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How One Nonprofit Helps Its Employees Tackle Burnout

A quote with a picture of snow falling and a tree without leaves.

It’s a classic problem for many of us working in nonprofits: We’re so focused on who we’re serving that sometimes we neglect ourselves. We repress the sad stories we hear, we forget the trauma we witness, and we go about our day.

Left unchecked, this can lead to burnout. So how do we start paying more attention to our emotional well-being not only at home but also on the job?

Human Resources Director Lessie Askew has some ideas. From her 12 years working at a range of nonprofits - her most recent stint being the educational organization CFY - Askew is a tireless advocate for making sure we, “take care of the people who take care of people.”

Prior to CFY, Askew was at the human rights media organization WITNESS. While there, she helped implement a program that focused on addressing the vicarious stresses that can come with service, direct or otherwise.

In this condensed and edited interview below, Askew talks about the importance of acknowledging such experiences and encourages us to all - leaders, peers, and HR professionals - to be more proactive about creating safe spaces.

Why do you think being an employee at a nonprofit can sometimes be extra physically or emotionally taxing?

It takes a special kind of person to work in those kind of organizations. They have a higher level of sensitivity and caring and empathy. If they didn’t care and weren’t internally motivated to create change or help someone, they wouldn’t come to work everyday.

It’s amazing that they care so much about their job. But the other side of that coin is that they’re more sensitive to the ills that are affecting people, and their pain. lf an employee goes into a senior’s home and hears about how no one has visited them in the last two months and they’re the only contact with the outside world, that can take a toll.

When you’re working with super empathetic people - who you want in those kinds of situations - then they’re going to be empathetic all the time.

Why is it important to acknowledge this?

The organization needs to create a safe space and culture of acceptance. We must acknowledge what this additional toll is for employees. To not acknowledge it means that an important trait that makes them great at their job is unimportant. They’re super empathetic and without support, they’ll either become apathetic or burnout and leave and never want to work again in something that’s social-service based.

You don’t want either of those things to happen. Neither of them lead to a happy, productive employee.

In your role as an HR manager at WITNESS, what was your personal approach when talking with an employee who’s experienced an overwhelming or traumatic situation?

Throughout my tenure, I’ve found that the conversations I’ve had with employees about situations they’ve encountered in the field (or in the office) when doing our mission stems from making sure there’s a level of trust in our relationship where they’re okay with being transparent with me.

I would say some of the most productive conversations I’ve had have been me just listening intently. And the one common denominator in all these conversations is just acknowledging over and over how normal it is that these types of experiences can lead to certain physical, mental, or emotional reactions.

You spent a lot of time researching and talking to experts about compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and self-care for your program at WITNESS. What were some of the key things you learned?

What a lot of the experts said was it’s a top-down situation. The organization needs to create a safe space and culture of acceptance.

If someone goes out into the field and comes back and realizes they’re having nightmares or can’t sleep or don’t want to hang out with their friends or family because of what they experienced or saw or heard, they’re not going to share that if they don’t see an environment where people are open to sharing those kinds of things.

It’s not so much about a physical room because that doesn’t matter if there’s no trust. So it needs to be something that leadership is fully behind. Leadership has to completely message it, and normalize the fact that there are impacts to this kind of work.

It’s also not a one-off thing. We can’t say “This is a culture of openness and safe spaces,” and never say it again. It’s something that needs to be reiterated and modeled by the leadership.

While at WITNESS, you helped implement a workshop for employees revolving around this idea of self-care. Can you talk a little about what sorts of strategies you suggested?

People assume they are alone in feeling fear, sadness, anxiety, overwhelmed, or stressed.It kind of goes back to the most important thing, which is acknowledging that it’s normal to have these physical and mental reactions. And then reflect on what you’re feeling. If sometimes you don’t sleep on Fridays and Fridays are the days you prepare your client notes or review human rights videos, it helps to know there’s a connection between the two.

Make sure you’re aware of some of the healthier outlets you can utilize. Share with your support network how your social justice work makes you feel instead of locking it inside yourself.

Finally, one of the biggest hurdles for people to overcome sometimes is comparison guilt.

When having discussions with staff about self care, a response I would often get is, "The people I'm helping have so little or are fighting for their lives or community. How can I rest and not feel guilty?"

It's important that staff realize that they cannot help other people without helping themselves. The analogy I use all the time is an airplane emergency oxygen mask. You need to help and care for yourself to help those around you.

Another guilty reaction people have is, “Am I doing enough when there is so much happening in the world?” It's hard for some employees to see how all of their hard work helps people.

I find it helpful to speak with employees just about how they may not be able to see it, but they are helping to change a person or peoples lives in a very real and tangible way. That their work matters and change is happening, even if they can't see the indicators all the time.

You talked about the role of HR and leadership have in creating safe spaces for communication. In the day-to-day, how can peers and coworkers help support one another?

I would recommend the same advice. I feel that there is a general view in social service and social justice organizations that employees need to individually "deal" with how the work impacts their lives. We all react differently based on past experiences, previous exposure, and current support systems.

People make assumptions and one of them is that they are alone in feeling fear, sadness, anxiety, overwhelmed, or stressed. By acknowledging the impact, you take a step toward honest dialogue.

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By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

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