It’s Time to Break Up with Burnout. Here’s How.

image of a woman holding hand over heart representing dealing with burnout and overcoming burnout

Research-Based Advice for Dealing With Burnout

What’s your current relationship status with burnout? Do you wish you could break up for good? You’re not alone.

Across the globe, individuals, organizations, and communities are experiencing increased stress and uncertainty – and as a result, employees are dealing with burnout at unprecedented levels. 

The impact is staggering. A recent study from Mental Health America reports that 75% of workers are struggling with overcoming burnout, and about 40% say it was a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Burnout is pervasive across all industries right now, and the human services, public, and nonprofit sectors are particularly hard-hit. Saving the world is exhausting, and many nonprofit workers and the communities they serve are feeling an even greater strain today, with resignations compounding the already high levels of stress and burnout.

During the post-pandemic period we find ourselves in, leaders at all types of organizations are being pulled in multiple directions in the face of physical, mental, social, and economic upheaval. With long hours and less funding, many nonprofit leaders, especially, are dealing with burnout themselves, and so may not feel equipped to offer their teams strategies to become more resilient and effective.

Leaders approaching or experiencing burnout may feel physical symptoms, cynicism about work, emotional exhaustion, and reduced performance.

Sound familiar? Remember, it’s not you. It’s burnout.

How Organizations Can Support Their People in Overcoming Burnout

What can organizational leaders do to support their workers in dealing with burnout, and in tandem, address turnover rates? Senior leaders can bring intention and attention to creating the conditions for everyone to bring their best selves to work and foster an environment that supports their people and the communities they serve.

For the nonprofit sector in particular, philanthropic organizations and foundations can play several essential roles. First, grantmakers, executive directors, and senior leaders can consider their own personal and professional practices and how those are contributing to how they show up for their constituents. Second, they can stop doing anything that doesn’t support creating and cultivating the conditions for nonprofit teams and organizations to flourish.

Whatever your industry, if you’re a leader, you can build your own resilience by stopping and starting these 6 things to help create the conditions for colleagues to overcome burnout and “burn bright” instead.

Advice for Dealing With Burnout

6 Tips for Leaders: What to Stop & Start Doing

1. Stop repeating the same things. Start trying something new.

Do the conditions of the pandemic have you feeling like you’re living the same day over and over, like your own personal Groundhog Day movie? In addition to fostering boredom, unexamined routines can also diminish energy and focus. Consider how much you might be mindlessly defaulting to behaviors reinforced by the pandemic conditions, and what you might do differently today to shake things up. 

Our brains actually thrive, and we feel happier, when we have novel experiences. Brain research has found that a rush of dopamine comes with any new experience. And it doesn’t have to be big to be effective – even small changes can help to create an immediate shift in energy and focus.

Make a commitment to trying new things as a way of helping you and your colleagues with overcoming burnout. It could be as simple as trying a new route on a morning walk. How might you encourage others to try something novel? Perhaps add “sharing new things tried” to your one-on-one check-ins or an upcoming team meeting and start creating space for colleagues dealing with burnout to share ideas with one another.

2. Stop holding your breath. Start an intentional breathing practice.

You might not even notice that you hold your breath or take very shallow breaths during the day, especially when you feel pressure. The moment we get anxious or stressed, we can assume some control and agency by breathing properly. Even less than a minute of intentional breathing can make a big difference. The research is clear: if we breathe shallow and fast, it causes our nervous system to up-regulate, and we feel even more tense and anxious. But if we breathe slowly, taking a deep breath with a focus on our exhale, it turns on our body’s anti-stress response. Breathing is convenient, free, and a fast way to ground into a state of calm. 

One simple practice for dealing with burnout is to anchor intentional deep breathing to something you do every day — maybe just before joining another online meeting, or as you transition from work to home tasks. You might experiment with expanding this practice to include everyone participating in a meeting you’re leading. Simply invite team members to breathe fully for one minute at the start, or take a pause for a “breathing break” in the middle.

3. Stop sending generic messages of thanks. Start personalizing gratitude.

Have you ever received a generic, “reply-all” thank you message that fell a little flat? You’re not alone. While the intent is positive and it’s better than no gratitude, it can lack sincerity and reduce the overall impact. Giving thanks will actually make you a better leader and personal notes that include specific details about the value of an individual’s contribution are far more effective than mass communications, research finds. Just 5-12 formal, individualized, sincere gestures of thanks per year can significantly cut an employee’s propensity to leave and help with overcoming burnout. 

Take a couple of minutes and write a brief note (even just 2-3 sentences) to a person that you’ve been meaning to thank at work. By doing so, you’ll not only share gratitude with the individual you’re sending the note to, but you’ll also be modeling this behavior for other leaders in your organization. Make it your practice to send your team members a brief but personalized thank-you note on a consistent basis.

