Why Nonprofit Workplaces Are Stressful and What To Do About It | Beth's Blog

Why Nonprofit Workplaces Are Stressful and What To Do About It

Workplace Culture

In light of the recent high profile suicides by Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain,  Vu Le wrote an excellent piece on what nonprofits need to know about mental illness.  One of the points he brings up is the importance of creating an environment where life/work balance flourish.  Overwork and stress can lead to burnout and depression and that can lead to even bigger problems. As a sector, we need to understand that working endlessly long hours is not productive.  And here’s a summary of the research that proves it.

Dying for A Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance and What Can We Do About It by Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer is an examination of the sources of workplace stress, its impact on employees, and how to change it before we’re all dead or sick from overwork.   One of my motivations for writing “The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout” was to advocate for healthier and happier nonprofit workplaces and I’m happy to see another book that is tackling the monster that is work related stress.

Research on Toxic Workplaces

It is too often written off by leaders as not important and there is significant resistance to change.  After reading this book that examines the research on the negative health and productivity impacts on overworking, one can’t help to wonder why we are still doing it.  Pfeffer explains some of the whys, but more importantly how to change.   Here’s a summary of the research cited in the book:

  • Toxic workplaces are taking a toll on our physical and mental health.  Professional “white collar” jobs are as stressful as manual labor. Stress is considered an inevitable part of the modern workplace, including nonprofits.
  • Leaders and employees differ on their view of cause of workplace stress according to research.  This disconnect that can undermine the success of any initiatives designed to increase well being the workplace.  Leaders identified big-picture challenges like technology, which makes it harder to separate work and home, and organizational change as top contributors to stress while employees were focused on concerns like low pay, unclear job expectations and company culture.
  • Stress in the workplace is expensive for organizations according to research. The American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit that aims to educate the public, found that job stress costs U.S. industry more than $300 billion annually in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance costs.
  • Stress is the leading cause of turnover.  Employees feel pressure to accomplish more with less resources and they are not happy. Nearly 50% report having changed jobs to escape stress.  Approximately 61% report that workplace caused them actual physical illness, insomnia, depression, or family issues.

Long Hours Culture Is Not Productive

The book devotes an entire chapter to the problem of working excessive hours.   The Japanese have a word for it, Karoshi, which means working yourself to death by working long hours. This phenomenon not just a Japanese thing, it is happening all over the world and in the US.  There are many manifestations of overwork and all have negative impact on employee health and the organization’s productivity and effectiveness.  Here’s a few:

  • Working long hours during the day/evening and being sleep deprived which can weaken the immune system and lead to illness or lead to family conflicts
  • Working excessive hours during the year, but not taking paid time off. It is well documented fact that Americans are taking fewer and shorter vacations or forgoing them all together, despite having paid vacation benefits from work.
  • Working when sick. Not taking sick days when you are ill because of the belief that your job would be danger or you would get too far behind. This does not allow you to recover and it spreads your germs to other people at work.

Why are we doing this?  These instances of overwork are not necessarily needed for the organization to be successful. There is a “work long hours” culture where people work long hours, even if it is not needed. Some employers see this an expression of loyalty.

But it’s not for-profits are alone in the arms race toward constant overwork. Research has even found that people who work at nonprofits tend to put in longer hours–some call them “hero hours”—than others, with higher rates of burnout and turnover, possibly because they’re driven by a higher purpose.  Over the last 25 years, we’ve shifted from leisure time as status to busy and stressed out as a badge of honor.

How To Change

The book concludes that if anything is going to change to cultivate workplace well being, several things need to happen:

  • Employees need to understand the stress-related factors in an organization and make that part of their decision to work there. (Easier said than done)  They also need to take care of themselves and have a self-care plan – even if their workplace does not support or encourage it. (Of course, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit has lots of practical advice for nonprofit professionals on how to practice self-care in and outside of the workplace.)
  • Employers need to measure and and understand the costs of toxic workplaces – what it is costing in terms of health costs, sick days, and loss of productivity. This is a first step towards change.  Most importantly, it is about workplace culture. Work environments matter for people’s engagement, performance, and satisfaction – but they also matter for physical and mental health. Creating a culture of community and giving more control to staff over their jobs create workplaces are less stressful. When people care and feel connected to each other, there is less toxicity. Creating more opportunities where staff can socialize together – share a meal or celebrate birthdays, program launches, and other milestones and testing initiatives like Google’s “Dublin Goes Dark” and other ways to encourage work/life balance.
  • Governments should address toxic workplaces in policies. This is already happening in Europe (France has a no after hours email law) and many Scandinavian countries focus on work life balance.  Finland ranked first in happiness.
  • Movements that focus on workplace sustainability just as their movements to protect the environment.  The Center for HumanTech is an example.

During the past year, I have been delivering keynotes on this topic as well as workshops and staff retreats on how to activate a culture of well-being.  Here is a simple recipe and tips for getting started.  Don’t wait until horrible happens or everyone burns out.

How does you handle workplace stress as a nonprofit professional?  How does your workplace mitigate or contribute to workplace stress?  How has your nonprofit activating a culture of work/life balance?

4 Responses

  1. […] Beth Kanter dives into Why Nonprofit Workplaces Are Stressful and What To Do About It. […]

  2. Omar Ziadeh says:

    Having a stress-free environment will do wonders for your organization. I love how France has a no after hours email law, that is fantastic. Work is such a huge part of people’s lives, and employers need to realize the impact they have on the lives of their employees. I have worked in a toxic and a non-toxic environment, and in the environment where it was toxic, I struggled to walk into the door. In the non-toxic environment, I was excited to be there most days. This is a great article! Thank you for writing it.

  3. Baird Brightman PhD says:

    People have been writing and researching and prescribing about burnout since the 1970s, and things have only gotten worse. Here are some thoughts about why:

  4. […] to procrastinate aren’t the only things contributing to a less than ideal work-life balance. A toxic culture can contribute greatly. But your own approach/avoidance style does connect to deeply wired behaviors and habits that may […]

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