Another Labor Day weekend has come and gone, and for many of us this means summer has officially come to an end. Some of you may have slipped in a vacation during the summer months, or squeezed in a few days away during this final holiday weekend. Now, however, it’s time to get back to work, and prepare for the crazed countdown to the end-of-the year…
But wait! Before you put your head down and plow ahead, I suggest that you get out your calendar and schedule your next break while you’re still in the summertime frame of mind. Think that time off is a luxury for for-profit sector employees? Actually, those working in the nonprofit sector are particularly susceptible to professional “burnout”—and as a result, are among those who could benefit most significantly from regular time off. A 2011 study from Opportunity Knocks found that half of the nonprofit employees surveyed were burned out or at risk for becoming burned out. In her post, “How to Avoid Burnout When You Are Saving the World,” Rebecca Andruszka points out that the weight of serving those in need, plus the never-ending grind of nonprofit work, create conditions that can easily lead to professional fatigue. And in case you think that Hawaii’s nonprofit employees are immune to burnout because they work in what many consider “paradise,” think again. An analysis of a 2011 study of nonprofit executive directors found that Hawaii's nonprofit leaders are just as dissatisfied, overworked, and underpaid as their mainland counterparts.
It’s well documented that extended breaks help us to preserve both our mental and physical health. And let’s face it—we’re all under some degree of chronic stress, particularly in today’s constantly connected, information-overloaded world. Vacation is a chance to interrupt that ongoing stress, if only temporarily, and reset our immune systems, our sleep cycles, and our general emotional state of mind.
But perhaps more important, time off allows us the mental space to think creatively. Thoughtful problem solving takes time, and unless we proactively carve out that time, it tends to remain in scant supply. The fact that nonprofit employees are attempting to address some of our communities' most pressing social needs is precisely the reason they need to take time off as a matter of routine. In his article “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain," cognition researcher Daniel Levitin states: "If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations—true vacations without work—and set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well-rested while we’re doing it.”
What can we do to ensure that taking time off isn’t seen as a weakness or a luxury? We have to shift the nonprofit culture regarding time off, which will require coordinated changes at the personal, organizational, and sector-wide levels:
Personal: A staggering 41 percent of American workers let their paid vacation days go to waste. The reasons for this are many and varied, but all employees—nonprofit and otherwise—have a responsibility to be proactive about self-care by taking the time off that is available to them.
Even if extended vacations are impossible—for example, for financial or logistical reasons—we can each establish routines that inject breaks in our workdays and workweeks. Studies show that our minds are most productive when we focus on work in brief, intense bursts, then punctuate those bursts with quick respites. So, scheduling periods of time each day or week to simply take a walk outdoors, listen to music, or have coffee with a friend can help us to reset and refresh our minds, bringing renewed energy and focus once we return to the tasks at hand.
Organizational: While nonprofit organizations may not be ready to adopt Daimler’s auto-delete email program to encourage vacationing staffers to unplug, they can nonetheless ensure that their policies—both formal and informal—support employees’ extended breaks. “Use it or lose it” vacation policies are effective in getting staff to take needed breaks from work, as are flexible work plans and the option of working from home. Similarly, employee wellness programs can decrease absences, improve morale, motivation, and productivity. And let’s not forget that the vital engine of many nonprofits—volunteers—can benefit from strategies to prevent burnout, too.
Managers can support their staff members, both through modeling and reassuring their staff that time off is sensible and necessary. Rather than seeing their vacations as "selfish" or “letting down” those they serve, supervisors can affirm that staff members will be able to bring their best selves to bear on the organization’s work by taking care of themselves physically and mentally. Likewise, by providing outlets for socializing, support networks, and simple things such as adequate time to eat lunch, managers can provide their staff members with release valves from stress.
Sector-wide: Beyond individual employees and organizations, funders can lead the way in both recognizing and addressing nonprofit burnout, particularly among nonprofit leadership. As noted in a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, foundations across the country are beginning to understand the personal sacrifices that nonprofit executives make, and acknowledge that “when a leader spends time with family or pursuing personal goals, and comes back refreshed, that has a benefit for the organization.” To this end, numerous funders and philanthropists are awarding leadership development grants, sabbaticals, and fellowships to allow nonprofit executives to invest in their staff members and recharge themselves personally and professionally. Locally, Hawaii Community Foundation's annual Hookele Award provides four $10,000 awards to support the personal development and renewal of Hawaii's nonprofit leaders.
In a sector that is so focused on the well being of others, nonprofit employees would benefit from giving their own well being the attention that it needs and deserves. Prioritizing time off and vacations are a sensible first step toward just that sort of self-care among nonprofit professionals.
What steps have you taken to carve out regular time off for yourself? How has your organization’s or manager’s approach to time off impacted your effectiveness and morale at work?