The Lessons of Burnout

Why do you show up as you do? Why do you engage others to give, volunteer, and lead to make something in your community better? What were the watershed experiences which made that essential to your character?

For me, it was bullying. I was always the tallest in my class at Highland Oaks Elementary, hence the most physically formidable. On the playground, when I saw scrawnier kids being tormented by meanies, I could use my physical size to get it to stop. “Leave Tina alone!” That was all it took. As the best kickball player in the 6th grade, I had power.

But junior high changed all that. All of a sudden, my shirt was supposed to coordinate with my pants. I was expected to pluck my eyebrows, shave my legs, and temper my enthusiasm. Things I loved, like singing and running faster than all the boys, were social liabilities. The protector of the bullied became the bullied.

Knowing what cruelty feels like shaped my vision for a world where we all feel safe and wanted for who we are. In my work, I’m not not just doing a job, I’m leading from a stand forged early in life about fairness and kindness. It’s my power source. But sometimes, that power source is what pushes me to the dark side, to burnout.

When I am in burn out, I am not coming from a place of ease and joy. I feel pressure to perform. My attempts at humor fizzle. I sense I am sinking into creative dead lands. My husband listens to me analyze situations I am working on and I think, “I am the most boring person on the planet.”

My recipe for burnout goes like this:

  • I can fix this;
  • Faster faster;
  • We’ll worry about feelings (especially mine) later.

Burnout dials up old hurts. Generally, when you’re burning out you’re not at your best. Conventional wisdom would have us make the discomfort go away as fast as possible. Pick your poison. Martinis? Frenzy? Mad bursts of productivity can bring welcome, short-term relief. More exhaustion and an even deeper sense of burnout soon follow. You might take a vacation, noticing you feel even worse upon your return. Are you a rager? Are you extra self-critical? What are your signals?

Who or what is responsible for burnout? Is it:

  1. A question of self-care?
  2. A problem of poor organizational culture?
  3. A sign you are ready for transition in your professional and personal life?

If the answer is A — and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is — I can take steps to prioritize self-care. I’m smart! I can add back all that stuff to my to-do list and my budget that I’m supposed to be doing. Hot yoga. Long vacations. Personal coaching. Every January we are awash in the allure of being happy. There is an answer, we are told. But, the older we get, as we round the track of accomplishment, and we keep circling those January’s, it’s harder to believe in the easy fix.

If answer B holds some truth, your organization’s culture is one where staff must load up, hurry up, and subordinate their needs to hit targets. For this organization, burnout isn’t just the norm; it’s a point of pride. Employees are churning, revenue might look good, but it’s all a house of cards. Drama looms. You can count on chaos. The nonprofit sector is rife with this.

Answer C acknowledges that burnout is a part of the triptych of a life of dedication even in a well run organization. In other words, if you are paying attention at all, if you care about your work, the world, yourself, sooner or later, things get out of alignment and it shows up in your body. Hopefully you are paying attention. Good news. You’re right on schedule.

Nonprofit employers can help leaders and staff remain mindful by creating a culture of reflection and renewal. Perhaps the most important thing an employer can do is to offer generous paid time off, including paid sabbaticals.

Even with generous PTO, burnout for the social change professional is normal and healthy. You will hit a point when it’s time to make a change, you will blow past it and ignore it as long as you can, and you will burn out. The only question is degree. How thick is that skull and how good are you at ignoring how you feel?

Burnout is the invitation to stand on the shore of your life and wade in. But you didn’t train for this. You’re a do-er. What the heck now?

Follow your suffering. I followed my suffering right into a Zen meditation circle. Before your next retail therapy session, sit with it. In your car, on the light rail, in a waiting room, at home on the couch. Get quiet. Commit to practicing a full month before deciding if it’s for you. These days, every chance I get I focus my attention, breath normally, and observe my thoughts and practice paying attention to how I feel (in my stomach, my neck, or wherever). I add no judgment. I just notice. Breath in and out. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. If I can, I set a timer for 30 minutes. As my mind wanders off, I return my attention again and again to focus.

If I can’t find my way to doing that, I simply bring my attention to what I am doing — walking down the stairs, brushing my teeth, making the bed, cutting onions, folding laundry. Breath in and out.

At work, I build in moments for mindful connection. These can include simple opening and closing rituals like beginning meetings with a deep inhale/exhale as a group, and ending all meetings with a short reflection. These small actions add up to watershed differences in team cohesion, behavior, and results.

The main reason I meditate is for me. When I practice focusing for 5- 30 minutes a few times a week, I lighten up. My presence is less fractured. Colors are more vibrant. I don’t feel compelled to fill the void with my own voice. Ideas flow. Scary big projects seem less complicated. I have energy. I feel spontaneous and at ease. My jokes are hilarious. Life, not vacation, restores me.

What are your stories about wading into the questions behind your burnout? Are you trying anything in your life or in your team you would be willing to share?

What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.