(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

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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