(Guest Post) My Heart Monitor and Staff Burnout

nonprofit burnout

If your Development Director arrives at a Board Meeting wearing a heart monitor, there is something very wrong.

By Dr. Julie Anderson

———————-

Many thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Julie Anderson, my former Development director who offers her perspective on the real dangers of nonprofit burnout.

Last week, Joan told the world that her “Type A” management style made me “burn out” and almost killed me.

Now, Joan is quick to give others credit when things go well and to take responsibility when they don’t. And her article makes some great points about nonprofit culture and leadership and presents ideas for avoiding burnout. These are enormously valuable.

But what happened to me was most certainly not her fault. Well, at least not ALL her fault.

Here’s what really happened.

One morning, early in my tenure at GLAAD, I found out there wasn’t enough money in the bank to make payroll. Uh oh… I was the Development Director. It was my job to make sure we ALWAYS had enough money.

I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.  I wasn’t going to let down Joan (my boss), the board, staff, community, myself—the entire world.

Just like Joan, I was Type A (plus), altruistic, impatient, driven and sometimes relentless. So, I really can’t say Joan’s management style was solely responsible for my physical and emotional reaction to GLAAD’s financial condition. We were co-conspirators.

I gulped, took a deep breath and did what I thought needed to be done. I got into action, and fast.

NONPROFIT BURNOUT: THE PRICE OF SUCCESS

I was good at my job. So was my team. The money started coming in. Expectations rose. We were literally breathless.

Joan, the board and the staff were running as fast as they could. E-mails from Joan at 4 AM. I followed her lead. Jeffrey, our Director of Annual Giving in NY, told me he dreaded turning on his computer each morning because there might be a dozen e-mails waiting for him – inquiries, ideas, strategies to consider. And, I was on west coast time!

My intermittent heart palpitations grew stronger and more frequent.  But, I couldn’t show any sign of weakness, nor did I have time, especially before a big board meeting.

I ignored the physical signs until it became critical, so I finally, covertly headed to the doctor.  He put his stethoscope on my heart, immediately detected the palpitations, and directed me to wear a heart monitor for 72 hours.

I had electrodes and wires coming out of my shirt at a board meeting. Wardrobe killer.

Everyone at the board meeting was worried about me. Extremely. And how did I react? Mostly, I felt embarrassed… for being human.

I returned to Los Angeles after that Chicago board meeting, heart monitor in tow, and my doctor told me (thank goodness!) there was nothing actually wrong with my heart, it was my lifestyle that was the problem. I needed to slow down and lower my stress.

Inside, I was shaking. I needed to define and get some balance. But, how?

I discussed things with Joan and then planned a vacation to Hawaii with my partner. I started to look around and saw, clearly, that it wasn’t just me.

Like so many nonprofits, our staff was at major risk of burnout.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM JOAN AND MY SCARY BRUSH WITH A BROKEN HEART

I asked them what they needed—a personal day, a working computer, help with a problem, a meeting together outside of the office, just to vent.

Then, the management team talked about the need to take time to celebrate our successes, acknowledge each other and tune into why we joined the organization and movement work in the first place. From this, our annual staff retreats were born. To this day, I have some of my fondest memories from those retreats.

In my last few years at GLAAD, as part of the annual retreats, I had the development staff create a self-care plan. I monitored their accrued vacation time, reminding them about the importance of recharging and reconnecting with their lives outside of GLAAD. And I worked to lead by example—taking vacation time, exercising regularly, shutting the cell phone off when appropriate.

As Joan said last week: Consider yoga. Help staff prioritize. Take vacations. Don’t be afraid to talk about burnout. Appreciate each other.

In addition to Joan’s ideas for preventing and reversing burnout, I have a few of my own:

  • Identify problems but focus on solutions. Focusing on the problems is disempowering and promotes hopelessness and negativity.
  • Limit the intake of caffeine, alcohol and other drugs.
  • Listen and be patient. One of my staff members had a problem and I immediately interrupted with a plan of how to deal with the crisis now. When Jason finally yelled over me, “Julie, Julie, Julie,” that got my attention. From that point on, I started practicing patience and better listening.
  • Move your body daily. A healthy mind, body and soul is critical to being the best that we can be. Move your body daily. Practice mindfulness (fancy word for being present to the task at hand and not worrying about the next project or things that are out of our control, like the past).
  • Stay connected to friends, family and community. Isolation is a stress inducer, and connecting with others is a stress buster.
  • Celebrate success. Joan once joked that I should wait at least three minutes to acknowledge my successes before making a long list of how that success could have been sweeter. Success is sweet. That’s that.
  • Focus on good enough results/goals. Don’t beat yourself and others up for mistakes.  There may be dead people in the wake of your great success.
  • Have fun outside of work.

At the end of the day, it’s important to treat others (and ourselves) the way we want to be treated by others.

