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How to avoid burnout By Katie Duckworth

Things can get super stressful when you work for a charity, can’t they? There’s too much to do, in not quite enough time, with not quite enough people and not quite enough money.

Also, third sector people tend to go that extra mile to launch an event or run a programme, and all too quickly it can add up to mega stress and burnout when feeling frantic is the norm.

I see this a fair bit in my one-to-one coaching with third sector organisations. I’ve recently been working with a great manager in an international charity. She’s totally committed to her job in a field she loves. But after years of dedication she’s on the look-out for something new.

Quite simply, it’s too stressful. She works crazy hours, hardly ever stops thinking about work, and it’s putting her health at risk. She wants out before she’s burnt out.


It’s fight or flight

When your brain perceives a threat it releases stress hormones. This was once good news. In cave-woman days, when the threat was a hungry bear, it gave her the oomph for flight or fight, essential with that big bear heading her way.

The problem now, is that our bodies still behave as if there’s a wild bear on the loose. In our busy, 24/7 lives, the brain perceives stresses all over the place which don’t need such a dramatic bodily response. Prolonged stress means your system rarely shuts down, stress hormones keep flowing and you’re on constant high alert. Eventually, you can’t think straight, are worn ragged and feel frantic. That’s when you can get super stressed – and ultimately burned out.

Stress is an inevitable part of life – not everything is going to be plain sailing and there will always be challenges to face – but being stressed out doesn’t have to be a given.


Put your own mask on first

You know this of course, but it’s worth reminding yourself every now and again. You know that time just before take-off on a plane, when you’re told to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others? Just as you can’t help the older man in the seat next to you if you can’t breathe yourself, you can’t serve your beneficiaries if you’re running on empty.

They deserve the very best of you – impossible to tap into when stress hormones are running through you and you’re exhausted, tearful, overwhelmed, and ultimately off sick. All the time and work management techniques in the world are only as good as the mind and body they are coming from. So you need to look after them.


What’s right for you?

You probably know what you need to do to manage your stress to avoid burnout – eat well, exercise, get plenty of sleep, make time for yourself, take breaks, etc, etc. It’s not that you don’t know what to do. It’s about having the energy, motivation and momentum to do it. I encourage my one-to-one coaching clients to commit to their own, very specific ways to manage stress. Strategies that feel right for them. Strategies that are simple and measurable. Strategies that they will actually do. Here are some of them.


Eleven creative ways to keep stress and burnout at bay

  1. Plan a quarterly ‘retreat’ whether you feel you need it or not. It can be an official retreat, a weekend alone or a rejuvenating break. Have a retreat at home even, with your purpose simply to be compassionate to yourself with none of the usual distractions and busyness. It’s just as effective.


  1. Create the tiniest of daily habits which slow you down. They can take a matter of seconds – light a candle; silence your negative inner voice with positive affirmations such as ‘there is plenty of time’; do a yoga pose. We are cyclical creatures of habit who find routine and ritual comforting.


  1. Start work at 9am? Well, go home at 5pm. Long hours put you on a fast track to burn out.


  1. Don’t work at home for a month. You’ll notice the difference to your stress levels, and hopefully keep it up for longer. Get used to asking, “do I really need to do this piece of work in my own time?” Blurring the lines between work and home life is one of the trickiest challenges we have these days because new technology makes it just so easy.


  1. Build a network of friends, family or colleagues that you know are there for you, day or night. You may not call on them much but connecting with others, and particularly, knowing they are there, is a key anti-stress factor.


  1. Take a moment to visualise a calm scene such as a waterfall washing your stresses away or pebbles on the beach gently massaging your feet. Imagine the sights, smells and sounds in detail.


  1. If you have no energy – forget solving problems or getting through stuff. Stop. Replenish yourself. This is not easy to do, but pushing through when you have no resources to draw on is seriously damaging.


  1. If your job is unmanageable let the right people know. Don’t take it all on alone. It may be a capacity issue which needs addressing.


  1. Breathe. It takes about 20 seconds to breathe deeply three times. Breathe through the nose from the diaphragm and it will always calm you down.


  1. Look at the skyTaking time to look up helps you out of your present worries and puts things in perspective.


  1. Say a prayer, if that’s right for you, or do a one-minute mediation whenever you feel overwhelmed. I teach my clients this technique and it really works.

Katie Duckworth is the founder of Be The Change. She helps non-profit leaders help their people be happier, more effective and more productive so they make every penny count towards creating a better world.

You can find out more about her Taming Time workshops and Be The Change on her website www.be-the-change.org.uk 

Follow @katieduckworth on Twitter. 


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