When I spoke to at a recent national conference on the topic of Mission Fatigue, I was surprised by the overwhelming response to the session. Attendees were obviously experiencing some significant work-related stress, so the topic resonated with them. Quite simply, they needed someone to validate their feelings. One attendee even emailed me a few weeks after the session, "It was very beneficial to me to know that I am not alone in my feelings of being overwhelmed . . ."
Just like my correspondent, being overwhelmed is common for workers in the nonprofit space. After all, the work is of vital importance and the need is great. That makes us take that work very personally. The more personally we take our work, the more we stress over things. And the more we stress over work, the more likely we are to experience mission fatigue.
Researchers J. Edelwich and Archie Brodsky (1980) define burnout as "a progressive loss of idealism, energy, and purpose experienced by people in the helping professions as a result of the conditions of their work" They further describe the four stages of burnout for those in helping professions as enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration, and apathy. An astute leader will not only recognize these symptoms in themselves, but they will be able to notice and take steps to resolve them in their staff before the ultimate result - turnover - occurs.
In fact, more than a third of nonprofit organizations report turnover as a serious problem for their organization. Turnover in nonprofits reached an all-time high of 19 percent in 2017 compared to a national average of 15 percent. The rate was even higher – 25 percent – in smaller nonprofits with annual operating budgets of less than $2 million. (Source: The Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey by DC-based Nonprofit HR)
A 2017 Gallup Poll found that only 3 in 10 employees believe that their opinions count at work. Gallop concluded that organizations that move that ratio up realize a reduction in turnover and an increase in productivity.
If you lead a team, you can help your employees prevent or at least get past such moments. Let’s talk about some concrete steps you can take to overcome burnout in your team.
- Keep your mission and values front and center in your organization. Until a person embraces the why of their work, they will never truly understand the what and the how. Connecting your mission to their work will have a huge impact on morale, productivity, and outcomes. And this is never a one-and-done endeavor, but must be repeated often, in different formats and venues, and reinforced by leader actions.
- Focus on creating an organizational culture where people are comfortable expressing and being themselves, while still being accountable for their work. Author Amy Edmonson, calls this Psychological Safety and defines it as a workplace where fear is minimized so that the team’s and the organization’s performance can be maximized. Providing workers with as much freedom and decision-making power as possible, along with clearly defined and achievable goals, will free them to excel.
- We should never ask staff to sacrifice a livable wage for meaningful work. As nonprofit leaders, we must constantly strive to improve salaries. It won’t happen over night, but it will never happen if you keep doing the same budgeting over and over. To get started, eliminate high cost/low reward services; contract out some tasks; or rethink parts of the benefits package that are costly but rarely utilized or appreciated.
- Don’t just hire and hope! By providing professional development opportunities, you show your staff that you value them. You also help lower their stress by giving them the tools they need to do their work better, faster, and more effectively. Relevant training reduces turnover and increases engagement. The added benefit is, of course, improved outcomes for your mission, too, which improves your community and stakeholder satisfaction in the process.
- Genuinely value staff and let them know it. In an organization I once served that was having turnover issues, we set out to discover why so we could make needed changes. As a start, we conducted an employee satisfaction survey. Managers received and analyzed the results, communicated those results to staff, and committed to making changes. Almost immediately, employee satisfaction went up, and turnover went down.
Because one common complaint was that management did not show enough appreciation for staff, We looked for natural opportunities to show employees appreciation for their work. These included:
- In the moment
- National Employee Appreciation Day
- Teacher Appreciation Day
- Senior Citizens month
- Random times when energy seems low or workload is particularly high
You may find other appropriate times for your own organization, like Earth Day for environmental organizations, Veterans Day or Memorial Day for veterans organizations, etc.
And two other important points about helping your team overcome Mission Fatigue:
- Avoid sending your employees evening or weekend emails.
- Set an example by truly disconnecting during vacations.
Your staff are your most valuable resource. As you invest in your people and understand their motivations, any problems around culture, burnout, mission fatigue, and turnover will take care of themselves.