And Joan, thank you for making my heart race.  It was all for the greater good.

banner_julieDr. Julie Anderson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles, CA.  She also continues her nonprofit work as an executive coach and organizational consultant.  From 1997 through 2008, Julie was the Development Director at GLAAD.  Visit her and learn more at www.julieandersonphd.com

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Glennda

    I love this column and both of you. So true. It was a pleasure to learn these lessons directly from two people with the biggest hearts I’ve ever known.

    • big hearts of the palpitating variety 🙂 thanks for the sweet note.

  • Duane McWaine

    Great work, both of you. Welcome, valuable insights and helpful suggestions. Thanks fort posting these columns!

    • since writing this i have talked to two different people who work in nonprofit who “came out” as heart monitor wearers at some point in their careers. clearly it is always valuable to come out !! 🙂

  • I had this same experience! I was Development Director at Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and I believed if i failed to raise the budget, whole species would go extinct! No pressure! (This belief was not anyone else’s fault, but the culture of our sector certainly contributed.)

    • sarah. i feel like these two posts have tapped into this big secret in the nonprofit sector. i thought our story was an embarrassing anamoly. turns out that saving the world (or even small pieces of it) can be frighteningly stressful. are you taking better care of yourself?

  • John Sefakis

    Joan – you give me a few tips on how to raise some money for Dancers Over 40 and I’ll make sure you look good on April 20th! xoxo John Sefakis

    • joangarry

      john. great to hear from you. not sure you can make me look good on 4/20 but i’m happy to offer tips. see you on the fordham stage on 4/20. will be wonderful to see you.

  • Jens Kohler

    I love Julie’s subtle point about treating ourselves the way we want to be treated by others. If others treated us the way we treat ourselves sometimes we would tell them to stop.

    • joangarry

      totally right jens. keep your blog ideas coming. they are terrific!!!

  • Kathy

    Nice post! I had a heart monitor when I first started in my current job, and it was the first time in my life I had ever had heart palpitations and high blood pressure. I’m 50 and young and extremely healthy otherwise. Everyone always tells me I have tons of energy, passion and skill. I always wonder if this “stress” is all in my head, but have had other jobs and generally feel successful (and have brought in a lot for my organization) but in my current job there is a lot of drama and whatever I do is never enough)(the day I won a big case: “who really cares about that case anyway?”). Nearly 2 years later, my heart palpitations have mostly subsided but now I have chronic stomach problems and get colds all the time. My husband and kids are worried. But there is no let up. Thanks for posting b/c at least I know I’m not alone. Unfortunately the heart monitor was not enough to change things. I LOVE my work and feel very guilty even posting this, but had to say thanks for sharing. (I am looking for a new position but it takes time and to be honest, once you are older it is harder. I’m the only breadwinner and support 5 people.)

    • Kathy. Regardless of the importance of your work and how much you love it, you really need to take care of yourself – sounds like your family is right to be worried. I hope you will see my post and how it resonated for you as a sign that you need downtime, personal days and vacations. Your organization needs you healthy and strong. Take good care.

  • Eileen

    I was the Executive Director of a non-profit for ten years and fell under the same pressures that you all describe. And, I also ended up wearing a heart monitor! I eventually left the sector as director and after about a year, my heart palpitations have subsided. I am still active in the organization, just not in the role of director.
    There are often times that I miss it but it was necessary to take care of myself.
    I find that maintaining involvement in the organization and allowing those that remain to draw on my experience is a good balance and while I wish it hadn’t come to me having to leave, it is a breath of fresh air to read your stories and to know those issues are real and present.

    • Eileen. Thanks for your note. I’m sorry that the intensity of the work had this kind of impact on you but especially glad that you have stayed involved. Others may have ‘blamed’ the organization and walked away. Your org no doubt benefits in real and tangible ways from your continued engagement. I am glad you are taking better care of yourself. And thanks for your kind words about my stories. Although I have to say that I wish this one did not resonate so much with so many.

  • Alplily

    My name also happens to be Julie. And this post resonates. After a month including three huge events, including one
    last night with major VIPs (it went perfectly), I am completely fried.
    Heart palpitations, insomnia, achy, the works. I’ve been clenching my
    teeth so hard at night that part of my molar fell off yesterday. I feel
    like I need a month off (preferably at a spa), but have a grant proposal
    due Tuesday. I will probably not even get to take the Labor Day holiday
    off… and I desperately need a day off. I do have a little vacation
    coming up. Thank goodness. (Oh, and the real kicker is that I make less
    than the proposed minimum salary rate–this is also stressful).

  • Rosalind

    During the first year of my first ED position, I let myself get terribly burned out. One afternoon while working on budget projections, the left side of my face started to tingle and my vision got blurry. My heart started to race, my palms were sweaty and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I had this “never let ’em see you sweat” philosophy when it came to my own human frailty with my staff, so I basically hid in my office so no one could see that I was having a problem even though I was convinced that I was having a stroke! My husband was at work 45 minutes away, so I called my mother who could get to me faster. She met me in the parking lot and took me to the emergency room where I was told that I was perfectly fine….just suffering from an anxiety attack complicated by the onset of a migraine!