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Self-Care Inside a Nonprofit
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 4 P. 24

Self-care at a nonprofit requires buy-in not just from the individual but also from leadership and the organization as a whole.

“I’ll give you those three minutes back,” and variations thereof have become social media hallmarks of organizations’ cluelessness about the needs of their employees. Symbols of self-care, like three minutes at the end of a video call and similar tokens of appreciation, fall flat in comparison to the needs of burnt out employees. And while some may assume that this disconnect exists primarily at large corporations, that’s simply not true. It extends to all types of organizations, including nonprofits—big and small—where phrases like “You’re not in it for the money” and “Sometimes you just have to work more than 40 hours (without compensation)” are not uncommon.

In settings where employees are not considered or empowered to advocate for their needs, nonprofits run the risk of turnover, malcontent, and more.

“This will, of course, eventually lead to employee burnout,” says Bonnie Langer, LCSW, SIFI, assistant vice president of the Fostering College Success Initiative at the New York Foundling. “This pattern of behavior often creates a breakdown in communication between an employee and supervisor. Where there was once potential for an open and healthy relationship, there now becomes the potential for resentment and a lack of trust on both sides.”

She adds that “If an employee becomes burnt out and fails to communicate, these issues will also naturally seep into our work and eventually affect the quality of services we provide our clients. Organizations will eventually end up spending more money on recruitment and retention due to high levels of employee burnout and turnover.”

Conversely, “In order to have a fully functioning organization and longevity in career for individual employees,” says Marissa Stranieri, LCSW, director of social work services for Troop 6000 at the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, “it’s imperative that employees are empowered to self-advocate, and that employers are open to receiving that feedback.”

Thus, social workers—in fact, all nonprofit employees—and the nonprofits themselves must have a full grasp of what can lead to burnout and other imbalances as well as what can help rectify those issues and ultimately create a workspace that’s both positive and productive.

Barriers to Self-Care
Nonprofits exist to help better society with missions and programs that incite dedication from employees at all levels. “All our staff care,” says Tanya Barrett, BSW, MS, LPCA, senior vice president of 211 Health and Human Services at United Way of Connecticut. “They care about the callers. They care about what happens to people. They do this work intentionally.”

However, the commitment to the mission of a nonprofit and the services it provides can overshadow the needs of the employee. “In my opinion, one of the main reasons that nonprofit employees struggle with advocating for their needs in the workplace is due to the culture in nonprofit work that often epitomizes selflessness and overworking. I also have found that nonprofit employees often have a deep personal commitment to the mission of the organization they work for. Therefore, it can be challenging to feel like you should advocate for your own needs when it could possibly be perceived as ‘taking away’ from the needs of the clients or population your organization serves,” says Katie Axinn, MSW, LSW, a school social worker at a nonprofit in Pennsylvania.

She adds that the idea of selflessness is first introduced and perpetuated in social work school when students complete unpaid internships while also juggling courses and coursework and, often, working a separate job. “Students are then congratulated and rewarded for completing this course of free labor, which further maintains the idea that the outcomes they produce for the organization they work for are more important than their own well-being.”

Overextension in direct service and other positions at nonprofits can be obvious in an employee who works well beyond the expected hours or is regularly responding to calls, texts, and emails at all times, day or night. However, it can be less clear, as well. Social workers work in emotionally taxing environments. That can take its own toll.

“While we’re working in the field, we are constantly presented with challenges and not just in our day-to-day work, but we also see the systemic challenges and issues impacting our clients at a higher level,” Langer says. “For many of us, we’re working mostly within historically underserved communities who are already facing countless barriers, and we often place the needs of the community above our own. It can be hard to advocate for our own needs when we need to focus on advocating for the people we work with and the clients we serve.”

Beyond the mission and the nature of the work, the manner in which programs are funded and run, as well as the resources available to employees at all levels, can create obstacles to self-care, leaving nonprofit employees in a place that can foster burnout and turnover.

Organizations’ Contributions
Fortunately, many organizations recognize or are starting to recognize the probability of burnout within nonprofits and are working to put resources, policies, and programs in place that will benefit employees.

One such resource, for example, is the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers short-term counseling to employees and has been instituted by many organizations—both for-profit and nonprofit. “We have a really generous EAP,” describes Diane Wright, LISW-S, vice president of quality management and compliance at Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services. “It is free counseling available at least in some amounts. We take that very seriously. It’s totally private. We only know how many visits happen. We don’t know who they’re for or what they cover. I’ve used it myself.”

While counseling visits can be extremely beneficial, they do happen outside typical work days or on breaks. And other benefits like floating holidays and flexible schedules still focus on what the employees do outside of their jobs. Inside matters too. Thus, nonprofits are or should also be working to include opportunities for staff to find wellness at the office by, for instance, checking in with themselves or a supervisor throughout the day. “We have really good protocols for debriefing, especially after crisis calls,” Barrett explains. “After all crisis calls, staff are required to debrief with their supervisor. We also invite staff to reach out to a supervisor for support on any call or situation.

“We have also instituted a wellness room so that if people have had a particularly challenging call and they need a minute off the phone in a different environment, [they can have that],” she continues. “They’re able to decompress a little bit because it’s hard to hear some of these really complex situations call after call. [These opportunities] are there so people don’t hold everything on their shoulders. That can get really heavy if you are only relying on yourself.”

