Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits


In the social sector, we know burnout – at least we think we do. It’s what happens when we push too hard, do too much, basically when we don’t take care of ourselves. I never really thought about what caused burnout because I thought I knew. I discovered that my understanding was simplistic and only partially correct. So what is burnout and what are it its causes?

Burnout: The emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills. In addition to signs of exhaustion, the person with burnout exhibits an increasingly negative attitude toward his or her job, low self-esteem, and personal devaluation.

Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition.

Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleague Susan Jackson, first identified the construct “burnout” in the 1970s. They developed a measure that weighs the effects of emotional exhaustion and reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, there have been numerous studies on burnout. With little variance, most of the research agrees that burnout is a form of work-related stress and that unchecked can impair an individual from full performance.

A recent study by the Mayo Clinic published in December 2012 summarizes the consensus of most of the research. The factors causing burnout that are most identified include:

Lack of control: An inability to influence decisions that affect your job such as your schedule, assignments, or workload could lead to job burnout – so could a lack of the resources you need to do your work.

Unclear job expectations: If you’re unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work.

Dysfunctional workplace dynamics: Perhaps you work with an office bully – you feel undermined by colleagues or your boss micromanages your work. These and related situations can contribute to job stress.

Mismatch in values: If your values differ from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch may eventually take a toll.

Poor job fit: If your job doesn’t fit your interests and skills, it may become increasingly stressful over time.

Extremes of activity: When a job is always monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused, which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.

Lack of social support: If you feel isolated at work and in your personal life, you may feel more stressed.

Work/life balance: If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don’t have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you may burn out quickly.

Of all these factors, only one directly relates to being over-worked – extremes of activity. The remaining factors are different. Some could be reduced by management and others by employees themselves. For most of us that is good news because they can be addressed.

My quest to understand burnout began when my wife told me about a workshop she attended with her fellow mental health counselors. A speaker at the conference put most of the blame for burnout on poor boundaries in the workplace – not overwork. When we look at the other factors listed in the Mayo report, that speaker’s comments make more sense. Lack of control is a boundary issue. A dysfunctional work environment is a boundary issue, as is a mismatch of values, or a lack of social support, and certainly poor work-life balance is a violation of boundaries. So what can be done?

Our sector is known for heavy workloads. Health organizations are where the understanding of what we now call burnout originated. Administrators observed direct service providers such as nurses exhibiting depression-like symptoms. Today we know that burnout affects more than health care professionals. Most of us have witnessed or experienced burnout.

Extremes of activity can have various forms. Some organizations have periods of high intensity followed by periods with decreased activity. For example, performance arts groups experience long and intensive hours leading up to a performance, but they have the ability to slow down a little until preparations begin for the next production. Many direct social service providers also have periods of high intensity followed by lulls in activity like I used to experience in the United Way. The fall fund drive was chaotic, but it was followed by a less stressful preparation period for the next year. Other organizations, like emergency rooms, stay in high gear all the time.

Research validates that many work environments can produce burnout. Employers should do all they can to reduce the over-work demands – those extremes of activity. Unfortunately for many in the social sector, there is little possibility to reduce heavy workloads. Fortunately, with a realistic understanding of all the factors causing burnout, employees can do more to reduce their own risks while employers do more to reduce the other factors.

If we look at each of the factors identified in the Mayo Clinic report, we can see how with some simple changes in behavior by employers and employees, we could reduce burnout.

Three of the factors – dysfunctional workplace dynamics, poor job fit, and mismatch in values – could be addressed by the following advice:

In Good to Great, Jim Collins urges us to first consider “who, then what” when hiring an employee. He suggests that it is far more productive for an employer to make sure that whoever is hired is aligned with the values and culture of the organization, not just on skill-based competence. That is not to say that employers should hire people without credentials. However, Collins found that great organizations place much more emphasis on the right fit, not just the right skills. Skills can be taught – attitudes can’t. Hiring a highly qualified person with credentials like years of experience or the other presumed indicators of success without first evaluating a person’s fit, isn’t the right path.

There is little excuse for burnout caused because someone does not fit in the job.

A mismatch of values can be easily addressed through the right kind of hiring practices. I was slow to understand the concept about how alignment of values was so important to a great workplace. Today, I may be on the other extreme because now, I am convinced, it is the most important characteristic. A benefit of having the right people in an organization, those with shared values and right fit, is that it helps make management (control) obsolete. With the right fit, all that’s needed is coordination.

Having everyone aligned with the organization’s values does not mean hiring people who think the same. Without diversity it’s hard to have the critical thinking that helps the organization adapt to its ever-changing environment. We need people of different ages, ethnicities, cultures, and genders. And we need people who can see the big picture and others that are good with detail. Those differences make us stronger. David Packard explains in The HP Way that we need people to understand and accept the basic principles that make us who we are (the organization’s values). Diversity and alignment in values is not a mutually exclusive proposition.

Certainly, as indicated in the description of these factors, bullying behavior can cause burnout. When we start by focusing on values, we rarely hire a bully. And when we hire the right people, no one should be micromanaged. With the right hires and culture, these three factors can be eliminated. (Our March 2012 newsletter focuses on board bullies, but also addresses the behavior.)

The next two factors – lack of control and unclear job expectations – are also addressed in a similar way:

We have written how the evolving workplace requires increased flexibility. Decentralized, networked structures are the future. Hierarchical, command-control structures are increasingly less effective. A hierarchical structure, by design, creates burnout. Employees have a lack of control. With the flexibility provided in a decentralized structure, there are different demands on the employees, but they have more control. For example, if a decentralized system works, individuals must assume more responsibility for doing the job right and must accept increased accountability for their actions. Because of that level of personal accountability, they also have more control. If we want to eliminate burnout and give everyone the opportunity to do their best, we must empower people. We must expect the best from each person and equally, we must hold them accountable for their outcomes. We can and should restructure our institutions to become more effective in today’s technology driven world. (More on these assumptions in the May 2011 and the April 2012 newsletter articles.)

Especially in decentralized systems, everyone must be clear on what they do, and what others they depend on do. Clear job descriptions are the way to start and complete this process. Clear expectations help all to follow through. Eventually trust is built so that everyone within any organization is integrated into high performing teams. The simplest burnout factor to prevent is having clear expectations. (More in the May 2011 newsletter.)

The next two factors – lack of social support and work/life balance – have different solutions but both require clarity on good boundaries:

We need good boundaries between our personal lives and our work life. However, to totally ignore an employee’s personal life or to not have any personal connection with an employee isn’t the best answer either. It is hard to obtain everyone’s peak performance without human connection. An option for eliminating a lack of social support from many workplaces, without going too far to the other extreme, is to assure that everyone in positions of influence has personal contact with every employee, every day. How hard is it for those leaders to walk around and say hello? I guarantee it will take less time to do that than to address the issues that arise when an isolated employee burns out.

Personally, I am not a fan of co-workers being constant companions in and out of work. However, since we spend a significant amount of time with each other, it does make sense that our relationships in the office should be open enough to support each other as fellow humans, in and out of work. When someone is not doing well at home, they will not perform well at work. While we don’t want to intrude on people’s personal lives, in order to get work done, we can’t avoid their private lives. I hope that everyone in an organization has supportive friends or family. However, there will be some employees without much outside support. If we want them to be their best at work, we must truly connect to them at work. We must find the right balance of connecting as humans without falling victim to working with our best friends. Either extreme can create dysfunction. Walking around, saying hello, being human is the cheapest advice we can provide to prevent this type of burnout.

We have heard much from the inheriting generations (Gen X and Millennials) about the desire to have work/life balance. I wish them well and hope they have the perseverance to achieve that goal. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I also did not jump at the chance when asked to work after hours or on weekends. Of course, I did work long hours from time to time, but it was very important to me that I had time with my family and friends. I’m not a Gen X’er, nor Millennial, so this work/life balance phenomenon is not as new as some may think – or maybe I’m younger than I look?

At Foraker, we work very long hours. We also support a culture that family takes priority over work. We have never had an employee abuse that privilege. We urge, even demand, that people take time off. A few years ago, we had a problem, even with our Gen X and younger staff, of people working too many hours. We put them on a “diet plan.” We made everyone count hours, like calories, and start reducing their excess time. One of my most significant work/life mentors taught me this lesson. He ran one of the most effective and efficient United Ways in the country. He was one of the leaders in the use of technology. He accomplished more with fewer people than any of his peers. He was strident on work/life balance. I witnessed him confronting one of my peers who worked many hours. That peer came in early and he was there when everyone else left. When my mentor called him in and asked, “How many hours are you putting in?” My peer said, “At least 60 hours a week!” with a proud smile. My mentor then said, “Well I’m paying you to get the job done in 40 hours. What is taking you so long?” My peer’s work/life balance improved. Work/life balance is not a new phenomenon. We have always needed it, we still do. Sometimes the employer demands that people work too many hours. That kind of workplace is sometimes illegal, but is always nonproductive and unsustainable.

That leads to the last and maybe hardest factor to address in our culture – extremes of activity:

This factor may be an inevitable part of the social sector. Until nonprofits are adequately resourced to do what the job demands, or leaders only ask their employees to do what is reasonable in a workweek, this factor may be hard to eliminate. In the fall 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review, Gregory and Howard present the perils of the “nonprofit starvation cycle.” This cycle begins when nonprofits neglect their infrastructure and misrepresent their capacity, increasing the unrealistic expectations of funders, and finally perpetuating the myth through the need to conform to those expectations. They urge nonprofit leaders to understand overhead, present the real costs of doing business, and speak the truth. Focus on the factors where you have control and maybe this factor will seem less important.

In the October edition of Scientific America, the requirement for downtime is addressed. The following excerpt summarizes the findings:

“In making an argument for the necessity of mental downtime, we can now add an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to intuition and anecdote. Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

The bottom line is that even in the busiest workplace we need to schedule quiet time. It is as important as that urgent phone call or email we think we must answer NOW. Creating organized space, a few minutes in the morning and a few in the afternoon for a catnap, meditation, or just quiet time may indeed be the easiest method to reduce burnout.

Now that we have a more comprehensive understanding of burnout, we would like to hear from you on your experience with burnout, or in finding ways to minimize its impact.

After all, it’s the holidays. It’s the time of year to try to get balance – spend more time with family – enjoy ourselves. From all of us at The Foraker Group, we wish you, your families, and your institutions a great new year!