I was having dinner with a friend the other day and he spoke about  loving his organization but that the frenetic pace, tactical focus, heavy workload and lack of recognition were pushing him to burnout.  We spoke about the leaders’ management styles, inter-personal dynamics among staff, important vs urgent deadlines, strategic vision of the organization, what to say to whom (or not),  culture (of taking time to say “thanks” and be grateful for efforts,  responses and successes, recognizing the humanity and allowing for life’s ups/downs and other responsibilities of each employee), any of his personal sensitivities he might have to manage anywhere, some of the things he could do or ignore.  The day after, I was thinking how frequent that burnout conversation has become, with colleagues in all sectors.  But it seems an especially enduring issue among those who work in the societal improvement space.  To couch that in numerical terms, an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion is spent on healthcare in the US, for the psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees, and workplace stress contributes to 120,000 deaths a year  (HBR Jan 2015 article by Michael Blanding on Joel Goh’s research).

Non-profit organizations and social enterprises are focused on long-term, societal change goals. These can be overwhelmingly large and compelling… So, it is easy to feel like one never does enough, and get caught on a gerbil wheel of constant doing… which results in burnout. The proverbial gerbil wheel serves no one in the long-term, because it zaps people of their energy, creativity and resilience, creates high turnover, high recruiting and training costs, program disruptions, and limits the organization’s impact (& desirability as a place to work, or even in which to invest).  Of course exercise is good for us, makes us feel great, and for god’s sake please continue doing it; for the sake of this metaphor, however, the gerbil wheel can be beguiling movement, but is it taking you forward?



Please share your additional insights and questions in the comments and we’ll continue the discussion. Thanks.       ~Rachel Patterson, Managing Director


See also:    Part 2 of 3 – Creating a More Long-Term Effective Culture

Part 3 of 3 – Some Nitty Gritty on Implementing Rich Goals