How to banish burnout at NPOs

Feryal Domingo | Inyathelo, The South African Institute for Advancement

It is essential that South African non-profit (NPO) and civil society employees take steps to avoid burnout if they are to continue their vital work. The sector increasingly has to deal with extreme workplace stress due to, amongst other factors, growing socio-economic challenges and uncertainty about funding.

This is according to Inyathelo, the South African Institute for Advancement, which has been providing support to local NPO organisations and the Higher Education sector for 16 years. According to the Department of Social Development, there are over 200,000 registered NPOs in South Africa.

Increasingly heavy workloads

“NPO leaders and employees are tackling increasingly heavy workloads as social and economic conditions become more challenging, in turn increasing the demand for their services,” says Inyathelo operations director Feryal Domingo.

“NPOs already cope with limited or erratic funding. Now many donors have less to give, and in the case of international funding, there is the threat of decreasing or no funding, given changes in US foreign policy. This is putting added pressure on NPO managers and staff.

“Members of the NPO sector are also generally extremely dedicated and find their work highly meaningful. However, there is the challenge that they are so committed to the cause, with complete buy-in to the mission of the organisation, that they often overlook their own mental and physical wellness,” says Domingo.

“They are so busy taking care of other people that they don’t take enough care of themselves. The results can be serious for the individuals and organisations concerned.”

She said that some NPO employees have neither other work options, nor job benefits such as pension or provident funds or medical aid. These staff have no choice but to remain at an organisation, and often are not even aware that they are spiralling towards burnout from stress, because this is the only income they have, the job market is shrinking and finding alternative work is hard.

High cost to SA economy

Dr Renata Schoeman, a lecturer in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, has said that burnout, anxiety disorders, stress and major depression related to work cost South Africa’s economy over R40bn a year.

“Burnout was historically first described in nurses and doctors, and the same would apply to NGOs as for the other caring professions,” she said, quoting Lund et al, 2005 and 2013.

The American 2015 UST Nonprofit Employee Engagement & Retention Report reveals that on average, more than 20% of nonprofit supervisors and employees report that staff are “very often” stressed. When non-supervisory employees were asked how likely they were to consider leaving their jobs within the next year, nearly a third were “somewhat likely” to “extremely likely” to leave their jobs.

Unlike many other work sectors, in the NPO arena, an individual often wears many hats and could be responsible for diverse areas such as human resources, office administration, finance and IT. If overworked staff do leave an NPO, there is not only a greater workload for their colleagues who remain, but also the risk of losing continuity in many areas of the organisation.

The UST report says an NPO could potentially save money in the long run by hiring another staff member, so reducing the burden on current staff. Bringing in more resources timeously could be cheaper than dealing with staff turnover, which might include expenses such as unemployment claims, recruitment costs and lost productivity.

Find sustainable ways of working

US NPO sector advice gurus Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman, in their book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Impact without burnout, emphasise more sustainable ways of working and taking better care of oneself.

“The way we work in the nonprofit workplace and conduct our personal lives contributes to our feeling of being overworked and overwhelmed. This is all too common in the nonprofit sector, and it takes more than just a shift in mindset of funders, board members, nonprofit leaders and professionals, but also a fundamental culture shift toward supporting more sustainable ways of work and an attention to self-care.”

Their advice, applicable not only to NPOs, includes paying attention to essential needs such as sleep, nutrition and exercise; taking holiday leave and disconnecting from mobile devices that connect one to work; setting boundaries and making time for outside interests.

“You are your first priority. If you burn out, you can take others down with you,” say Kanter and Sherman. “If you really believe in the mission of your organisation and the people you serve, make sure you are the best you can be to make real change in the world.”

Prioritise tasks

American NPO author and consultant Joan Garry advises prioritising tasks – some things can be tackled another day. She advises leaders to discuss the subject of stress with their staff and ask for their suggestions on how to reduce burnout. Let employees know that you really appreciate them – and be creative in how you do so.

Domingo concludes: “We encourage NPOs dealing with workplace stress to access Inyathelo’s resources, which range from workshops, training and advisory clinic sessions, to a collection of over 2,000 books, publications, DVDs, manuals, toolkits, magazines and directories.”

Feryal Domingo | Inyathelo, The South African Institute for Advancement

Feryal has qualifications in public relations, corporate governance and citizenship, and a postgraduate qualification in management studies at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town. She served on a number of boards of non-governmental organisations in various capacities, including chairperson, treasurer and secretary. These organisations focused on a number of sectors including education, road safety, child care, youth development, sports development and community development. She is an advisor, trainer and speaker on nonprofit operations, organisational governance and resilience, leveraging on her skills and practical experience as a nonprofit leader for over 20 years.

Twitter: @Inyathelo


Related articles

[Pre-recorded webinar] Vicarious & Secondary Trauma
Mental Health and Wellness
Watch this recording of an NPOwersa webinar where Clinical Psychologist, Penny Mathumba, and Laura Bergh from The Greenlight Movement discuss Vicarious & Secondary Trauma. They provide practical tips and tools on how to manage staff and volunteers that are dealing with this trauma. ...
Understanding the mental health of NPOs during the Covid-19 pandemic
Mental Health and Wellness
Survey finds alarming rates of psychological distress and risk for mental illness within nonprofit organisations Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, South African society has been put under severe strain. The exacerbation of already difficult psychological and socioeconomic conditions ...
Recognising compassion fatigue in the NPO workplace
Mental Health and Wellness
Does this sound familiar? In between writing funding proposals and trying to keep the lights on at your NPO, you are working endless hours helping vulnerable communities. The struggle against the impact of generational trauma, poverty, and despair feels helpless, but if you don't try to help, who...

© All rights reserved. 

Back to Top