Nonprofit organizations exist to help make the world a better place. But what happens when nonprofit staff are so committed to their cause that they burnout? According to activist and naturopathic doctor Emily Bennett, Nonprofit burnout doesn’t happen to employees—it happens to organizations. We sat down with Dr. Bennett, ND, to find out what special health challenges nonprofit staff face, how naturopathic medicine can help, and how working on the organizational level can get to the root causes of nonprofit employee overwhelm.
When Activism Takes a Toll
Bennett’s university days were chock-full of student activism. She spoke at rallies, started campaigns, and regularly burned the midnight oil—all in dedication to “the cause.” But by her fourth year at university, her activist lifestyle was starting to take a toll. “I started feeling like all the time I had put in over the past three years was pointless; nothing was changing,” Bennett recalls. “The work we were doing was not effective. I became really cynical.”
At that point, she was the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization while still in university. She was the only staff member, and soon she hit a wall. “I wasn’t sleeping; I was anxious. I was really unwell and wasn’t aware of how unwell I was because I was so anxious and in my head,” recounts Bennett. “I just abandoned the cause altogether.”
This rapid shift away from everything that had ruled her life for the last several years brought on such strong feelings of shame and failure that she never spoke about it. She moved away after that final year of university and tried to put everything behind her.
From PCOS to a Naturopathic Career
Around this time, she found out that she had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). When the medication prescribed by a specialist brought on a full-body reaction, she was told she had to keep taking the medication for the rest of her life. Coming from a family of Medical Doctors, she didn’t know where else to turn. But when a friend introduced her to a naturopathic doctor, she didn’t just get help for her own health condition; she found a new career direction.
The ND walked her through how the endocrine system actually works and pointed out how Bennett—blaming herself for her activist ‘failures’—may have impacted her own health. “She really gave me hope and information, which is what I needed,” recalls Bennett. “I’d always considered being a medical doctor. But this felt so much more meaningful because of the time you get to spend with people, and the kind of journey you could take as you provide them with the information that they need to feel OK with what is happening to them.”
When Self-Care and Nonprofit Work Aren’t Compatible
When she started practicing as a naturopathic doctor, most of her patients were staff members of nonprofit organizations. She would work with patients to create a treatment plan and then schedule a follow-up appointment four to six weeks later.
But after six years of practice, she started to notice an alarming pattern. When nonprofit patients returned for the second appointment, many reported they had taken a stress leave from their job. They discovered their work lifestyle simply didn’t give them the space they needed to follow Bennett’s self-care recommendations. At first, Bennett considered this a positive development. These patients were not well, and she encouraged them to take time off. Patients would implement her treatment plan then head back to work a couple of months later revitalized and proud of their new self-care capabilities.
But when Bennett saw them a month after they went back to work, many had quit their jobs altogether. “These are people who are facing what is difficult, what is unjust in our society,” explains Bennett. “And it’s extremely stressful. It was incompatible to work in these organizations for them and to maintain the level of care that they had developed during their time off and in their initial work with me.”
After Bennett had seen this pattern play out with eight patients, she took a closer look. Whether they left their jobs or not, nonprofit patients reported a serious mismatch between caring for themselves and their organizational culture. Nonprofit staff came in most commonly for stress-based symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, digestive issues, and hormone concerns. But that wasn’t their only commonality. “It’s this idea that the work is tough, and so you have to tough it out. Often, there’s a culture of martyrdom and that has consequences for individual health,” explains Bennett. “This work often attracts people who care a lot. That leaves them vulnerable to taking on a workload that is too much and taking work home leaving them open to compassion fatigue.”
Swapping Random Acts of Wellness for Organizational Basics
Bennett realized that to get to the root causes of nonprofit staff stress, she had to address what was happening within nonprofit organizations. While employee wellness programs that include yoga or meditation can be helpful, she knows that programs focusing solely on employees will only go so far. “Instead of these random acts of wellness, organizations need to go back to basics,” Bennett explains. “Things like how you create a sense of belonging for people in the workplace, how you communicate work-life boundaries, and how managers support their teams.”
