Working at a nonprofit can be a pressure cooker of stress and unhealthy habits that can lead to burnout. Burnout is defined as a “state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that occurs when we feel overwhelmed by too many demands, too few resources, and too little recovery time.”
As stress builds up, our motivation wanes. Burnout is more than just feeling tired. Burnout saps our energy, breeds negativity, reduces productivity, and can lead to feeling hopeless and even resentful. One antidote to burnout is self-care. According to the World Health Organization, “self-care” is “what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness.” Engaging in appropriate and effective self-care at your organization requires a culture shift from self-sacrifice to self-care.
Culture shifts start with an honest assessment of the culture, engaging staff in coming up with solutions, and rolling out a plan for making changes. Success requires creating a supportive environment where everyone benefits from the changes and from concerted self-care efforts. The organizational version of self-care is what we call “WE-care.”
Here are some key steps to embedding WE-care into the culture of your organization.
1. Launch happy, healthy activities
Activities are events that require participation designed to support organizational wellbeing for greater productivity and morale boosts. When identifying and designing activities for your organization, keep in mind the following guidelines:
• Identify the value proposition for employees.
• Understand individual employee motivations and barriers to participation, and design programs accordingly.
• Align activities with productivity outcomes.
• Link to measurable results and measure.
A great example of an activity that helped shift an organization’s culture to healthy and community-oriented is “Crockpot Mondays” at Pathways Canada.
“All meals must be vegan and gluten-free, and the food must be consumed with others in the staff kitchen — no grabbing and going,” says Jason Shim, associate director of digital strategy and alumni relations at Pathways. “Crockpot Mondays is part of the fabric of Pathways because people mention it to job candidates as a perk of working at our organization. Crockpot Mondays has allowed our 50 member staff to share their culinary talents, as well as connect with one another over meals that have been meticulously prepared.”
Another example is to create group rituals.
Henry Tims, executive director of 92nd Street Y and co-founder of GivingTuesday, says a staff member, Rabbi Peter Rubenstein, leads a weekly Kiddush every Friday. His role is to oversee Jewish Life at the Y, something clearly at the core of their work. The weekly staff ritual is an opportunity to step back and connect with colleagues.
“It provides such a simple but meaningful moment and has attracted not just Jewish colleagues but those of a range of faiths,” Tims says. “Many look forward to it all week, just to take the chance to stop and be together. It reminded me of how powerful these rituals can be.”
Tims says that a group of staff started another weekly Friday event focused on fitness — not at the same time — where staff members take turns leading workouts open to everyone at the organization. They do everything from Zumba, circuits, and a run around Central Park. Tim reports there is a great turnout for both rituals and the activities add something important to the staff’s work at the Y.
2. Form an employee engagement committee
Assemble a formal standing committee of employees and other key stakeholders who will serve as your advisors on what wellbeing programs and activities to design, test, launch and iterate. Your “Happy, Healthy Committee” should start with an internal effort to gather feedback from staff. Employee engagement and buy-in is critical to the success of your WE-care efforts.
According to Justin Chase and Alexandra Zavala at Crisis Response Network, if you simply build it, employees won’t necessarily come.
“When I started, our organization had a quiet room, but it was a small room with stiff vinyl chairs, white walls, and artwork depicting close ups of sharp cactus thorns,” Chase says. “None of our employees used it, except to take a personal phone call during a break.”
The organization’s Employee Engagement Committee got feedback from staff in terms of what they needed, and Chase allocated a very modest budget to transform the room. The committee ditched the chairs and brought in a comfortable couch, incandescent lamp, peaceful artwork, a sound machine that played nature sounds, painted the walls earth tones, and put blinds up on the windows.
Your employee engagement committee can survey your staff anonymously to get candid responses. They can conduct focus groups to learn about employee feelings and attitudes toward their wellbeing and how they perceive the organization’s impact on their wellbeing. And they can help with the rollout of self-care activities.
3. Assess your pain points and stressors
Honest and thoughtful self-assessment can help you identify bad habits you and your staff need to change and good habits everyone should be encouraged to adopt to bring you to a happier, healthier way of living and working. By doing so, you will learn what you and your staff needs to have more energy and focus.
Don’t only get to the root of what — or whom — is causing the stress but examine how everyone in your organization reacts to them. With a better understanding of the stressors and a concerted effort to changing things, you and your staff will develop better stress-coping mechanisms to work better, not harder, on your organization’s mission. You can download some of the assessments from our book on our website at https://happyhealthynonprofit.org.
Once you’ve pinpointed some issues, you need to recruit people within your organization to spearhead doing something about them.
4. Come up with cues
Cues are environmental reminders that make happy and healthy choices easier for employees to make. A cue for “Crockpot Mondays,” for example, could be the smell of food slow-cooking in the break room.
At United Way in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the entire staff takes time to pause work each day and walk a mile together when a bell rings — an auditory cue. Do Something in New York City holds “Toto Tuesdays” where they encourage staff to leave the office on time by playing Toto’s 1980’s hit “Africa” until everyone goes home.
Some organizations have found that signs are simple, low cost, and effective fitness cues. The American Heart Association uses flyers and posters with advice like “Park Far, Get Ahead,” to encourage employees to park their car further from the office and walk more.
Rolling out your strategy and introducing new programs or initiatives requires well-crafted educational information, messaging, and communications tools. You need to provide some education to help people understand what you’ll be revealing to them in the near future along with clear and easily accessible messaging, and your Employee Engagement Committee can help with this.
Being a Happy, Healthy Nonprofit means empowering your staff to thrive in life and at work. Doing so not only transforms your nonprofit into a high performing organization but also an awesome place to work.
Meet authors Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman on The Happy Healthy Nonprofit Book Tour starting Jan. 31. Dates and details here: https://
Beth Kanter @kanter was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and is the award-winning author of The Networked Nonprofit books. She is an internationally acclaimed master trainer and speaker
Aliza Sherman @alizasherman is a web and social media pioneer; founder of Cybergrrl, Inc., the first women-owned, full-service Internet company; and Webgrrls International, the first Internet networking organization for women. She is a motivational keynote speaker and the author of eleven books, including Social Media Engagement for Dummies.