Stress and burnout are a huge problem in the nonprofit industry. Heavy workload, under-staffed teams, strenuous budgets, and secondhand trauma can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being.
What is Stress?
The pandemic has heightened our awareness of just how stressed out we have become. According to Nonprofit Risk, workplace stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the employee or volunteer.
When we have a stress trigger, the amygdala, the emotion center, hijacks our prefrontal cortex. You are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) and you go into fight, flight or fawn mode. As a response your logical brain, the prefrontal cortex, shuts down and you can no longer think, communicate or collaborate. You lose the ability to solve problems and make decisions.
Over time these stress triggers can come out in physical manifestations such as anxiety, depression, irritability, heart disease, and lowered immune response.
Our goal isn’t to eliminate all stress, it is to better understand it and manage it when it becomes too much to bear.
Here are a few strategies to help you better manage your stress
Even though stress and burnout has become the norm, it does not mean that this is healthy or sustainable. We need to be more honest and take a proactive approach to stress management.
Get enough sleep and develop a wind-down routine
Getting enough sleep is the most productive thing you can do. Lack of sleep negatively impacts your immune system and cognitive abilities. If you don’t prioritize it, your body will show physical signs that will make you end up staying in bed when it's the last thing you have time to do.
You should aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night. During the day, limit the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume - both disrupt your REM cycle and ability to get a good night sleep.
Develop a wind down routine where you put your phone away at least half hour to an hour before you go to bed. Try a meditation practice, journaling or reading a book. You can also brain dump all of the things on your mind that you didn’t get to that day or that you have to do the next day. This will help you release the stress of the day and relax into a restful sleep.
Also, as part of your wind down routine, keep a track record of all your wins and accomplishments from the day or week. It will help you raise your vibration and focus on the good you have already done instead of worrying about all the things that still need to get done.
Sleep is crucial to reducing stress.
Take Deep Breaths
Developing a mindfulness or meditation practice has been proven to reduce stress and increase productivity.
It seems funny but when we are stressed, we forget to breathe! Throughout the day, stop and check your breathing - is it shallow or long and deep? Then take a few long, deep breathes.
When you are feeling overwhelmed, cue your body to check in by taking a deep breath and focusing on your surroundings. This will help you get ahead of your body’s stress response and bring you back to the present moment.
Move Your Body
Incorporating regular movement into your day is so important for your mental, emotional and physical health. Can you take five minutes during the day to walk outside (weather permitting)? Can you make a walking meeting instead of sitting at your desk? If you are able, can you take the stairs instead of the elevator? Even if you can only go to the “water cooler” or fridge and back, take a break every hour or so, and move.
Set Healthy Boundaries
We are all passionate about our jobs and feel the need to be “on call” at all hours whether it is for our clients, donors or board members. There is no switch off button. You can address this by setting health boundaries and prioritizing your time to focus on what aligns with your goals. Is that email at 8 pm an urgent matter or can it wait until the morning at a proper hour? The answer should usually be yes, it can wait.
Establishing and communicating these boundaries with your boss and colleagues is important. If you are a leader, lead by example and set your own boundaries so your employees can follow suit.
Practice Time Management
Along with setting healthy boundaries, it is is important to master the art of time management. We all have the same amount of time in each day but its what we do with that time that leads to stress or productivity.
Doing more does not always mean being more efficient.
First, create a long list of all your to-do’s. Then prioritize based on urgent, non-urgent or backburner. Set a time for two hours to work on one thing that is on your urgent list. Take a break then move on to the next task.
Also, if you know you have a report due every month or a certain amount of phone calls or client meetings you need to meet each month, put those on your calendar and work backwards.
Lastly, schedule a time to check your inbox or messages each day so it is not distracting you from the important tasks that are helping you achieve your goal.
These mindfulness and stress management tips can help you navigate some of your day-to-day stressors. However, if you are experiencing something more serious, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Surrounding yourself with a trusted practitioner or community can help you heal.
Know that you’re not alone in your experience. There is space for you. I am sending good vibes for peace of mind that everything is going to be okay.
To learn more about our topic expert Haley Cooper and stress management for nonprofits check out her website: