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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Road to Burnout Mountain

My true confession is that I work...a lot.  Seriously. Early mornings. Most week nights. Many weekends. My cell phone goes off at 11:30 pm with texts from staff or volunteers, and whether I am at home or at work, I tend to be either working, worrying about work, strategizing about work, or knowing that my phone could ring or buzz at any moment and I'll need to problem solve, go somewhere or just think about work stuff.  Even my so-called volunteer work tends to somehow end up work-related. I am neither bragging nor proud. In fact, I fully acknowledge that it is, to put it kindly, a bit much. I also know that I am not particularly unique.

Working in a small nonprofit is very much like running or working for a small business.  Things are rather entrepreneurial and quite precarious.  Awesome, amazing people who have true passion for the work tend to find their way into a world of long hours and low pay (when and if there is pay) and rising to the authentic expectations means going above and beyond on a fairly regular basis.  The propensity for burnout is well-documented. But, alas, that doesn't necessarily mean that those of us who do this work know how to do everything that needs to be done and avoid the stressors that contribute to burnout!

Perhaps the saddest reality is that we tend to unintentionally drag those closest to us into our world of overwork too.  When your job demands you work all day and attend evening meetings and weekend events, families and partners tend to choose to join in or go along just to make sure that there is some "together time." Teri has helped raise thousands of dollars, staffed many a table, stuffed a zillion envelopes, and been what a few of us call "adjunct" or unofficial staff.  Our kids have attended events, volunteered and pitched in as well.  While all of this household support is awesome, it is not really sustainable--nor is it what most people are expected to contribute to their jobs.

Obviously, I haven't figured out the answer or the solution--but I think I am in good company.  As long as we live in a society with the values and expectations of ours, the high-paying and economically just jobs will not be those providing social or human services, nor those that contribute to a more just and equitable society. Just like any other business, we have the weight of making payroll, paying taxes, and providing health insurance for employees, and just like any other business, we must earn or raise enough money to do that--or we close our doors or resign ourselves to doing the work without adequate salary. Unlike other businesses, raising and earning the money is not always directly linked with the services we provide. This results in a great deal of free or donated labor to the greater society. Honestly, the handful of economics classes I took in college never really explained to me how to preserve the dignity and recognize the worth of all the workers who give their lives over to the social good.

So, we all do our best.  We work until we can't work any longer and hope that someone else will step in and carry the load a little further.  We hope our families and loved ones can hang in there for just a little more and that we can leave things in some sort of shape for the next person. We juggle, take an extra aspirin, drink an extra cup of coffee, or swallow a spoonful of peanut butter for lunch and hope it carries us through until dinner time. In the end, we cling to our belief that we can move things along and make the world a little better--empower, support, encourage and involve--even if it means stretching ourselves a bit further than we ever imagined we could go.  And then, unfortunately, sometimes, we burn out and need to tend to our very human bodies and spirits.

I really don't know the answer. I tend to offer advice that I don't follow and spout platitudes about self care that I don't adhere to. I am hesitant to ask people to do anything I won't and don't do myself and I'm not sure what to do about that.  In the end, I know that there are all sorts of contributors--a crumpled economy, societal priorities, gender politics, technology, etc. but I don't imagine explanations and excuses stand much of a chance against good, old-fashioned burnout!

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