

Maybe it’s an appendix, maybe it’s part of the full plan, I don’t know, but it just feels like it’s necessary now, wouldn’t you agree? So let’s talk about this. What might you include in a wellness plan or in your strategic plan? So burnout buster number one, share your strategic plan with leadership and get buy-in. 

Now, this is a way to prevent burnout in yourself. This is your insurance policy and a key touchstone when you’re quote-unquote randomly given more work. You know, preapproval for your strategic plan. And I’m speaking directly to my VisionWeekers. Gang, you want to get approval on this plan because you don’t want to have to go and “Mother May I?” your entire year. 

And when someone wants to change or make recommendations or make directives to change what you’re doing, you can pull out your plan and say, okay, well what would you like me to not do on this plan if you’d like me to do this other? Right, because presumably you’ve created a strategic plan that’s pretty much filled up your tasks for the year. 

You’re on point, you’re on focus. They’re aligned with your organization’s goals. They make sense. Everybody’s bought off on them, and then someone comes three months from now and says, no, I want you to do this. Well, it can’t be both. And not if you’ve already resourced your time completely to your strategic plan. 

So I want you to use this approval as your insurance policy against random acts of new directions or people who sort of waffle in their leadership of you. So first burnout buster is to get some control. Because remember one of the reasons people feel disengaged or cynical is because they feel a lack of control over their workspace and workplace. 

And so, when you get buy in on your strategic plan, you’re starting to work against or you’re starting to gain back. So that’s the reason for that. It’s not that necessarily you need someone to validate your good work. It’s more that you wanna start to build buy-in so that you’re not gonna have a random change happening. 

Burnout buster number two, I just mentioned it, include a wellness promotion plan in your strategic plan. You wanna prevent burnout by actively working against it. Again, we don’t wanna wait until burnout happens or is at risk of happening before we address it.  

So work with your team, your volunteer team, and your coworkers to identify what gives them energy and what depletes it. It’s a great conversation to have. So what gives us energy around here and what depletes our energy? And then build a plan to double down on anything that promotes energy. So energy promoting activities, and then transform any tasks if you can, that suck the energy out of people. 

Or reassign those tasks to people who like those tasks. You know, I was just having a conversation with somebody today about administrative work. Some people love admin work. They’re like, oh yeah, I totally love admin work. It’s really relaxing. I’m really not supposed to be doing it all the time because I’m supposed to be working on other areas of impact. 

But I like it. It allows me to relax. And I was commenting, oh no, I hate admin work. It keeps me from doing my high impact work, and I sometimes get grumpy about it. It’s not that I…it’s just not my favorite thing, right? So, you know, everybody has a specific type of task that they enjoy. You know, I actually enjoy doing graphic design. 

Now, some people might call that admin work. I don’t. I call that creative work, but that’s relaxing to me. Whereas other people, they hate going on Canva. They do not wanna use InDesign. They do not wanna create graphics. So it really depends on the person. Sometimes a slight reassignment of tasks can reduce burnout for some people. 

So that’s burnout buster number two. Let’s go on to burnout buster number three. This again, for my VisionWeekers. Include white space in your strategic plan. Now, what do I mean by white space? Instead of doing more with less, why don’t we start focusing on doing less with more. So, review your strategic plan or have somebody else take a view and say, is this doable in your mind? 

So you don’t wanna set yourself up for failure by building a plan that’s bound to overextend the capacity of you and your team. That is not preventing burnout. That’s, that’s really promoting burnout, right?  

Sometimes this means pushing back on expectations from leadership and coworkers and being really uber about the resources, human and otherwise, it will take to reach the goals that are outlined in your plan.  

And so you definitely wanna look to provide white space. Now, when you’re reviewing your strategic plan at the end of the year, which I highly recommend, you wanna look back in time and say in December of 2023, once you’ve been through a year of your plan, you wanna look back and say, all right.  

We bit off more than we can chew. And if the answer’s yes, then you need to build, continue to build in more white space. You also shouldn’t be afraid at some point during the year to make an adjustment. If it is clear, it becomes crystal clear that there is way too much on the agenda. Sometimes you need to push things to the following year. 

It’s not something you should be doing all the time. You should be doing effective strategic planning, which really is focusing on things that are doable for the year. But once in a while, something takes longer than expected or something runs longer and you’ve got to move something to the following year. That’s not out of bounds, and it’s okay to do once in a while. 

So create that white space. Better to do it now. But if you have to do it later in the year and it makes sense, then do. All right. Burnout buster number four, lean into giving volunteers more flexibility and control. Now, this is about preventing burnout in your volunteer team. You know, you wanna prevent burnout in your volunteer team by helping them choose roles that make the most sense for them. 

I just kind of talked about this, the right person in the right seat. Work with them to build plans for managing the challenges that they will face when volunteering. You know, people come up against barriers. It’s not always immediate, either. Sometimes it’s happening, you know, people have issues with childcare or people have family members who are sick. 

People become sick themselves. People change jobs. People start school. People have a downturn or upswing in their business. There’s a million reasons why volunteering might be more challenging for someone throughout their time with you, so it’s a good time to sit down and go, well, let me see if I can help you work through this and I might have some ideas. 

So you wanna work with volunteers to help them overcome any barriers. And you know, the other thing you wanna do is bring volunteers into the conversation before you set any future policies that would impact them directly. So one way of giving volunteers control is to give them a voice in your policy decision making. 

So we wanna give volunteers more flexibility. We also wanna give them a greater sense of control, and help co-produce plans with them. They will have more buy-in. It will also be less stressful on them. So that’s burnout buster number four. Burnout buster number five. This is a productivity tip, okay?  