4. Stop holding meetings by default. Start building an intentional meeting culture.

Meetings are a constant presence in our lives, and with the rise of the remote and hybrid workforce, they’re more prevalent than ever. Yet, meetings can be draining, feel like a waste of time, and force after-hours work. They can even feel isolating when there’s not an opportunity to connect. Meetings are critical to getting our work done, however, so take some time to really examine and update your organization’s meeting culture.

The next time you’re about to schedule a meeting, ask yourself the question, Is this meeting really necessary, or are we simply defaulting to a meeting because that’s how we’ve always done it? Consider whether you can handle the agenda via email or in a real-time messaging app, or explore shortening the allotted time. This allows people to avoid attending back-to-back meetings all day. 

Lighten “Zoom fatigue” by making some virtual meetings audio-only when being on camera isn’t really necessary. Or, if it’s an option, suggest team members take the call while walking outdoors to incorporate some movement and fresh air. Bonus points if a walk-and-talk meeting can be done together in person. Meetings are a prime opportunity for connection, so make them count and use them to improve your organization’s virtual collaboration and communication practices.

Access Our Webinar!

You can’t give what you don’t have – whether that’s time, energy, or attention. Discover how to build collective resilience and recharge with our recommendations for leaders at mission-driven organizations to help their teams avoid nonprofit burnout using research-backed strategies.

5. Stop perpetuating a 24/7 work week. Start encouraging boundaries.

How have your boundaries around work and home shifted over the course of the pandemic? For many of us operating in a hybrid workplace context, we no longer “work from home” as much as we “live at work.” A boundaryless experience like this can take a serious toll on our health and contribute to burnout. Because of this shift, you may want to consider how you might be unintentionally creating expectations of working longer hours, including evenings and late nights, when your employees typically have been untethered from work.

If you or your colleagues are dealing with burnout, notice the communication patterns that have emerged for yourself and your team recently. If you find yourself often catching up on emails after hours or on weekends, reflect on this habit. How might you create or influence new expectations that support recharging and disconnecting from work? How can you actively support both a work ethic and a “rest ethic”? And what rituals can you start that signal to yourself that you’re “clocking out”?

Consider closing the laptop and leaving it in a designated workspace, collecting virtual or physical files and putting them away, or sending your team a friendly “I’m out and you should be, too” email at the end of the day or week, or when leaving on vacation. This will help your employees manage their work-life conflicts and increase their ability to unplug from work when the day is over or when they’re taking some much-needed time to rest and recharge.

6. Stop the early morning phone scroll and caffeine hit. Start your morning with intentional, mindful movement.

Do you check your phone before your feet hit the floor in the morning? Is making coffee or tea your next step after that? These behaviors, while very common, may be eroding your energy before your day even begins. Checking your email, social media, and texts as soon as your eyelids open quickly hijacks your attention and emotions, often triggering anxiety before you’ve even gotten out of bed. You’ve probably already heard the advice not to keep your smartphone in your bedroom – but turning off notifications, curbing social media use, and removing as many apps off your phone as possible are all helpful, too.

As for your unexamined caffeine routine, simply delay it a bit. When you wake up, the energizing hormone cortisol is at its peak – adding caffeine on top of that is like throwing a match on a fire that’s already crackling. You’ll experience a greater caffeine boost by waiting an hour or 2 if you can.

Replace that immediate screen time and caffeine jolt with a little movement — a quick walk, some yoga, or even just stretching – and then something mindful like journaling, reading, or listening to music for a few minutes. Then, hydrate with water before you caffeinate. Give it a try for a few days and see if your energy improves and if these practices help with overcoming burnout. 

When you assess personal habits and default organizational practices that may be aggravating stress and burnout, you can start building a culture that values resilience and gives employees permission to take care of themselves. Be mindful about recharging, and modeling those behaviors for your team, and say goodbye to dealing with burnout for good.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

As a nonprofit ourselves, we’re guided by purpose and fueled by passion, and we understand the need for strong, resilient leaders who are able to support themselves and their teams in dealing with burnout. Create the conditions for employees to bring their best selves to work with our resilience-building solutions, or partner with our nonprofit leadership experts to help build a more resilient organization for your people, your mission, and the communities you serve.

June 23, 2022
Andi Williams
About the Author(s)
Andi Williams
Andi is the Director of Population Health for CCL’s Societal Advancement Group, where she ensures high quality delivery of CCL’s health sector programs, as well as serving as a CCL coach and faculty member. She holds a BA in Economics with a focus on health economics and an MAEd in Counseling, both from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.

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