How To Help Your Team Handle The Hard StuffJun 14, 2022
Managing one’s own stress, anxiety, and exhaustion is hard enough.
But it often falls on the shoulders of nonprofit leaders to help their team manage feelings of pressure and overwork to prevent burnout
Not to mention, that a nonprofit’s day-to-day work often involves helping staff handle high-stress situations for the clients being served. Many nonprofits provide lifelines for those in need, help with recovery from crisis, and lead reconstruction efforts after catastrophe. The knowledge, skills, support, and service of nonprofit organizations is absolutely essential in so many different ways - but this can also put a lot of responsibility and pressure on those who work for and with those nonprofits.
This is especially true given that most nonprofits are under-resourced - regardless of the size or scope of their missions. According to the Harvard Business Review, of the 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, 65% have budgets under $500,000. Vital groups that provide shelter, food, and healthcare to those desperately in need often operate on shoestring budgets and rely on overworked volunteers and staff.
Nonprofits are struggling like never before, due to a wave of unpredictable and unforeseeable challenges. How do you, as a nonprofit leader, weather the storm, keep your organization afloat, and maintain the well-being of both you and your team?
Here’s some actionable advice on both an interpersonal and organizational level:
#1 - Ensure Your Own Wellbeing and Model Healthy Boundaries/Behaviors
On airplanes, we are always reminded that in the event of an emergency and loss of cabin-pressure, to put your own oxygen mask on first, before turning to help anyone else.
This analogy is quoted to the point of near-cliche, but the truth of the matter remains - you must take care of yourself before you can take care of your team and your organization.
High-stress situations will always arise, be they out of the blue or a long time coming. As a leader, the way that you respond directly affects how your team will respond. Stress and negativity can be contagious - fortunately, so too can be confidence and positivity.
Here are three ways to help you handle high-stress as a nonprofit leader:
Whether at work or at home, a big part of decreasing the stresses of leadership begins when you establish healthy habits and maintain proper boundaries.
Exercise, eat well, and give yourself enough time to rest and recoup - and not just when you clock out at the end of the day, either.
Effective leadership involves empathy and compassion for yourself, as well as those around you. When you lead the charge in terms of, for example, working reasonable hours and for reasonable stretches at a time, taking care of your mental and emotional needs, or prioritizing tasks with strategy and purpose, your team will follow suit.
Although it is a leader’s responsibility to make the tough calls and potentially unpopular choices in times of crisis, it is important not to make decisions on the spot, if you can avoid it.
Becki Saltzman, in her LinkedIn Learning course Decision Making In High-Stress Situations, reminds us that, “In a panic, we offer solutions too early before all available options are considered.”
Take a breath, take a lap, take a time out, take a nap - whatever suits you best. Allow yourself to step away from the situation, evaluate your options, and use that space to solidify a superior solution - you’ll be amazed not only at the at-first-unseen answers you discover, you’ll also be regarded with respect and admiration for avoiding snap-decisions and stress-induced mistakes.
Don’t be afraid to indicate that that is exactly what you’re doing - making a proper plan. Be honest and forthright about your decision to make the best decision and offer a timeline for your process - whether you need two hours or two days to think things through. That will instill trust in those looking to you for answers.
One of the best ways to deal with chaos is to train your brain to better handle it. The amount of research about the benefits of mindfulness, and the practice thereof, simply cannot be overlooked.
According to Sage Journals, through the practice of mindfulness in the workplace both physical and mental health improve, job satisfaction increases, and collaborative relationships strengthen. Additional research from Singapore Management University tells us that leaders who develop mindfulness actively see a significant boost in their team’s wellbeing, as well as their own, helping them to better navigate stress and sustain high performance.
With these three “P’s” in mind, keeping you calm, cool, and collected, you can then turn your attention to the next step:
#2 - Focus On the Health and Happiness of Your Team To Better Prevent Burnout and Turnover
The advice listed above was geared toward developing your own resilience - but what about the stress, satisfaction, and success of your team? How can you help them not only be the best team for your organization, but also live their own best lives in the process?
Slowly (but hopefully surely) emerging from a global pandemic as we currently are, the working world is awash with new obstacles to overcome, more complex challenges to face, and an anxiety- and stress-ridden work force that struggled and suffered in innumerable different ways due to COVID-19.
