The time is now! Put well-being of your organization on your New Year’s resolutions list - Urška Jež

In the recent years, and especially in post-pandemic time, burnout came to the forefront of daily debates in media and private discussions. Everyone talks about being burned out. In Slovenia, for example, burnout was word of the year in 2019, with two books on burnout being among the top three bestsellers.

Before continuing, I feel the need to clarify what we refer to when talking about burnout in an organizational context. Burnout is not being tired, exhausted or stressed. Burnout develops over a longer period if the stressors are not acted upon. “Burnout sneaks up on you, seeping into your life little by little, making it hard to recognize and easy to ignore. If undetected and untreated, burnout can lead to extreme situations where you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level”.[i] The burnout syndrome entails three distinct states which are related to the three dimensions of burnout:

  1. emotional exhaustion (EE) is characterized by feeling of emotional detachment of the employee

  2. depersonalization (DP) is displayed as a detached attitude toward others and

  3. diminished personal accomplishment (PA) is experienced as a low sense of efficacy at work. [ii]

Hence, it is important that we recognize the signs early on and intervene with actions that bring back the work-life balance and eliminate stressors on organizational level, which are needed for our long-term well-being.

Authors such as Freudenberger[iii], Maslach and Leitner[iv], to mention at least the elders of burnout research, divide signs in physical and behavioural. While physical signs are easier to be recognized for oneself, the behavioural are perhaps easier to notice for our colleagues.

Physical symptoms include feeling of exhaustion and fatigue, being unable to shake a cold, feeling physically rundown, suffering from frequent headaches, gastro-intestinal disturbances, a loss of weight, sleeplessness, depression, shortness of breath, hypertension or other cardiovascular symptoms, muscle tension, neck and back pain. Changes in behaviour, such as lessened participation in conversations, resignation, fatigue, boredom, resentfulness may occur. A person becomes negative, closed, not flexible in thinking and making decisions, defensive to any changes, is disenchanted, discouraged, confused, feels fed up while not being able to talk about their feelings. We might face sudden outbursts of anger, instantaneous irritation, and frustration responses.

Checking the boxes should be a sign for action and I cannot stress enough that this action should not simply entail telling the individual to “do something” or to “deal with it”. Support to a person dealing with burnout is crucial. If they return to the working environment where nothing has changed, however, it is only a matter of time, until the person – or another colleague – will spiral into burnout again. Only with change at organizational level can we remove the factors for burnout. The most common myth about burnout in nonprofit sector is that there are more important and urgent issues to be dealt with first. Truly, there are many important issues that nonprofits deal with. There are people, animals, and nature dependent on our work. But the painful truth is that exactly this attitude of burnout prevention not being important, results in neglecting the well-being of people working in nonprofits and makes us more vulnerable to burnout. Taking care of the well-being and of issues that can contribute to burnout, like working conditions or relations in the team, is important for the general functioning of the non-profit, its work and, most importantly, its sustainability and growth.

The specific ethos of social and activist work makes burnout invisible or seen as an inevitable element of such work. What contributes to burnout is the specificity of work in the third sector. It consists of such dimensions as too much work, lack of staff, the feeling that the results are unsatisfactory compared to the actions undertaken, and high bureaucracy related to the demands of the donors. All this leads to overwork, stress, and fatigue of the third sector employees, leaders, and volunteers, which, combined with insufficient prevention and intervention in relation to burnout, creates a high risk of developing the syndrome. In 2020 we conducted field research [v]as part of our Erasums+ project Burnout Aid together with Common Zone, another member of NGO Academy Community, and Culture Shock Foundation. Based on the feedback, between one-half and two-thirds of non-profit organizations have or are facing burnout in their teams. 

The reason I initially decided to research burnout in non-profit sector is my observation that highly educated professionals leave the sector due to lack of career advancement opportunities, insecurity linked to project-based dynamic of the NGOs, poor management, lack of human resource management and in some cases even the reputation of the NGO sector as something one does as a hobby. In my research on burnout for the Master Thesis[vi], those factors have also shown to be important contributing factors to burnout. Better addressing these challenges in the organizations can, in my opinion, improve working conditions in the non-profit sector. Further, it can help prevent brain drain of the experts that due to burnout or other above-described elements (which indirectly contribute to burnout) leave the sector once they reach a higher professional level. 

At City of Women Association, we are dealing with the topic of organizational burnout and well-being since 2019. We understand it as intertwined in our mission, which includes advocating for and providing better working conditions for women and gender non-conforming cultural workers. We have developed several tools and organized workshop and conferences. We have launched a pilot helpdesk for burnout prevention of burnout in nonprofit organizationin December 2023. We will offer tailor-made interventions to eight nonprofit organizations between now and march, based on preliminary interviews with leaders and team members.

Based on our initial talks, the first and most important step that a leader must make is to allow and create a space to talk about the topic. We discovered that despite the scarcity of resources typical for nonprofit sector, people mainly leave because of toxic organisational culture, bad management or lack of autonomy, trust, and recognition. These can be mended without new money streams. Based on the research, discussions in the workshops and, at the end of the day my own experiences, simple gestures such as looking up from the computer and greeting our colleagues, accessibility of information needed to get work done, honesty in critical situations, clear rules about communication channels and schedules, a break area that is actually being used, drinks after work, saying please and thank you, checking in at team meetings, buying some fruit for the office with company budget and acknowledgment of one’s strengths can act as strong preventive actions against burnout. It might seem banal, but I was surprised at both, how often these miss in organizational daily lives and how easy it is, on the other side, to assume we do all these things while we are too self-involved to observe our own mistakes.

Instead of a conclusion, I offer you the tool that can help you pinpoint which areas are most critical in your organization and workshop scenarios which are proving to be extremely useful in opening a discussion in the team and lead it in constructive way. Remember, small steps can be a beginning of a journey to the organizational well-being.

[i] Kanter, Beth/Sherman, Aliza (2017). The happy, healthy nonprofit: strategies for impact without burnout. New York, NY: Wiley & Sons, Inc.
[ii] Maslach, Christina/Jackson, Susan E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2(2), 99–113. DOI: 10.1002/job.4030020205
[iii] Freudenberger, Herbert J. (1975). The staff burn-out syndrome in alternative institutions. Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.), 12(1), 73–82. DOI: 10.1037/h0086411
[iv] Maslach, Christina/Leiter, Michael P. (2008). Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(3), 498–512. DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.3.498
[v] Stec, Monika/Hauptman, Tjaša/Pluta, Karolina/Jedrezejewska, Paulina/Grabowski, Piotr/Gudović, Tara/Ivanov, Gabrijela/Milaković, Marina/Petrovičič, Andreja. (2020). Social study results on burnout in Polish, Croatian and Slovenian NGOs. Available at: (Accessed: 5.4.2023)
[vi] I am currently attending the Social Innovation and Management Professional Master at WU Executive Academy Vienna with the generous support of scholarship by the ERSTE Foundation and the NGO Academy.