June 15

Bust Nonprofit Burnout with 3 Simple Shifts in Self-Talk

You can talk your way out of burnout.

Simple, but not easy.

Because, you know, burnout.

Meanwhile, we’re doing all the things, wearing all the hats.

Telling ourselves that “it is what it is”.

Hearing the cynical words, “Welcome to the nonprofit sector. Where the days are long, change is slow, but you can eventually make a difference. Maybe.”

Finding the resilience to beat those words, no matter how long the days, nor how slow the change.

But nonprofit burnout is hiding round the corner, especially for founders and Executive Directors of small nonprofits.

We tell ourselves the way we handle our time is for the right reasons, and then the extended workdays doing what we think we’re supposed to do become the norm.

We form time habits that reinforce the likelihood of burnout.

But we can grab hold of our internal dialogue, our self-talk, and take back the automatic decisions that our time habits make without us thinking about it.

You can recover from burnout by reformatting your self-talk, and you can prevent it happening in the first place.

Whether you're fundraising or answering emails, you still need to manage your workload to protect your mental health and wellness.

We're going to break it down like this:

  1. What is Burnout?
  2. Why do Nonprofit Founders Burnout?
  3. How Burnout Feeds Itself
  4. Three Shifts in Self-Talk to Bust Burnout Before It Starts
  5. Do This Next

What is Burnout?

The World Health Organizations (WHO) includes burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (aka ICD) but emphasizes that it's not a medical condition.

WHO's definition in ICD-11 is:

"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and
  • reduced professional efficacy."

So, it refers specifically to someone's work life and doesn't apply to other areas of life.

Parents and carers will quickly note, however, that the demands of our personal lives weigh on our work performance, and vice versa. The WHO may not sanction the idea of "parental burnout" but when I burned out at work, I burned out at home.

Can we distinguish mental health at work from mental health at home?

I don’t think so.

Lack of energy, mental distancing, negative feelings, and getting less done sound about right.

They can occur at meetings, at your desk, and on calls.

They can also occur while cooking, cleaning, washing, and reading bedtime stories.

I've met no one suffering with chronic workplace stress who didn’t also experience that stress at home.

For the sake of sanity and fairness, I'm going to include "life" as part of nonprofit burnout, even if both the cause and cure are primarily work-related. It’s still our mental health and wellbeing we’re talking about.

Why do Nonprofit Founders Burnout?

Nonprofit burnout happens for several reasons, and not just for founders. Any organization or workplace, nonprofits included, can have a culture some staff find unmanageable or toxic.

The difference for founders is that they are often the main or only staff member (whether paid or not) and they set the tone for programs and fundraising. In these cases, we’re less concerned about office politics and corporate dynamics. We’re focused on nonprofit entrepreneurs who, for the most part, direct their own time and effort.

They want to get through the start-up phase with a growing, dynamic nonprofit but they're told they must do things, like:

  • business plans
  • fundraising plans
  • marketing plans
  • a website and logo
  • partnerships, and
  • know their ideal donor.

They don't need some of these things at all (like business plans) and others serve them better when they've had a chance to network and develop early programming (like marketing plans and an ideal donor persona).

Much of the advice is confusing, overly technical, and fails to connect the dots between these moving parts.

The start-up journey frequently includes overload, overwork, and overwhelm. Founders risk running out of money, time, and energy. They get confused and frustrated. After all, helping others shouldn't be so difficult.

In my experience, overworking, confusion, and frustration are less about the specific nature of nonprofit work and more about the culture and mentality we bring to the nonprofit sector and reinforce through our conversations.

And our self-talk.

Let's look at some examples.

I'll do whatever it takes

Almost every nonprofit founder I've met has told me they'll do "whatever it takes" to make the impact they want.

This statement rings alarm bells for me because I know immediately that the founder's balance is out of whack.

They haven't thought through the implications of treating their time and energy as infinite. They'll agree to timelines, objectives, and actions that are unrealistic.

“We’ll pull out all the stops and get that done by next week!”

I used to be the same way. I warn them to be cautious and realistic with their commitments.

Neither automation nor technology can help here. The problem isn't the content or speed of the work, it's the lack of discipline that the "do whatever it takes" attitude guarantees.

It's up to me

Founders know that if they don't do something, it won't get done. There's no one else to do it.

Advice to “delegate” rings hollow.

They don't want to appear as though they're taking advantage of volunteers and don't have the time and energy to recruit new ones to take on these other tasks.

