I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make organizations sustainable, and I’m not the only one. Sustainability is a hot topic in the for-profit and nonprofit world alike, and for good reason: Why wouldn’t you want to make sure your work can be maintained for as long as it needs to be?
We don’t, however, spend much time talking about our own sustainability as individuals. This causes that other thing I (and anyone else who has spent an all-nighter trying to get a paper or a project done) think a lot about: “burnout.”
One definition I’ve seen for personal sustainability is the ability for someone to do the work that that they love, in an environment where their contributions can be effective, appreciated, and rewarded. Without those factors, you increase the likelihood on suffering from burnout. Dr. Dina Glouberman, author of “The Joy of Burnout,” describes burnout as “a decreasing ability to be effective at what we have always done, either at work or at home.” Often it can be accompanied by emotional, mental, or physical exhaustion, and a feeling of being cut off from others or ourselves.
I think the inherent nature of social change work predisposes us to burnout. We’re working on issues that are often very pressing and that have real consequences in the lives of people. It is one thing if your investment group doesn’t meet 3rd quarter earnings targets; it’s another if your failure means you can’t provide critical social services to families in need. It’s also a reality that, no matter how much you do to improve the communities where you work, there will always be more problems to solve and people to reach.
Yet, many of the day-to-day issues that contribute to burnout are the result of how our sectors are structured and how we think about social change work in relationship to those structures. Nonprofits are forced to stretch budgets to maximize our impact, resulting in lower salaries and tight budgets. Donors want low overhead to maximize impact, making “extras” like robust human resource services for employees, training for managers, and professional development beyond the reach of your average nonprofit employee. In a company structured to make profit as well as social change, adding in an extra bottom line can stretch people even thinner.
These assumptions about the realities of social change work play a huge role in contributing to burnout, both for individuals and across sectors. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can look at these structural or ideological processes and begin to address them. This might mean starting a broader dialogue about whether our institutions actually working for us. It might also mean changing how we value our work or demanding that resources are allocated for employees to help create a happy and healthy workplace. (Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece in the Atlantic on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is a great glimpse into what future workplaces might look like.)
Just like manufacturing jobs are required to issue standard safety equipment and provide workers with adequate safety training, social change organizations should also offer similar tools. It’s important that we as individuals take care of ourselves to make sure burnout doesn’t prevent us from doing our work. But that will only go so far. We as a community of changemakers need to address the institutional factors that contribute to burnout on a broader scale. What do you think needs to change to encourage individual sustainability?
Photo credit: B Rosen
No matter how much you do to improve the communities where you work, there will always be more problems to solve and people to reach.