How Much Is Nonprofit Workplace Stress Self-Inflicted? | Beth's Blog

How Much Is Nonprofit Workplace Stress Self-Inflicted?

Happy Healthy Nonprofit, Leadership, Personal Productivity, Resilience, Workplace Culture

Last week I facilitated a workshop on the Happy Healthy Nonprofit:  Linking Nonprofit High Performance to Wellbeing in Santa Cruz hosted by the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County.

Part of the workshop included an assessment and reflection about the causes of stress in the nonprofit workplace. I had participants use an online polling app to type in their answers and the combined responses generate a word cloud.   The word “Perfectionism” was the most frequent response.  It made me wonder how much workplace stress is self-inflicted.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many external circumstances that cause lots of workplace stress in nonprofits – lack of resources,  difficult circumstances of people the nonprofit serves, demanding boards and leaders, and so on.   But, some of our stress is self-generated.   One way to reduce some stress is to find ways to turn that around.

Perfectionism is an internal mindset where we tell ourselves that bad things in the world will happen if our campaign, program or whatever is not perfect from the beginning , delivered with 500% and on a self-determined, but unrealistic deadline.  Perfectionism is the enemy of learning and ultimately of getting improved impact. It also makes work life really stressful.

If we can take a look at our own inner perfectionism and how it permeates our work life, it might help us reduce some stress.    If we don’t understand this, then all we do is try to design the perfect program or campaign, one that is way too complex and takes many months to complete.  Or we look at every task on our daily to do list as having to be done perfectly and comprehensively.   That is exhausting.

I came across this wonderful 99U article called “Satisficing.”     The opposite of “satisificing,” is when we try to make everything we do awesome, an A+,  or the best we’ve ever done.

Satisficing is the act of stepping back and stopping that perfectionism behavior – and feeling that good enough is okay.    Many people who work in the nonprofit sector are driven by passion for their work because we are doing good and many of us share being over achievers.    So, it is hard for us not to give our complete energy, even at the expense of our well-being and stressing ourselves out.

The article offers several tips for applying “Satisficing” in general to our lives:

1.  Accept you won’t get everything done
2. Keep a new ideas journal and don’t feel like a failure if you don’t implement everything
3. Prioritize your well-being
4.  Ship early, than iterate

The article suggests that we in our work, we should avoid aiming for brilliant out of the gate, do the basics and then recognize that with almost anything in our work, we can refine, edit, and iterate.     Why is it so hard for nonprofits to work this way?

Why not have an experiment that puts satisficing to the test.   Create a hypothesis about the amount of time it takes to do a work task and see if anything bad happens if you invest less effort or time.    What if you cut the time for meetings from 60 minutes to 30 minutes for a week, would you get through the agenda?    Maybe you learn something about how much at 60 minute meetings is wasted because you scheduled it for 60 minutes or maybe something about designing a more streamlined agenda.     What if we looked at different organizational work processes and tested a more streamlined approach.  Does that blog post actually need 10 revisions and 6 approval chains?

In Santa Cruz, when the word “Perfectionism” bubbled up to the top, it lead to a conversation about “satisficing.”    We talked about the benefits and fears of “satisficing” versus “perfectionism.”     We talked about how liberating this can be – giving permission to do less – that it creates space for creativity.    You also feel more empowered because you are getting things done and that creates momentum.    And, it also generates a feeling of acceptance and love of other people on your team.    It can be hard to make this shift, and small experiments might help with making it feel more comfortable and not feeling like we are “slacking off.”

The concern of course is applying it in an organizational context.  What is the organizational standard of  “good enough.?”   What happens if you practice satisficing but others think you are just aren’t doing a good job and just point out the rough edges.   This is part of the culture change, getting everyone on the same page about the ship early and iterate often approach.   Good enough is also a very subjective.  Of course, organizational leaders need to model this mindset and people in the organization have to practice it.  It also takes a lot of mutual respect so you don’t just focus on pointing out flaws.

I’m trying to apply this to my own work and it isn’t the easiest thing in the world.  How have you applied the “satisficing” to your work for your nonprofit?   Is it part of your organization’s work culture or viewed as “slacking.?”


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