When she delved into the work of burnoutresearch pioneers such as Christina Maslach, she made a discovery that confirmed her desire to work on the organizational level. “Burnout doesn’t happen to individuals; it happens in the context of a workplace,” Bennett explains. “Compassion fatigue happens to individuals. But for a person who is burnt out, you need to go all the way to the organization to find out why this is happening. It’s happening because of what is going on at work.”
research pioneers such as Christina Maslach, she made a discovery that confirmed her desire to work on the organizational level. “Burnout doesn’t happen to individuals; it happens in the context of a workplace,” Bennett explains. “Compassion fatigue happens to individuals. But for a person who is burnt out, you need to go all the way to the organization to find out why this is happening. It’s happening because of what is going on at work.”
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) also stresses that burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. They define burnout as a syndrome “….resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” They point to three dimensions of burnout:
- Low energy or exhaustion
- Feeling negative, cynical, or mentally distant from one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Rekindling the Organizational Fire
Now, Bennett uses evidence-based tools to help nonprofit organizations assess their burnout level. For example, the Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS) assesses how workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values may factor into organizational burnout. Instead of telling nonprofits what they’re doing wrong, using such surveys helps Bennett provide evidence-based recommendations to improve organizational health and resilience.
Bennett recalls one organization where experienced staff were resentful about how much time they had to spend training new staff. As it turned out, the lack of a new staff manual, standard training, and onboarding procedures were contributing to inefficiency and ill-feeling in the workplace. “It’s often these basics that are needed to reduce the workload burden and free up more energy for serving clients versus feeling negativity towards coworkers,” explains Bennett. “If they were not provided with adequate training at the outset, they won’t properly understand all the components of their job.”
Nonprofit organizations may focus so much on their cause, they risk losing sight of their greatest resource—their people. “Because of the focus on mission and vision, nonprofits sometimes lack the structures that support people feeling confident in their roles and responsibilities and on how they contribute to the mission overall,” explains Bennett. “I have so much to offer from the perspective of work-life balance and lifestyle. But people can’t achieve work-life balance when these basic organizational things are missing. That’s a big part of what is needed.”
The National Council of Nonprofits (Butkovich, 2019) points to five ways nonprofit organizations can bust burnout:
- Offer flexible work hours and locations
- Encourage taking time off
- Support logging off during non-work hours
- Offer mental health benefits
- Create a culture of compassion
This article is provided by the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing healthcare systems and empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
American Psychological Association. (2021), Speaking of Psychology: Why we’re burned out and what to do about it, with Christina Maslach, PhD, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/burnout
Butkovich, Sasha. (2019). Seeing Signs of Burnout at Your Nonprofit? 5 Tips to Help Your Team, National Council of Nonprofits, https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/thought-leadership/seeing-signs-of-burnout-your-nonprofit-5-tips-help-your-team
Maslach, C. & Leiter M.P. (2021), How to Measure Burnout Accurately and Ethically, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2021/03/how-to-measure-burnout-accurately-and-ethically
McClure, A., & Moore, M. (2021). Stress and Peer Support among Nonprofit Workers. Journal of Applied Social Science, 15(1), 151–156. https://doi.org/10.1177/1936724420982902
Moss, J. (2019), Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people
World Health Organization. (2019), Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
Cameron, K. (2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Cameron, K. (2021). Positively Energizing Leadership: Virtuous Actions and Relationships That Create High Performance. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Connors, D. (2018). A Better Place to Work. Well-Advised Publishing.
Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Bantam Press.
Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Malor Books.
Maslach, C. & Leiter M.P. (2005). Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work. Jossey-Bass.
Maslach, C. & Leiter M.P. (2000). The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. Jossey-Bass.