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Staying Healthy While Doing Good: Managing Stress in a Nonprofit Job

Written by: Rebecca Koenig
Published on: Feb 11, 2020

Although many people are overburdened at work, nonprofit employees often feel particularly squeezed. Operating under the strain of insufficient resources and motivated by a strong sense of moral urgency, they can find it difficult to limit their work hours, take breaks, and tune out their emails while at home.  

Some of that pressure comes from external forces.

“So many people think we get into this business for passion and not a paycheck, so if you don’t seem like an overworked person, your passion is questioned,” says Danielle Kempe, a fundraiser who is in between nonprofit jobs.

And some of it comes from within.

“I think what happens with nonprofits in particular, we are empowered by a mission, we are passionate about the work we do, and we don’t want to do anything less than our very best,” says Tara Collins, director of communications and resource development at Rupco, an affordable-housing nonprofit in New York.

But there are ways to work smarter that can help charity employees reduce stress. Ms. Kempe, Ms. Collins, and Maggie Siemer, operations director at Girls on the Run St. Louis, participated in a panel discussion about managing work stress at the 2016 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Here are some of their tips for staying grounded and healthy in a busy job.

Be Realistic

To avoid unnecessary stress, it’s important to keep in perspective what’s really at stake in your work, Ms. Kempe advises.

“Most jobs are not ‘someone is dying, you need to be on email 24-7.’ Give yourself permission to know you cannot do it all, all the time,” she says. “I think in the nonprofit space we really do get a martyr complex, where if I don’t get it done, no one will. In most cases, there is a way to get the job done and keep your sanity.”

Ms. Collins agrees. Even though affordable housing is important, she says, “I always remind people we’re not doing cancer [work]. We’re not putting a man on the moon.”

So does Ms. Siemer, whose organization provides after-school athletic programming for elementary and middle-school students.

 “The work is important. It’s good stuff, we’re helping people at nonprofits, but it’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t get finished at this minute,” she says. “I’m trying to recognize when something truly does have to get done or realize it’s making me crazy for no reason, and adjusting.”

Strive for Balance

There are times when you simply have to put in extra hours, they all say, but try to make those instances the exceptions, not the rule.

“I try not to have it happen all the time. If I’m feeling I have to work overtime constantly to get things done, there’s something wrong,” Ms. Siemer says. “For me, knowing that’s a one-off situation, it’s not the norm, that’s what really powers me through it. I can kind of adjust things the rest of the week.”

Ms. Kempe knows from experience that planning special events can keep fundraisers busy weekend after weekend. So she recommends that managers talk openly with employees about their expectations for extra work and how the nonprofit can compensate for that time and effort. Discuss how long they can go at that pace before burning out and when they will have time to recover afterward.

“In situations like that, I’ve had good bosses who have thought through comp time,” Ms. Siemer says. “They say, ‘Make sure you take the vacation time after the busy season is over.’”

Organize and Prioritize

Taking time to plan and prioritize your responsibilities at the beginning of each day, week, and month can save you time in the long run, Ms. Collins says.

“Time is finite. I have the power to choose what I spend my time on,” she says. “We can be busy and do low-hanging fruit that doesn’t amount to much at the end of the day or we can choose those other mission-driven items that move the needle.”

Once a month her chief executive asks what her top three priorities are for the next four weeks, and she tries to “move the ball” on those every day. That system helps her set aside less pressing concerns.

Be intentional about your work instead of reactive, Ms. Kempe suggests. For her, that means starting her day by tackling the most important item on her to-do list instead of checking email and immediately responding to messages.

 ‘Not Right Now’

You may not be able to turn down an assignment, but maybe you can delay working on it if you have more pressing projects, Ms. Collins says.

If you can’t say no to a request from your boss, maybe you can say “not right now,” she explains. For example: “Can I get to that at 4:00 instead of 11:30?”

And if you’re working on a tight deadline for a grant proposal, she suggests putting a sign on your office door that says “Do not disturb. Grant due.”

Reduce Distractions

Cutting down on distractions can improve your productivity during the workday and decrease the need to work extra hours.

Ms. Siemer tries to make sure that there’s one day a week — Mondays — when she has no meetings scheduled so she can plow through a lot of work uninterrupted. She also deletes emails and gets rid of papers as soon as she’s done with them.

“It makes me feel more productive because I don’t have paper all over the place,” she says.

Set a Good Example

Creating a work culture that allows employees to share when they are overwhelmed can prevent stress from building up, Ms. Siemer says.

“I’m lucky because our culture is very open, and so everyone is encouraged to say, ‘I’m having a challenge with this’ or ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get this done,’” she says. Then everyone can work together to “figure out a solution, a way to get it done, without completely burning someone out.”

If you manage other employees, you can help set the tone for the office by creating a healthy work-life balance yourself. When an intern commented that Ms. Collins was a workaholic, she realized that she wanted to set a better example.

“There’s no badge in being a workaholic. What kind of mentor am I?” she says. “The countless hours of working overtime and not spending time with family and friends is time we’ll never get back.”

Take Breaks

Taking a break from work may be just what you need to get the job done, Ms. Collins says. She compares a nonprofit employee to a lumberjack pausing to sharpen his ax.

“Our brains are that tool,” she says. “I can’t expect to do eight, 10, 14 hours of straight work. I have to give my brain a break. I have to go hone the tool.”

That isn’t always easy, says Ms. Siemer.

“You know taking time to relax or do other things is important, but it’s hard when you have so many things you want to get done and don’t want to let anyone down,” she says. “Go ahead and take a walk with your co-worker; leave your desk for lunch. The work will still be there when you get back.”

Remember the Mission

It can be easy for nonprofit employees to get so caught up in their daily duties that they forget the good that they do, Ms. Collins says. So she recommends trying to remember the larger purpose of the work.

“Sometimes we start to doubt the work that we’re doing. We can’t see past the pile of email and the pile of papers,” she says. “There are incredible things that happen when I connect with people one-on-one. It connects me with the mission. It reminds me it’s not really about the work, it’s about the people.”

Connecting with people sometimes requires accepting the interruptions that will inevitably interfere with even the most carefully organized plans, she says.

One Friday, just before the end of Ms. Collins’s workday, a 4-year-old boy marched into her office, followed by a woman carrying a baby. Ms. Collins was exasperated; she figured the family was probably in the wrong place and knew that helping them would keep her from finishing what she needed to do before the weekend.

But the child, Sam, had a surprise for her.

“He walks forward with a Ziploc baggie with pennies and dimes,” Ms. Collins says. “He had wanted to make a Lenten gift. His mother said he wanted to give to housing.”

Sam’s gift of $6.50 — along with his mother’s additional $50 — is among the highlights of Ms. Collins’s professional life. That experience taught her to savor the opportunities that can come from interruptions.

“It really was an honor to be chosen.”

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.