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Opinion: How to decrease burnout while serving others

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From high expectations with inadequate budgets to relying on grants and volunteers to achieve results, double-digit percentage burnout rates are common for workers in nonprofit organizations. This article offers three ways leaders can decrease burnout and increase morale while serving others.

Bring values to life
Employees lose heart when they feel a misalignment between stated values and the lived reality in the workplace. All too often, corporate values live on a website as marketing copy instead of in the heart and soul of each person working in the organization. Values have to be embodied in your decisions, behaviors and way of being to be effective.

What to do: As a leader, step back and look at the problems experienced inside your organization. Notice that what’s happening is almost always off course when measured against purpose and values. Bring values to life by looking at how values are mirrored in decision-making, policy and leadership.

Example: A health care organization with a core value of compassion had excessive turnover. The supervisors were ineffective, allowing new employees to be bullied by senior employees. Compassion is a value that should be practiced with patients but also with employees. Clearly, the administrator didn’t connect the dots between leadership, compassion and turnover. Embodiment takes the words on the website and turns them into ways of being in the workplace.

Focus on the gain
There are two ways to look at every situation: You can look at all you have yet to accomplish, or you can look at what you’ve already accomplished. You can look at the overwhelming need that can’t be filled immediately, or you can focus on what you have fulfilled already. In the book, “The Gap and the Gain,” by Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy, the authors point to the value of focusing on the gains instead of the gaps.

What to do: Leaders can intentionally focus on the gain by initiating a quick 5-minute weekly huddle encouraging employees to share successes. The energy shift from overwhelm to accomplishment improves productivity and increases motivation.

Example: There’s a war going on in the Ukraine where nearly 8 million Ukrainians have fled or been misplaced. Focusing on the gap is overwhelming, but focusing on the gain promotes hope and action. Here’s a gain: Convoy of Hope has served more than 2.5 million people in 102 communities across 16 countries while continuing, as much as possible, to close the gap. As a nonprofit, it would be easy to lose focus because the needs are so massive, but by focusing on what they can do they keep their sense of purpose.

Connect purpose to identity
When the job is about a paycheck, it’s easy to lose steam when the going gets tough. When the job is connected to your identity, there’s more resilience. In other words, it’s easy to be intrinsically motivated when the purpose of the organization connects with your personal values. Unfortunately, most of us have not thought long enough about who we are and what we value personally, therefore we feel disconnected when our unexamined values and purposes clash with conflicts inside the organization.

What to do: Leaders can host what I call a purpose retreat to articulate their purpose for doing what they do. Explore how the work each person does serves their bigger purpose and connects to their personal values. Ask people who they are when it comes to XYZ (fill in the role they play in your organization). Answering the “I am” question connects values, identity and purpose.

Example: When my mom was in long-term care, I saw two types of certified nursing assistants: those who had to have a job and those who identified with being a caretaker and supporting elders in their last years. The employees speaking about their purpose had a significantly superior work performance than the ones there for the paycheck.

It takes sustainable energy to work in the nonprofit world. Leaders can reduce burnout and increase morale by embodying values, focusing on the gains and connecting purpose to identity.

Marlene Chism is a Springfield-based consultant and author of “From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading.” She can be reached at marlene@marlenechism.com.

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