B is for Burnout. How to Extinguish COVID Fog & Ignite Renewed Passion in the Nonprofit Workplace

image courtesy of Random House and Sarah Albee

The Great Resignation. The Great Awkward. COVID-19 turned everything upside down. Now, we are back in the office and need a new playbook to get past what we are calling COVID Fog. The good news is that this is not uncharted territory. We experienced this as a firm once before when we helped clients navigate past natural disasters — Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. While the first couple of months were challenging, the months after were even more so. It is when the “messy middle” happens, and fatigue and ambiguity make it difficult to see the light at the end. We are in that same place now. Our team (and our friends at other firms) have spent 2022 working with clients on return-to-work plans and wanted to share some helpful ideas from our playbook. Interestingly enough, our research — and that of others — shows that employee satisfaction isn’t about what the headlines often say — increased wages, more flex time or better benefits. While those efforts improve quality of life and are a factor in retention, the most powerful predicators of retention were job satisfaction, work-life balance and employee belonging.

For some “Sesame Street”-style fun, this playbook is brought to you by the letter B. We will break down the B’s that are barriers to the breakthroughs that ease the transition and provide some solutions we have seen work.

B is for Barriers

Burnout — It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” — Lou Holtz

During the pandemic, working from home seemed like a luxury, but it also meant that we relaxed boundaries, leaving many employees “always at work.” Interestingly, the research shows that it is not the workplace that causes burnout. It is how the employee is working and what the employee is working on that causes burnout. It is the difference between viewing your work as work or viewing your work as a calling — something you love to do and are uniquely suited for. And the results are clear — those who love their work are more loyal, more productive and more resilient. Furthermore, data from the Mayo Clinic show that employees do not need to love their entire job. Their research showed that if 20% or more of your work consists of things and people you love, you are far less likely to experience burnout.

Busyness — You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.” — Unknown

As my loyal readers know, I have erased the word “busy” from my vocabulary. Its meaning has evolved from “I have a lot going on and I’m excited about it” to “I’m too busy for you.” We also have busyness competitions in the workplace and at home — with stacked days, a long list of errands and mountains of emails. But, I always ask the question: are you moving the needle? Because of the pandemic, we now have so many tools (e.g., Slack, Zoom) that are intended to increase productivity, but they only work if we create human rules of engagement. When is an email needed? When should we have a phone call instead of going back and forth over email? Is the activity or event we did pre-pandemic still needed? How do we use Zoom effectively? How long do we build consensus in meetings before making a decision? These questions (and more) will help you move from a company that values busyness to one that values productivity.

Burden — “Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.” — Natalie Goldberg

In the social sector, we deal with serious issues. The pandemic brought a new set of challenges, and everything was urgent. One of the ways we deal with the “burden” is through a workplace support system. Without in-person connection, not only did our social skills atrophy, but we also lost some of our pre-established communication patterns (e.g., watercooler conversation) that — while episodic — relieve stress, build trust and increase productivity. We lost “our team” and as a result had to deal with our burden alone or in isolation. Workers who reported they felt part of a team were almost three times as likely to be engaged, but also twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging.

B is for Breakthroughs

Break — “The wise rest at least as hard as they work.” — Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Because of the pandemic, the social sector went into what I call our “superhero mode.” We reinvented our business models. We found new (and better) ways to serve the community. We didn’t stop, because the needs were urgent and our community needed us to rise to the occasion. Now that we are in the “messy middle,” we must collectively realize it is time to stop. We need a collective palate cleanse, which allows us to prepare for the next course.

Solutions: Encourage real breaks over the summer. Ensure employees do not check emails or take computers with them. Give a one-time company-wide break the week of July 4th — just like we do at winter break. Develop flexible summer hours that allow for a 4-day work week. Stock a snack room to encourage healthy breaks. Provide a quiet area to encourage meditation.

Belonging — “Love, belonging and connection are the universal sources of true well-being.” — Unknown

“Belonging” is now trending. You hear the term everywhere, but I think we are talking about it in the wrong way. Just like culture — belonging can be measured, but it is not a constant. Belonging shifts over time, place and people. Belonging is defined as an individual’s connectedness and mattering at the organization where they study, work or are involved. It is as important for nonprofit employees as it is for nonprofit board members and volunteers.

Solutions: Cultivate belonging the way you would your summer garden. On-board staff, board members and volunteers who started during the pandemic. Help create connections between and among staff through mentorship opportunities. Start meetings with short icebreakers (e.g., BINGO game, Two Truths & a Lie) to share interests and activities so folks can connect with like-minded individuals — outside of the work at hand. Double up on quick check-ins over the summer — for no reason except to connect with the individual (e.g., ask, “What excites you about this position? What do you wish was different? What superpower do you bring to the work? How can I best help you succeed at work and at home?”).

Bonding — “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” — Albert Schweitzer

People often use “belonging” and “bonding” interchangeably — but we purposefully use them as twin strategies to build a strong culture. Belonging is focused on the individual and bonding is focused on the team. Bonding reinforces belonging. When you bond with a group or team, you gel with them and your interests typically align with theirs. In addition, when you have bonded with someone or a group, you naturally have positive resonance, meaning that you have a feeling of oneness and concern for one another. The quickest way for this to happen is to have connecting experiences. Cultivating a culture of connection — which then produces an upward spiral of positivity — is always important but is especially important when you are recovering from challenges.

Solutions: Create bonding experiences through an intentional process. Conduct board and staff retreats — with a heavy focus on bonding and belonging. Organize an old-fashioned staff picnic. Reward individual as well as team-based successes.

We hope these ideas spark your thinking as you plan for the summer and the work ahead. If anything resonated, we would love to hear about it. And, if you have found success in addressing burnout, we would love for you to share with us.

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