Burnout is a state of total exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It develops in stages and occurs when a person feels overwhelmed and too exhausted to meet constant demands. It can be described as a growing gap between a person’s mental, emotional and physical capacity to meet work expectations due to stressors in the work environment and the capacity needed to complete a job successfully. This results in signs and symptoms such as total exhaustion, a collapse of job satisfaction, physical illness, alienation from work, reduced concentration, poor performance, lack of creativity, interpersonal conflict, social withdrawal and emptiness. In advanced stages, it may even lead to depression.

Burnout is all too often a reality for employees and volunteers working in the non-profit sector, especially during times of crisis. Lack of vision and clear direction, too many hours, too much pressure and poor remuneration are all work stressors that may contribute to burnout. Adding to this burden – lack of resources, compassion fatigue, poor leadership and lack of an ethical culture may just be the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back.  

However, leaders can play a huge role in reducing the potential for burnout in their staff team through a few key actions:

1. Value your staff team

Make appreciation part of your organisational culture and invest in the safety and well-being of your team. Take time to listen to your staff members – it is time well spent to catch challenges early on. Help each staff member to see where their unique roles fit into the overall vision and mission of the organisation – we all hold an important piece of the puzzle. If we can dream together, we can overcome challenges together.


2. Be present as a leader

Lead from the front – nothing speaks louder than how you keep the vision alive through your actions. Role model what you want to establish – if you want to see good work ethics,  your staff must see it in the way you engage and work. Don’t display any behaviour that you don’t want to see in the staff team. Remember that a double standard is a vision killer.

3. Clarify boundaries and expectations

Take time to clarify boundaries and expectations for each staff member, whether staff members are employees or volunteers. Once these are clarified, capture it in good job descriptions, service agreements, code of conduct, policies etc. Stick to agreed boundaries, expections and commitments. When situations call for changes, renegotiate. Don’t make assumptions – clarify and respect boundaries and agreed upon time-frames. This creates a culture of honouring your staff members as valuable contributors to the organisation’s vision and mission.


4. Help the team to prioritise and to manage time wisely

Keep your finger on the pulse and the organisational heartbeat stable. Use simplistic project management tools such as storyboards to prioritise key tasks for each week and to track progress. Make sure that the division of labour is fair and realistic as well as that the team has all the resources they need. Keep all staff members accountable for their tasks. Burnout gets accelerated  when some team members slack in their duties, while others have to overextend themselves in order to keep the balls in the air. Identify organisational and service delivery challenges early on and re-assign tasks or re-align priorities to keep the team moving forward.

5. Create an ethical work culture

Be clear about the ethical standards of your organisation and be consistent in creating this culture. Have a zero tolerance for unethical behaviour – address it early on. Facilitate open dialogue to pick up on any situation where staff members experience a clash between their personal values and what they face in the workplace. Keep in mind that an ethical culture creates safety and well-being for everyone.


6. Make good payment and regular breaks a priority

Make good payment a priority. If you can’t pay good salaries, rethink your staff team structure and be creative. Long hours with a poor salary is a recipe for burnout. Consider to have fewer programmes and a smaller staff team. For example, if you only have a small budget, provide flexible packages where staff members are contracted for certain hours/key tasks so that they can earn other types of income. Make regular breaks and holidays a priority to ensure sufficient time for recharging and honour your employees’ work-life balance. Be creative – allow employees to work remotely from home, where possible. This may for example help a parent to manage their work priorities and concern for their children’s care more efficiently.

7. Debrief regularly

Non-profit work can be very meaningful, but also heartbreaking.  Create intentional and regular times where the staff team can share challenges and debrief about heartbreaking situations to prevent compassion fatigue. Stay in touch with the challenges on the ground and demonstrate empathy and a solution-focused attitude through effective leadership.


To summarise, remain engaged with your team through these basic leadership action points. Remember burnout is best combatted when potential sources of burnout are detected and addressed early on. This coupled with continuous investment in the team to keep their tanks full and the fire burning is foundational in building a constructive working environment. Your team is worth it and the success of your organisation depends on it!

Written by Mariëtte Jacobs (Managing Director of Ezrah CTD NPC) on 23 March 2020