Use daily and weekly time blocking. Now, this can prevent burnout in both you and your very active volunteers. So if you have volunteer leaders, this is something you might wanna train them on. So you can prevent burnout in yourself by taking control of your calendar, both you and your volunteer leaders set up theme days and block out specific times for deep work each week. 

So if you’re working on a project or you have regular deep work you need to do.For example, some of my deep work is preparing my outlines for my Volunteer Nation podcast episodes. That’s deep work for me because I have to sit and think through what I’m gonna tell you. What I’m gonna share, and so I need time away. 

I can’t be interrupted every five minutes when I’m trying to come up with a cohesive podcast episode, so that I block off time in my calendar for deep work. Usually my deep work day is Monday. So I can kick it off and get her done right. You can set up theme days and block out specific times for deep work, but also for meetings. 

So I have specific days of the week. Used to be Wednesday, Thursday. In 2023, it will be Tuesday and Wednesday where I host meetings. So I have meetings with my team. I also have a Friday, standing Friday meeting with my team, and if there’s anybody, if I’m booking calls with potential clients, it’s always, or almost always, on a Tuesday or Wednesday. 

So my head space is in meeting mode on those days, and I’m not worrying about doing deep work. It is highly productive. I switched to this way of working a couple years ago and it’s really helped me. The other thing is, before each week, individual week, once you have your sort of ideal week set out before each individual week, set up an action plan that includes meetings, times for tasks. 

And when you’re going to get things done, when you plan to get things done, rather than just having a rolling to-do list. When I have a rolling to-do list, I just feel out of control when I take time to block time throughout my week in the apportion, the right appropriate theme day. Then I know I will get that work done, and if I don’t, I can roll it over a little bit into the next day. 

But I have a game plan for every week, and that reduces my stress because I don’t have to keep everything in my head. I only have to concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing on that day, and I get a lot of work done this way. So it’s a real great way to have more control and also to feel more effective in your job. 

Right. One other tip on meeting scheduling is to adjust your schedule as needed, but make sure your goals are realistic. As I do this and reflect at the end of each week, I realize where I’m not doing so well in terms of my time, my time evaluation, my estimation of what it takes to get something done. 

And so I learn through reflection and I get better and better at estimating that time and I feel more and more in control. So there you go. So use daily and weekly time. Burnout buster Number six is recognize the signs of burnout in you and your team and address them early on.  

So you wanna note when you or others around you are experiencing, one: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion as we discussed. Two: increased mental distance or feeling of negativism or cynicism related to the job, whether it be volunteer or paid. So we know when this happens. We know when people are being cynical. It may be a sonic burnout, right?  

And then number three: reduced professional efficacy or productivity. If we notice someone around us is just not getting the same level of work they’d been getting, there might be something going on. So we need to research and find out and talk to people. So also educate everybody on these and make it okay to talk about them openly. 

When we make it transparent, we understand, we educate people on what burnout is exactly. So we’re not just using the term willy-nilly or using a term that isn’t appropriate for specific feelings people are having. We wanna make sure that people understand, have a shared language, and then you can discuss and try to problem solve. 

Yeah. So that’s it. Those are my six ways to burnout bust. and I want you to think about how you can add these to your strategic plan for 2023. What areas or what things, whether they be goals or objectives in your strategic plan. And I’m speaking directly to you, VisionWeekers. So take a look and see if there’s any of these or others you might wanna add to your strategic plan. 

Something that might be missing. Right, and I’ll review these again. So burnout buster number one, share your strategic plan with leadership and get buy-in. Burnout buster number two, include a wellness promotion plan in your strategic plan. So make it real. Do what? It’s a little bit meta. It’s exactly what I’m saying to do right now. 

So burnout buster number three, include white space in your strategic plan. So give yourself elbow room. Burnout buster number four, lean into giving volunteers more flexibility and control burnout buster. Number five, use daily and weekly time blocking and encourage your volunteer leaders to do so too. And burnout buster number six, recognize the signs of burnout and address them early on. 

So there you have it, some ideas for just a few extra things to put in your strategic plan. If you wanna learn more about how to prevent burnout for yourself and your volunteers, you can go to volpro.net/how to prevent burnout for yourself and your volunteers. It’s a blog post I wrote about a year ago, I think, and I will link to it in the show notes. 

All right. So I hope this has been inspirational to you. I hope that you feel that you’re not alone. If you’re feeling burnout, if you’re wondering…,You know, when I was starting to feel burnout, I would go online and say, how do I prevent burnout? How do I recover from burnout? How do I become more resilient? 

I mean, there were questions I had. And so if you’re one of those people who’s wondering how to get out of the place you’re in, take some of these things to heart. Also give yourself grace. Your work is important.  

It’s also challenging. People to people work is challenging, especially in a pandemic. Your identity is wrapped up in your work As a leader of volunteers or a leader of a volunteer involving organization, your job is to engage the community in making change. 

And when you can’t do that, that doesn’t feel good. It’s like people have pulled the rug out from under your feet, and so we’re able now to build back, but we wanna do so with care. So make sure that you include burnout prevention in your strategic plan and share this with others that need to do so, too. All right, so that’s my show for this week. 

I hope this episode has helped you. If it has, I hope you’ll share it with a friend and if you would rate and review and subscribe to the show so that we can reach more people. I hope to see you next time for another episode of Volunteer Nation. We’ll see you same time, same place next week. Take care, everybody. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause.  

For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at TobiJohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.