Chat to anyone in the charity sector right now and chances are they’ll tell you they’re exhausted.
That’s not surprising. Our workloads were busy even before the global pandemic. And now the cost-of-living crisis means teams are more stretched and trying to do more with less. This is where burnout becomes a real risk: back in February 2022 over eight out of ten (82%) voluntary and community sector leaders were concerned about staff burnout. But what exactly is burnout – and what can we do about it?
1. What is burnout?
Burnout is a different beast to stress. According to Mind, it isn’t a mental health diagnosis, like depression. Instead, it’s a collection of symptoms that leaves people feeling physically and/or emotionally exhausted.
These can include feeling:
- Drained and helpless
- Trapped and defeated
- Detached and alone
- Cynical and negative
- More irritable than usual
- Totally exhausted
Everyone may experience these feelings sometimes. But if they persist, they can be a sign of a bigger problem.
A comms professional who used to work for a youth charity and asked to remain anonymous, says that the feeling of burnout can creep up on you.
“For me, it was a feeling that my to-do list kept growing and no one would acknowledge how much work I had to do. Our team shrank, but people weren’t recruited – or the recruitment happened very slowly. I’d lay awake on Sunday night terrified what would be in my inbox the next morning.”
She’s now in a different (and more manageable job). But she believes these feelings were a sign something was going badly wrong.
2. What causes burnout?
Burnout often boils down to problems around security, boundaries or control.
“Control was huge for me.”
“My role kept changing without any formal notice and work seemed like it could come from anywhere. It’s very scary when you’re trying to be professional, but your workload is just too big.”
A key approach for organisations is to make sure people are clear about their job role, where it begins and ends and what’s expected of them. Having all these in place can reduce the risk of staff burnout.
Other elements for organisations to address include:
Dysfunctional office dynamics. Employing a bully or a micromanager can increase work stress. As can having a workforce who feel insecure or constantly criticised.
Workload extremes. Having far too much, or far too little, to do means it’s hard to settle and do your best. Occasionally facing one of these can be fine, but not if your workload feels like a daily rollercoaster.
Lack of social support. Socialising with workmates shouldn’t be mandatory. But it can be a problem if members of staff feel isolated – especially if they’re working from home.
Work-life imbalance. Late night / early morning emails might be a sign that employees’ work/life balance is out of kilter. Mind say that leading from the top can help model the right example. If people see senior staff logging off at reasonable times they’ll be more likely to do the same (you can find plenty of other tips from them online).
3. What can you do?
Burnout can feel like a logical response to the working environment you’re in. But it’s important to know that you can get help. This starts by talking to your manager or trusted colleague about how you’re feeling. Having an open culture where people normalise mental health is a massive advantage here. They should be able to signpost you to useful resources and relieve some of the pressure. Altered hours or changing your workload are both things to suggest.
But sadly, this isn’t true everywhere. If it’s not, speak to a friend, or a counsellor about your feelings. Your union could also help.
Also, Mind recommend you could:
- Make sure you take your annual leave. Ensure you take your full allowance to allow you to rest and recharge.
- Get enough sleep. Remember to switch off your screens an hour before you wind down for the evening.
- Schedule in time for positive activities: hobbies, speaking with friends and getting outside can all help reduce stress.
If you need someone to talk to call Samaritans on 116 123. CharityComms’ Wellbeing Guide could also help.
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