Don't Abuse Self-Care at Your Nonprofit | Beth's Blog

Don’t Abuse Self-Care at Your Nonprofit

Happy Healthy Nonprofit

Flickr Photo by Annamatic3000

As part of the research for our book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit:  Strategies for Impact without Burnout, Aliza Sherman and I have been reading, interviewing, and researching self-care practices both for the individual and how nonprofit organizations can support it.     We’ve come across examples of how nonprofit abuse self-care.

You might be wondering how does an organization or an individual “abuses” self-care.  There are three ways.  The first is when you ignore it all together, thinking you have to sacrifice everything for your work to achieve results.   Here, you are abusing yourself and you will up burned out, if you are not careful.

The second way is to practice self-care with habits that create more stress for yourself.  This assessment from the University of Buffalo Self-Care Starter Kit helps you identify how some habits create more stress that might lead to burnout.   Good self-care behaviors – actions that bring you energy such getting enough sleep, walking, or mindfulness – are what can help you deal with work stress.

The third way was recently pointed out by Vu Le, Nonprofit With Balls Blogger, in a hilarious way.   Abusing self-care is when a nonprofit staff person uses the phrase “self care” as an excuse for avoiding a work task, perhaps an evening event or taking on an additional project.   This places a burden on other staff with the accompanying additional stress.   He urges nonprofit staff to consider the impact of self-care on your productivity (does it increase or not?), impact on your co-workers (does it create more stress for them?) or your career (will you be labeled a slacker?).


Aspen Baker, Executive Director of Exhale, writes about the discipline of self-care.   She learned the hard way early in her career. “We used self-care as a way to escape responsibility. If someone was tired or overwhelmed, she could claim the need for “self-care” and make it everyone else’s job to fill the gap she left behind. There was no accountability to the team.”   This cultural practice of self-care created a lot of resentment on staff and enabled everyone to abuse self-care, either by ignoring it or dumping on their colleagues by practicing it.    The organization worked hard to change:

“Now, when I think of self-care, I don’t think of just manicures and massages or vacations and walks in the park. Self-care is not a simple feel-good activity. It’s a much deeper and, ultimately, more meaningful tool: self-care is a discipline that honors what is sacred, including the hard work that provides meaning in our lives.”

If the nonprofit sector abuses self-care in any of these ways, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and our organizations – and we won’t have the energy to solve the difficult problems that our organizations, networks, and field are trying to address with not enough resources.

Authentic self-care is a habit for individuals, but also needs to be embedded in the organizational culture so individual staff members don’t pit their own needs against the organization’s mission.   Self-care should not completely rest on the backs of individuals, although it has to start with the individual because a self-care plan is very specific to the individual and they should be supported by the organization.

David B. Agus, author of “The Lucky Years” recently wrote in an editorial in the WSJ about the need for organizations to hire “Chief Health Officer.” He says health, happiness, and productivity at work are related outcomes and organizations need to support all three. But the problem is that most employees are alienated by wellness programs because it is all about loosing weight or a behavior health factor.  So he suggests that organizations don’t have weight loss competitions, but make it easier for employees to exercise. He also talks about designing the workplace for optimal health – standing desks anyone?

He hints at the importance of organizational culture and leadership.   “Organizations need to move away from thinking that health and wellness means providing a discount to a local gym. Instead, it means active, on-site leadership charged by top management with the mission of maintaining a healthy, productive workforce.”   The challenge, of course, is how a nonprofit can do this with limited resources.   Aliza and I hope to discover some great examples and feature them in our book, “The Happy Healthy Nonprofit.”

Mark Horvath, Invisible People, recently shared this post by BaseCamp’s founder and CEO about their employee benefits and how they encourage and support staff’s self-care.  And yes, this is a start up, a for-profit, and nonprofits could never afford many of the perks, like organic fruit in the break room, BaseCamp’s founder writes about the “informal policy” about not having employees over work themselves.

“And while this isn’t a formal benefit, we encourage 40-hour work weeks. I only make this point since our industry is perverted and often asks people for regular 60+ hour weeks + regular pushes on weekends. We don’t want people working more than 40 hours a week in any sustained fashion (we even built in a “Work Can Wait” feature in Basecamp 3 which turns Basecamp notifications off after work hours and on weekends). In a crisis, or a once-every-couple-years special push, we may require very short-term extended hours, but otherwise we strongly encourage a maximum of 40-hours a week, and 8-hours of sleep a night.”

Like start ups, nonprofits often require long hours, evenings and weekends.   But when this becomes the cultural norm, it is not effective.    The research shows that when we overwork, we are way less productive, and it is also starts to impact our attitude and health. If we think that self-care is just the quick surrender when we’re stressed out, that is a temporary fix. We need to make good self-care habits a part of our work – because it helps our organization’s get better results and it needs to part of our nonprofit workplace culture.

Does your organization support self-care?  How do you approach self-care as an individual so you don’t abuse it?   On January 14th,  Aliza Sherman and I will share some ideas and tips for nonprofits about how to be healthier and happier in 2016.   You can learn more about this free webinar and register here.


6 Responses

  1. The problem isn’t the need for self-care. The problem is foundations and a donor culture that idolize low overhead and continue to starve individual nonprofits of adequate, healthy grants, gifts, and funding streams.

  2. […] needs. While this commitment is admirable, it’s also a recipe for burnout. Be sure to take care of yourself first, so you can continue to care for your organization’s […]

  3. Susan Low says:

    Self-care needs to start with leadership. Staff may know what self-care looks like, but if overtime and stress are perpetuated by leadership that doesn’t establish and protect boundaries, then staff have no chance.

    What’s terrible is when staff people leave an organization because they recognize their own sanity is being sacrificed because the leadership of an organization can’t focus the strategic priorities enough, or say “no” to yet another project. If leaders can’t maintain healthy staff, the board needs to replace them.

  4. Beth Kanter says:

    Susan, thank you for your thoughts. You are so right to mention the role of leadership and modeling has on influencing people’s personal choices about self care.

  5. Jess Confer says:

    Beth, thanks a bunch for sharing this.

    It’s definitely easy to get burnt out. Great leadership and understanding is key within your team. We have found that open lines of communication is helpful as well. Being honest when feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.

    We find that holding retrospectives after monthly events or big feature releases is helpful for our organization. We can look back at what went well and what didn’t and move forward.

    -Jess Confer

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