The Organizer #34 | Management

How do I prevent burnout in my organization? Good management can help prevent burnout. Learn how to recognize and manage the risks using Entremission's Burnout Test.

How to prevent burnout at your nonprofit

It’s time to talk about how to prevent burnout in social impact work.

We hear the phrase burnout often in the nonprofit world. It’s so familiar and so common that it seems normal, maybe even inevitable.

“I’m so burned out.”

“I think I’m burning out.”

“Her? Oh yeah, she burned out years ago.”

So what is burnout?

The World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as a workplace phenomenon in 2019. It is an experience that affects your health and well-being, but not the result of some underlying illness or health condition.

In the words of the WHO, burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

That definition matters, because it reminds us that burnout is not about us. Burnout is about our environments.

Burnout is a reaction to things happening around you, kind of like getting wet in the rain. It is not part of your personality, and it’s not your character. Burnout is not who you are.

What does burnout feel like?

Burnout is a tangle of feelings.

It’s a feeling of overwhelming exhaustion, the kind that can’t be cured by sleeping in one weekend.

It’s a feeling of alienation, feeling disconnected from your work and the people around you.

And burnout is a feeling of inefficacy, the belief that you are inadequate or that what you have to give will never be enough.

Good management can help prevent burnout

There is a wealth of articles and resources that help people recognize and cope with burnout, but very few to help organizations create healthier environments.

Let’s change that. 

If organizations create the conditions for burnout, then they can also prevent it (or at least reduce it).

Management has a huge (huge, huge, huge) role to play in creating sustainable, high performing organizations. Many of the critical management decisions you are making today will shape your team’s experience in the coming year.

Here are three ways every manager can reduce the stresses that lead to burnout.

1. Commit to realistic workloads

Workload is the biggest driver of nonprofit burnout. If we work too hard for too long, our minds and bodies will run out of steam.

Workload challenges are understandable, and they often come from a well-intentioned place. We’re trying to address some the most complex problems known to humans, usually with minimal resources.

If you set your goals too high when your resources are too low, burnout will follow. Trying to do too much with too little teaches good people that their efforts aren’t worth it. No matter how much they work or how hard they try, they’ll never live up to the promises. Caring less is how they survive.

Commit to projects you can implement. Assign work and responsibilities that can be completed without working overtime. Make sure people unplug and refresh routinely (daily, weekly, yearly).

2. Advocate for fair salaries

Financial stress is real stress. If your team members go home from work every week worried about how they are going to pay their bills or they need to freelance to make ends meet, they’ll be swimming in stress. All. The. Time.

On average, nonprofit workers serving community interests earn $18,421 less per year than the average full-time worker in Canada ($38,716 compared to $57,137). That average salary is less than the living wage in most cities in the country.

Fair wages help protect your team’s physical and mental well-being, their family life, and their futures.

Fair wages also prevent some of the workload pressures that can lead to burnout. They keep experienced people around and allow them to engage fully. They also help you avoid the cost and extra work that come with high turnover.

Start by benchmarking your team’s salaries against the living wage for your area and similar jobs in the sector. 

You might not have money in the bank to give everyone raises, but you can advocate for fair salaries to your funders. Show your employees they are seen and valued. Staunchly defend the importance of their work. Build your organization on a stable foundation, rather than a shaky dependence on cheap labour.

If you are nervous about advocating for salary increases, remember that you are not asking for favours. You are promoting equity and advocating for the value of work performed by women (77% of the workforce), newcomers (47% of the workforce), and racialized workers (29% of the workforce). Their time, energy, and talent should not be taken for granted.

3. Acknowledge the emotional intensity of your work

If you deliver frontline services or confront social issues every day, your organization’s work will take an emotional toll on your team.

As a manager, you can create a culture that openly acknowledges these stresses. Build a culture of awareness and gratitude by talking openly in your staff meetings and one-on-ones. Make sure your team members know they are not in this alone. Encourage employees to participate in networking and peer groups to learn from — and connect with — others. Advocate for benefits programs that cover physical and mental health services.

When someone volunteers to confront environmental destruction, racism, poverty, violence, and other issues day in and day out, they give us all a gift. Let’s recognize it.

When it comes to preventing burnout, management matters

Burnout doesn’t have to be a familiar part of nonprofit life. Good work doesn’t have to feel so hard or take such a toll.

To make the common uncommon, we need great, thoughtful managers to lead the way.

How to spot burnout risks in your organization

The Organizer is a newsletter for people working to create equitable and sustainable communities. Whether you are part of a nonprofit, a charity, or a social enterprise, this newsletter is for you.

Each edition, we explore one aspect of social impact work. We answer a common “How do I …?” question, and we tell you about a tool that will help make your work a little easier. Subscribe for free at