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Preventing Staff Burnout

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

Burnout occurs because we’re trying to solve the same problem over and over. Susan Scott

Non-profit staff, particularly direct- care human service providers, are subjected to high levels of trauma, anxiety, and stress each day within the context of their work. This phenomenon can place a substantial strain on non-profit organizations. The combination of burnout, emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma can lead to high levels of employee turnover within non-profit agencies. Annual turnover rates in agencies providing mental health and social services can exceed 50%, and have been attributed to factors such as high-stress environments, lack of support, and low pay. In organizations providing clinical services, turnover can lead to disruptions in service provision and weaker staff-consumer relationships, thereby negatively affecting the quality and outcomes of services provided by these organizations and their staff. 

The bottom line is that non-profit leaders must be able to evaluate and prevent staff burnout before it negatively impacts agency productivity. Staff join non-profit organizations because they are passionate about the vision and mission, and want to be a part of changing the world. They often have no idea of the unique types of stressors facing non-profit workers, until it is too late. Having experienced burnout on a few occasions, this author is acutely aware of the impact it can have on individuals, teams, departments, and agencies. Burnout opens the door for the organizational poverty mindset: “I have nothing left; therefore we have nothing left to give.” Viewing an organization through the eyes of burnout limits possibilities, while placing disproportionate attention on human capital scarcities, and systemic challenges.

Symptoms of Burnout

·        Chronic fatigue

·        Insomnia

·        Forgetfulness; impaired concentration and focus

·        Physical symptoms (chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, headaches, etc.)

·        Increased days off due to illness

·        Loss of appetite

·        Anxiety, depression, anger, or irritability

·        Loss of enjoyment of daily routines

·        Detachment and isolation from family, friends, and social circles

·        Pessimism and cynicism

·        Feelings of apathy and hopelessness

·        Lack of productivity and poor job performance.


1)     Be sure that staff at all levels within the agency are familiar with, and able to identify, signs of burnout. Provide staff support through regular discussions and trainings regarding vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and workplace stress. Equip staff with the resources necessary to stave off burnout (i.e., confidential access to mental health services, ample time off, etc.). Enlist trained professionals to address chronic and systemic employee burnout within the organization.

2)      Perform a job analysis of direct care positions within the agency. Tasks that supervisorial staff are unable to complete tend to be pushed down to lower levels of the agency. Direct care staff are on the front lines, and in the immediate line of fire, both from agency mandates and client crises. It is easy to lose perspective, mismanage priorities, and feel isolated in these roles. An annual comprehensive job analysis, including a time-study and a review of job descriptions, will shed some light on the sustainability of the workload, and offer opportunities to increase staff retention.

3)     Encourage change from the bottom up. Change is typically implemented from the top-down within organizations. However, direct care staff have candid, first-hand experiences regarding agency strengths, and areas in need of improvement. This information is freely shared between co-workers around the water cooler, but doesn’t tend to make it very high in the agency ranks. For this recommendation to work, it is imperative that agency leaders not only collect this information (i.e., suggestion boxes, staff surveys, performance evaluations, informal reviews, etc.), but the organization must intentionally close the feedback loop, by making strategic and tangible changes to its organizational structure, design, and processes. This may be difficult for an organization that is already experiencing a significant bout of employee burnout, but steps can be taken to improve the organizational culture, with the support of trained professionals.

Reflective Next Steps

Is your agency currently experiencing chronic and systemic employee burnout? (A quick way to assess this is to review employee turnover data over the past few months or years.) What are the inherent workplace stressors that exist, in correlation with the type of services that the organization provides? How can you build resilience in the workplace by equipping your staff to successfully manage vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and workplace stress?

What three things can you do this week to make progress in this area?

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