I was recently asked to give a presentation for the employees from various nonprofit organizations in the region on the topic of Mission Fatigue. My first thought was, “I don’t know anything about this topic! Why me?” But because I have this issue with saying no, I responded with an enthusiastic “Yes, I would be happy to.”
As I thought more about the topic and began working on my presentation, I realized what an important issue this is for nonprofit workers. And the more I researched, the more I realized that indeed, I do have something important to say on the topic.
The business world calls it burnout. The medical or mental health fields refer to it as compassion fatigue, but the feeling is the same.
The World Health Organization identifies the dimensions of burnout (aka mission fatigue) as:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy.
I think it is harder for people in nonprofits to grapple with burnout because they are supposed to be all about the mission. Nonprofit professionals can’t get tired or unmotivated. The old adage, “Never let them see you sweat” applies to nonprofit workers more than just about anyone else.
The sad fact is, when motivation fails us, we begin to feel like a failure, too. Our morale and our effectiveness begin to suffer as a result. And as morale declines, turnover increases. In fact, more than a third of nonprofit organizations report turnover as a serious problem for their organization. Turnover costs nonprofits from $8,000 to $40,000 per person according to the Nonprofit Management Center, so besides the impact on the person and the team, burnout is costly for the organization, as well.
The question is: What can you do if you are suffering from mission fatigue? Wait a minute, though. First, we need to back up and talk about what not to do according to the American Institute of Stress.
- Blame others.
- Look for a new job or a new car.
- Get a divorce or have an affair.
- Fall into the unhealthy habit of complaining with your colleagues.
- Hire a lawyer.
- Work harder and longer to get past the feeling.
- Neglect your own needs and interests.
With that out of the way, now we can talk about techniques to work past the mission fatigue when it happens to you.
- Celebrate more often.
- Reflect. Are you the journaling type?
- Find someone to talk to – or maybe even hire an executive coach.
- Show others gratitude.
- Have a digital detox (including not taking your phone to bed; not emailing or responding to emails in the evenings or on vacations).
- Spend more time on activities you truly enjoy. Be intentional about it, too.
- (Which may mean) learning to say “no” more often.
- Take a vacation (and really disconnect).
- Exercise, get enough sleep, eat properly.
Researchers at UC Berkeley report that when a person’s work is meaningful, they are happier, healthier, more engaged, more committed, and better-performing. But other research shows that purpose-driven work presents additional risks for developing mission fatigue, including vicarious traumatization, constituent expectations, ever-changing funder requirements, and funding uncertainty for vital services. The nonprofit industry must recognize both sides of that coin and seek ways to help those in the field to grapple with the emotion and learn to address it productively.
Nonprofits attract committed, caring, and mission-driven people. Even so, nonprofit workers are not superheroes (not always anyway). If mission fatigue is affecting your professional efficacy or morale, remember that it is not selfish to take a break, to say no, to ask for help, or even to step away from a job that constantly saps your energy and motivation but doesn’t offer a way to replenish your supply. In fact, it may be the best way to move beyond the feeling and begin to find joy in your work again.