Burnout and the not-for-profit sector


Burnout is a phenomenon that can affect people in any industry, but it is particularly common in the not-for-profit sector. Not-for-profit organisations often operate with limited resources, and employees may feel pressure to work long hours or take on additional responsibilities to make up for staffing shortages. Additionally, not-for-profit workers are often deeply invested in their work, which can make it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

A recent survey from The Xfactor Collective found that

  • 80% believe that existing sector constraints exacerbate the impacts on mental health/wellbeing
  • 45% are feeling stressed/anxious often/always (up from 13% pre-pandemic)
  • 41% are exhausted/frustrated (up from 9% pre-pandemic)
  • 40% are not taking care of themselves often/always (up from 18% pre-pandemic)
  • 69% of organisations rate the overall impact on their leadership team as negative
  • 48% rate the overall impacts on their Boards as negative

What is burnout, and how does it manifest in the not-for-profit industry so significantly?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. It can cause feelings of detachment, cynicism, and a sense of being overwhelmed. In the not-for-profit industry, burnout can manifest in several ways.

First, employees may become emotionally drained from working with clients or causes that require a great deal of emotional investment. For example, social workers or counsellors may feel overwhelmed by the trauma they witness in their clients. Similarly, employees who work with animals in shelters or rescue organisations may experience emotional exhaustion from seeing animals who are sick, injured, or mistreated.

Second, not-for-profit workers may feel a sense of futility or hopelessness about their work. Many organisations in this sector are working to solve complex and deeply entrenched problems, such as poverty, homelessness, or environmental degradation. When progress is slow or difficult to measure, employees may feel as though their efforts are not making a meaningful difference.

Third, not-for-profit workers may experience burnout as a result of organisational issues. Many organisations in this sector operate with limited resources, which can result in a lack of support or training for employees. Additionally, not-for-profit workers may feel pressure to take on multiple roles or work long hours to compensate for staffing shortages.

What are the consequences of burnout in the not-for-profit industry?

Burnout can have significant consequences for both individuals and organisations. For individuals, burnout can lead to physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and chronic illness. It can also cause employees to leave their jobs, which can result in turnover and decreased productivity.

For organisations, the consequences of burnout can be equally severe. When employees are burned out, they may be less productive, less creative, and less effective at their jobs. This can result in decreased program outcomes, reduced funding, and a damaged reputation.

How can organisations in the not-for-profit industry prevent burnout?

Preventing burnout requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses both individual and organisational factors. Some strategies that organisations can implement include:

  • Encouraging work-life balance: Organisations can support employees by providing flexible schedules, offering telecommuting options, and promoting self-care practices.
  • Providing training and support: Organisations can help employees build their skills and knowledge by offering training and development opportunities. They can also provide coaching and mentoring to help employees manage their workloads and prioritise tasks.
  • Encouraging collaboration and teamwork: Collaboration and teamwork can help employees feel supported and engaged in their work. Organisations can foster collaboration by creating opportunities for team building and peer support.
  • Recognising and rewarding achievements: Recognising employee achievements can help boost morale and motivation. Organisations can provide incentives such as bonuses, awards, or promotions to acknowledge employee contributions.

Personally, I've witnessed burnout among team members when an organisation becomes siloed. When teams aren't working together to achieve organisational goals it can lead to breakdown of communication and disillusionment. Ensuring teams have processes and know what success looks like is an important element to avoiding burnout.

Burnout is a significant problem in the not-for-profit industry, but it is not inevitable. By implementing strategies to support employee well-being and prevent burnout, organisations can help their employees thrive and achieve meaningful outcomes for their clients and causes.