According to a Regus Group survey, worker stress levels are rising, with over half of the global workforce (53%) reporting that they are closer to burnout than they were just five years ago.
Add to that that work was already a widespread source of stress even before 2020. High-pressure workplaces, overwhelming pressures, heavy demands, and long hours all combine to weigh heavily on us all. Staying productive and engaged is as difficult for your team as for you yourself - if not more so.
Below are a number of developmental activities and best practices to help your team live, thrive, and grow. There are many ways that you can help your team extend far beyond this, but hopefully these will get you started.
Focus on your staff’s gains, goals, and growth
The first step in battling burnout, building resilience, and supporting sustainable productivity into the future is to champion the well-being and development of your team - not just as a team, but as individuals as well.
As we discussed above, you’re already leading by example in terms of best behaviors, healthy habits, and proper self-care for yourself. Next it’s time to promote and prioritize such practices for your people, too.
- You could arrange for mindfulness or resiliency training classes/seminars
- Or encourage or perhaps even fund digital learning opportunities and online skill development for your team members
- Or not only recommend but schedule time for exercise - even something as simple as a “walking meeting,” for instance.
With a team that grows more physically, mentally, and intellectually capable by the day, you’ll see a rise in productivity and performance. Gallup Research confirms this fact: individual team members who reported experiencing well-being were 20% more likely to have other team members who also reported thriving six months later.
A rising tide lifts all boats, as the proverb goes.
Less Multitasking, More Monotasking
As I gaze at the 16 extra tabs I have open in my web browser, it pains me to have to write the next four words:
“Multitasking is a myth.”
Oof. Ouch. That stings, mostly because I know it to be true. I’d love to claim that my talent for tackling tons of tasks at the same time is top-tier, but if I’m being honest with myself, I do my best work when I have one clear objective, minimal distractions, and no Wi-Fi.
Neuroscientist, educational researcher, and author JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. notes that multitasking typically “doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task, and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes.”
People work best, it seems, as “Serial Monotaskers” - that is, attending to one objective or obstacle at a time, with undivided attention and mindfulness.
As a nonprofit leader, you can help in this regard by creating a system of clear, one-at-a-time task prioritization for deliverables and deadlines, defined milestones that don’t overlap, and outspoken support for a work-flow of focus, presence, and simplicity.
#3 - Set-Up and Support Solid Boundaries between “Work” and “Not-Work”
When the lines start to blur together between work and home, that’s often a red flag. When your employees must be “always on,” prepared to take calls, respond to emails, or handle crises at all hours of the day, burnout is surely not far behind.
Don’t just allow, but advocate for time to disconnect from work.
Rest and recuperation aren’t just motivating and mood-boosting, they’re straight up mandatory. Or, at least, they ought to be in your organization, if you want a strong team that’ll stick around for the long run.
So be fair, clear, and intentional about when you expect team members (and yourself) to engage with organizational needs. Furthermore, be extra explicit about when not to engage. No emails after 8pm or on weekends, for example.
#4 - Above All, Be Authentic, Compassionate, and Empathetic
Kindness and respect aren’t just good for the soul - they’re good for your bottom line. A workplace founded on empathy and authenticity influences the states of mind of your staff, and directly correlates to healthier, happier workplaces, which in turn benefits your nonprofit as a whole.
According to research from the University of New South Wales: “the single greatest influence on profitability and productivity within an organization…is the ability of leaders to spend more time and effort developing and recognizing their people, welcoming feedback (including criticism), and fostering co-operation among staff.”
Additionally, the research found that the ability of a leader to – “understand people’s motivators, hopes, and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be” – has the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity.
Be good to those around you and they will reciprocate. Enough said.
Make Your People A Priority
You are a leader in a sector that is well-known for compassion and being heart-centered. But when serving others, it’s often easy to forget to be kind to yourself and your team. There is so much need in the world, and we go into overdrive trying to bring relief and resources to others.
But unless we take the time to ensure our and our staff’s well-being, we can’t sustain our efforts and our organization’s ultimately suffer. So by being good to ourselves and those who report to us, we are ensuring the success of our mission and honor the reasons we were drawn to the nonprofit sector in the first place.