Barrett adds that another focus for the United Way of Connecticut has been building a sense of team. With many individuals working remotely or holding hybrid schedules, it can be difficult for coworkers to feel connected. “If you feel isolated, like you’re the only one out there doing this, you can get burned out, and so we want to pay special attention to creating opportunities for staff to connect,” she says.

Langer agrees that fostering a sense of connection is vital. “Most importantly, organizations need to create the space for human connection, whether that’s through wellness opportunities from human resources or regular team bonding activities or casual gatherings. It’s incredibly important to create relationships outside of our work.”

And even more vitally, organizations need to listen to their employees. “The best way to learn what employees need is to simply ask them,” Langer says. “Directly asking for feedback and seeking out employees’ perspectives helps ensure the staff feels heard and supported. Feedback should come from the bottom up, not just the top down.”

Addressing Leadership
For honest feedback to be collected, nonprofits need to have leaders in place who are committed to the wellbeing of their employees. “People don’t quit jobs,” Wright reminds. “They quit supervisors.” Supervision, wellness initiatives, and more won’t be utilized properly if employees do not feel they can be honest with and supported by their supervisors.

“As someone in a leadership position, first and foremost, I feel it’s important to create space during all of our team’s weekly meetings to set aside time to talk about each other as people and about our lives outside of work,” Langer says. “One of the most important things a team leader can do is to learn about their staff, who they are and what they’re interested in, and what they care about.

“Additionally, I really try to make sure I’m modeling that behavior outside of my interactions with them. Someone could always be observing and learning from my own actions, so I’ve found that it’s crucial to model that positive behavior and maintain that consistency even when I’m not necessarily wearing my supervisor hat,” she explains.

Such modeling can be hard work. Training and support from upper management is crucial in creating supervisors who not only advocate for balance but practice it, as well. For example, Wright notes that many of the supervisors at Greater Cincinnati began as clinicians. “It’s really easy for supervisors to use that role with staff,” she says. Therefore, supervisors receive training to help them learn how to offer effective and empathetic supervision without accidentally falling into the role of counselor to those on their team.

Similarly, Barrett says that at United Way of Connecticut, they consciously work to ensure their leaders understand how important it is to maintain healthy boundaries so they can recharge and do what is important to them outside of work. “We operate in a 24/7 environment, which adds another layer of complexity. If you’re a leader of an 8 to 5 program, you know that probably by 6, those inputs are going to stop or slow. But for my managers and directors, who are amazing, their inputs don’t necessarily stop,” she says. “What we find most is that our leaders have to be reminded to disconnect. Working remotely makes it easy to stay connected all the time. We find ourselves saying to our leaders, ‘You know you can eat dinner and be disconnected when you are off. You are not expected to be connected 24/7.”

The Individual
All of these measures—organizationwide initiatives and well-trained, well-balanced supervisors—will have minimal impact if the social workers themselves are not able to recognize their own needs, and that means recognizing, along with leadership, that self-care must start inside the workplace and might require a shift in perspective.

“In order to effectively practice selfcare at home, it is imperative that social workers start building boundaries for their own ‘self-preservation’ at work,” Stranieri says. “’Self-preservation’ is a term I learned from another social worker about five years into my career, and it has stayed with me ever since. Self-preservation is beyond what we do for fun. It is purposefully focused on how we keep work sustainable and prevent compassion fatigue and burnout. By shifting this mindset around self-care to a framework of self-preservation instead, it further centers how workplace and organizational culture can support employees in this wellness effort.”

Stranieri is the only licensed social worker at the Girl Scouts of Greater New York and is sometimes called upon to offer insight and support in situations outside of her standard responsibilities. “What I’ve found most helpful in balancing my needs with the organization’s is being collaborative in the process of identifying tasks and expectations and communicating clearly my own bandwidth,” she describes. “The more clearly I can advocate for myself, the better others can also assist in advocating for me on different levels.”

Axinn adds that it’s important not only to identify and set those boundaries but also to accept them. “A close friend of mine told me once that ‘the day is done when the day is done,’” she remembers. “We often wish that there were more hours in the day to get work done, but I try to remind myself that what I was able to get done during my workday was the best I could, and tomorrow I can jump right back in.”

Entering Nonprofits
Such self-care is easier said than done for the individual, however, and can be hard to implement once someone is already well established in their position and habits (though it’s never too late, and Wright notes that through her focus on self-care and the way she brings herself to work, she’s been very happy and fulfilled in her position). For this reason, social workers at or hoping to be at nonprofits are encouraged to start looking out for their well-being before they even get to an office.

“Have a clear plan as to what you need in your work-life balance and actively work on your own self-care practices even before entering a job. Having an idea as to what you need to sustain yourself in your daily life will help you advocate for yourself and set boundaries when you need to,” Stranieri says.

When interviewing, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find out about retention, wellness initiatives, employee benefits, and expectations. Learn about the team and the supervisor, as well as their supervisor, if applicable. Then, make a judgment call.

“If you get a sense from your potential supervisor that they may have expectations for you that cross your personal boundaries or will not align with your self-care goals, it is not worth it to accept a position in that setting,” Axinn says. “It is easy to think that you may be immune to burnout as a new grad or young social worker, but I can say from experience that that is often not the case!”

It may be hard to imagine as a job seeker, but if a nonprofit is not the right fit for a social worker, the individual can pass on the position. Above all, a social worker should look for a nonprofit that knows “our staff are the most important element,” Wright emphasizes. “Without our staff, we have nothing.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.