They end up carrying the world on their shoulders.

This unrealistic expectation of themselves literally weighs heavily upon them.

I'm better off than the people we help

Founders know that every minute they spend helping others matters. That translates to a belief that any time off is a missed opportunity to help someone in need.

Founders understand the law of diminishing returns. They get that there's a limit to what they can do right now. But knowing that doesn't eliminate the guilty feelings of dropping back from the long hours.

It's easy to fall into the trap of 24/7 attention to the mission, making it almost impossible to recognize the need to step back and look after themselves.

By the time they realize that their overwhelming workload has undermined their effectiveness and impact, it's too late for "self-care" to address the exhaustion and negative feelings.

They often feel like giving up altogether.

It's all urgent

The deadline for everything was yesterday. Founders would love to get more done, to increase their productivity, but everything's a priority.

De-prioritizing is difficult emotionally (allowing someone to miss out), politically (someone deemed less important), and strategically (we lose momentum).

If we can't decide what to let go, we don't let go of anything.

Until we must let go of everything.

It's only temporary

Hands up, I'm 100% guilty of this. I'm a repeat offender. A serial victim of the self-delusion that this high-intensity period of work won't last long. Meanwhile, I'm fully absorbed to the neglect of almost anything else I should do to sustain my energy and wellness (eating well, sleeping well, exercising at all).

And then it doesn’t change. Things don’t go back, they go downhill.

Telling ourselves that overload is temporary acts like a blanket excuse to avoid the hard questions of what to do and what not to do.

In some nonprofit organizations, employees wear long hours like a badge of honor.

Overwork as a proxy for worthiness is, paradoxically, unworthy of the commitment people make to their nonprofit jobs. Nonprofit burnout won't end until we dispense with the long hours workplace culture in favor of doing the most important things well, at a sustainable intensity.

Our sector undermines its own purposes of helping others by squandering our most precious resource - our people.

How Burnout Feeds Itself

We recognize the signs.

The fatigue, the brain fog, the silly mistakes.

The irritability, the sleeplessness.

Eating too much or almost nothing at all.


Flaking out all weekend, being there but not present with family and friends.

What do we do?

We double down. We intensify our effort. We re-prioritize, re-schedule, drop a couple of things, delegate if and where we can.

But all we're doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

We've hit the iceberg. We're taking in water.

No amount of effort spent on time management apps or productivity software will save us from the freezing Atlantic.

Burnout for nonprofit founders and executive directors is not about the amount of work, or its content, or the skills needed.

It's about time habits.

The burnout - recovery - burnout cycle

Ever wonder why the weekend evaporates by first thing Monday?

Why you're knee deep as soon as you come back from a break?

You ask someone about the trip they just took, and they say, “Seems like ages ago already".

It's because we fall right back into the behavior patterns (time habits) we had before.

We don't set boundaries.

If we do, we don't always keep them.

We're open to distractions.

We resist saying "no" when we know we should.

Meetings run over time, just like they always do.

We're running late, as before, from one thing to the next.

Self-talk time habits

The culprit for perpetuating our time habits is self-talk.

We all naturally engage in self-talk as part of everyday consciousness. Self-talk combines our conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a steady conversation inside our heads.

You may have come across advice to engage in “positive self-talk”. Research has shown that self-talk shapes our experience. If mostly negative, that’s how we’ll feel and how we’re likely to respond to what’s going on around us. Same goes for mostly positive self-talk. Hence the advice to encourage yourself through “positive self-talk”.

Self-talk can help or hinder

But that’s not the point here. Self-talk as it relates to time habits is not necessarily positive or negative.

Consider self-talk like “I’ll do whatever it takes” or “everything’s urgent”. These broad-brush refrains shape your approach to everyday decisions.

You’ll always put in the extra effort.  

You’ll always try to get it done yesterday.

In many ways, these internal sayings power your progress. But they undermine your ability to sustain that power and progress.

Similarly, self-talk purportedly about managing your time and boundaries can work against you.

Saying “I don’t have time for that” guarantees that you don’t. That can help you avoid the unnecessary but also prevent you from doing something that should take precedence over what you’re doing now.

Telling yourself “I just need a five-minute break” gets you the rest you need, but not if you scroll social media on your phone. You’ll be bombarded with dopamine hits that steal 15 minutes from you and give you no sense of rest at all.

Habits are habits

Time habits are habits after all. That means when they’re activated, we follow up with instant action. We may not even be aware that we’ve done so.

