Recognize and Overcome Burnout

by | Jun 1, 2023 | Leadership Coaching, Personal Development

A lot has been written about burnout lately.

When I first felt burnout, I didn’t recognize it. I couldn’t name it. I probably called it overworking, or work-related stress, or being a workaholic. 

I remember the mental stress, and the physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, and upset stomach. I kept a bottle of Tums in my desk drawer at work. 

Dread crept over me on Sunday afternoons because I knew Monday was coming soon.

These days, I’m thankful that I’m not suffering from burnout, but I hear about burnout a lot from both executive coaching clients and nonprofit CEOs and senior leaders.

It’s important to recognize and overcome burnout.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that results from prolonged stress and overworking. If it’s left unaddressed, burnout can have serious consequences on your health and well-being, including reduced productivity, anxiety, depression, and other physical and mental health problems.

This graphic from The Present Psychologist on Instagram really speaks to me. It shows how to recognize the 12 stages of burnout. 

Some nonprofit CEOs come to me for executive coaching when they’re already at stage 10 – you feel empty and numb, and substance abuse can occur, or 11 – you feel depressed, lost, and completely exhausted.  

That’s a difficult spot to be in. I understand and I empathize with them. But what if we could roll back to stage 1 – you feel there is a strong need to prove yourself, or stage 2 – you keep working harder and harder to achieve this? 

I see the following situation a lot with my executive coaching and nonprofit consulting clients:

A new nonprofit CEO is promoted or hired. They’re brand new in their role. They feel immense pressure to prove themselves a good leader and they work hard to maximize their performance and the performance of their team. 

All of which is understandable. Who wouldn’t want to do a good job?

Questions I often ask my executive coaching clients:

  • Do you constantly feel the need to prove yourself as a leader? If so, to whom? 
  • Do you feel confident about your leadership skills and talents? 
  • What’s the evidence that you’re a good leader and a talented professional?

I think the burnout problem shows up with force around stage 3, when nonprofit leaders start sacrificing themselves, their physical health, and their mental health in order to drive better performance.

They skip meals. They wake up in the middle of the night with a list of to-dos running through their head. Families, friends, and hobbies are skipped or dismissed. Work becomes the only goal.

Our nonprofit culture is broken, leading to burnout

Frankly, the whole way we think about nonprofits is wrong. We the public starve them of the resources they need to really solve the problems in our local communities and around the world. 

Nonprofit CEOs are expected to cut costs so extremely in the name of efficiency and effectiveness, or else they can be accused of wasting donor contributions.  

We expect nonprofit leaders to work long hours, for low pay, giving up their nights and weekends in the name of special events and community networking, with few benefits. We expect nonprofit leaders to miss time with their families so they can be visible and well-connected in our community. We expect them to miss holidays, birthdays, and funerals. It piles up. 

All because the primary focus is on the mission being worthwhile.

The unspoken message is that the cause matters more than the people who provide the service. People and their associated costs must be sacrificed so we can achieve our mission.

Expectations are heavy

A lot of expectations rest on the shoulders of nonprofit CEOs. 

The weight of expectations for great performance, financial success, budgets that end in the black, happy and engaged donors, supporting the board, meeting legal requirements, recruiting good staff, and caring for their employees becomes heavier and heavier.

Always on, never off

Our 24/7 culture compounds the problem. Staff members and board members can text or email at any hour of the day or night. 

Leaders are supposed to be there for their employees, and responsive to board member questions and concerns, but when is their off time? When do nonprofit CEOs get to stop responding, or ignore texts until Monday at 8:00 a.m?

Do we expect them to email and text during their vacations? Do we tell them we hope they enjoy their time off, and then act in opposition to that by texting and emailing so the message will be in their inbox when they return to the office? 

What can you do to roll back the burnout?

  • Practice self-care: It sounds simple, but caring for your basic needs is vitally important. Aim for adequate sleep, time for relaxation, exercise, healthy meals, and fun time with friends and loved ones. Try to avoid falling into the pattern of sacrificing your physical needs in the name of great performance. You will perform better in the long run if you maintain your physical and mental health. You’ll also be a better role model to your team leaders.
  • Check for good mental health practices: Check for cognitive distortions, negative filters that impact how you see yourself and others. What is the story you are telling yourself about work? Is that story really true? 
  • Find outside help: If you find yourself struggling, remember that you are not alone. Find a colleague you can trust and talk to, like another nonprofit CEO, a minister, a therapist, a family member, or a coach. 
  • Stay connected: Stay connected and involved with friends, family, loved ones, and pets who bring comfort, love, and acceptance into your life.
  • Set boundaries: Boundaries help you say no to requests that are outside of your capacity and make time for yourself and your personal life. Turn off phone notifications on nights and weekends, or commit to only checking email once or twice a day. Most emails you create can be held in your outgoing mailbox until 8 a.m. the next workday. Model the behavior you want for your staff.
  • Prioritize tasks: Delegate or eliminate tasks that are not truly necessary or can be done by someone else.
  • Change your mindset: A positive mindset can help you overcome burnout. Focus on the good things in life, your strengths, and what brings you joy. Practice gratitude and celebrate your achievements.

Let’s work together

If you recognize burnout in yourself, or you want to stay ahead of it and avoid burning out, reach out to me. I’d love to work with you on this common challenge.