For example, we treat requests differently depending on who they come from. We do our best to ignore telemarketers. But if your spouse, or best friend, or Board Chair asks you to do something, you may readily agree, just based on your relationship with them. You may accept a time-consuming task before you’ve had a chance to consider the impact on your schedule and to-do list.

This is a time habit in action. You were primed to accept this request, and when it appeared, you agreed without delay.

You may have been protecting time to meet an urgent deadline. But when the call came, your relationship has habituated you to accept the request. Some time in the past, your self-talk negotiated this willingness to accept, and it became a pattern. Now your brain recognizes the pattern before you’re aware of it and you “behave” without consciously processing the decision.

You were thus unable to maintain the boundary you set, or to say “no” or “not right now” when that was the better response.

This process occurs when we click on social media accounts we enjoy, when we watch the next episode on Netflix, when we glance at the time but let the conversation continue.

Time habits aren’t in themselves positive or negative since the self-talk is buried in your unconscious. The question is whether their impact on you helps sustain your energy or drains you.

3 Shifts in Self-Talk to Bust Burnout Before It Starts

You can take control of your time habits by reviewing the self-talk that drives them.

If you find your self-talk including any of the examples already mentioned, try the phrases below in their place.

I share these with my clients like a broken record, because they work.

These three shifts will reframe your thinking and lead you to different decisions on a day-to-day basis.

1. "The work never ends"

We address entrenched social problems that have long evaded public policy solutions.

If we could work constantly, without sleeping or other interrupts, there would still be more to do.

You know this. Remind yourself that “the work never ends” and will be waiting for you. Replenish your energy to meet that challenge by cutting off at a sensible end point and looking after your eating, sleeping, and exercise.

2. "You can't sprint an ultra-marathon"

In any context, change takes time. For nonprofits, making an impact can happen quickly at the margins, but lasting solutions take much longer.

Think of running 50 miles. Unless you’re already an ultrarunner, you’d probably just walk it. You wouldn’t contemplate a dash at your fastest speed, at peak effort.

Equally, perceive the horizon of change for your nonprofit mission. Sprinting will never get you there.

This reminder will help you maintain a steady, sustainable pace and resist the temptation (and expectations) to ramp up the speed.

3. "Nonprofits are a team sport"

Founders’ sense of urgency encourages them to take on too much for themselves, sowing burnout from the outset.

Although it feels like a sideways step, or premature, building a team to take some of “all the hats” and “all the things” is vital to the health not just of the founder but of the nonprofit.

To have hope of real impact, the vision and mission must be shared and evolve with group momentum.

Know what skills you need in your team and activate your network to help you locate the right people.

Do This Next

If you’re experiencing or at risk of burnout, take step 1, then step 2.  If you’re not currently feeling the symptom, jump to step 2 to review your self-talk.

1 - Rest and Recover

If you see any signs, rest. Literally, just stop. Any fallout will be worth restoring your health and wellbeing and returning your best efforts to the nonprofit sector.

If you can’t stop, or don’t feel you need to, slow down. Limit your day to sensible start and end times. Look after your eating, sleeping, and exercise.

This recovery will take longer than you’d like but within a couple of weeks you should see results (more energy, alertness, and calm, less desire for escapist activities like drinking and binge TV).

Of course, don’t hesitate to consult your doctor or health professional if you need their help.

2 – Reformat Self-Talk

Otherwise, you should reformat your self-talk so that you’re no longer perpetuating time habits that lead to burnout.

To reformat your self-talk, first start recognizing it. When you come to decide about how to use your time, take a moment to revisit the rationale you’re using. What are you saying to yourself? Writing it down may help.

Next, ask how this rationale serves you. How does it help your energy and attention? How does it hinder your ability to sustain or replenish that energy and attention?

Write down a better rationale for making this decision (for example, one of the three suggested above).  Put it to the test – would you have made a better decision in the example you’re reviewing?

Finally, put this self-talk in action by imagining a relevant decision and repeating the phrase to yourself (or aloud).  

In time, you’ll be able to recognize these decisions before your old habits take over and you’ll intervene with the new, improved version.

I’ve replaced “I don’t have enough time!” and “I’m running out of time!” with “I have all the time I need to get done what I need to get done.” It has nothing to do with minutes and hours, but everything to do with how we feel and experience time.

Good luck!

Let me know how you get on with this exercise – leave a comment or email me at kev@kevkhayat.com.

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