I spoke to a woman this morning who was overwhelmed and exhausted. We were on the phone, and I don't even know her very well, but it was still obvious. She felt that she couldn't keep up with it all. She is a nonprofit executive and having been in her shoes (with 15 new things to do every hour) I certainly understood. I always felt tired. I always felt behind. I always felt stressed. Sound familiar?
In our culture, stress is the norm. To be stressed in some twisted way means you are a hard worker. And in some nonprofit cultures we've taken it so far as to suggest that those who are most stressed must be most committed to the cause. Now of course we don't say that outright, but it is shown in what we expect of employees and how we treat them when they shut down their phones "after hours" (if there is such a thing) or go home at a decent time to be with family. These days stress isn't just expected; it is valued.
I recently spoke to a woman who works at a well-respected nonprofit. She has been very committed to self-care and having boundaries at work; she goes home at a reasonable hour and has told co-workers that she will not be checking emails (unless there is a very important deadline) when she is not at work. Rather than honoring her commitment to sustainability, she was treated with suspicion and asked by her supervisor if she was truly committed to the cause. "I most certainly am, which is why I am creating boundaries so that I can stay in it," she replied.
In far too many nonprofits, it can seem that "taking a break" is selfish. We imagine that the whole world will fall apart if we take that vacation we've been putting off forever. We don't want to let people down - especially those in need of so much support. The line between professional and personal gets thinner and thinner when our values drive our work. Of course I stay late and give my all, because this work is a reflection of my values, my commitments, of who I am!
But really, you can leave. The work will be here when you come back (I promise!) and you'll likely be much better at doing it once you've invested in some self-care.
Having spent my entire professional and personal life committed to respecting human dignity and fighting for all people to have happy, safe and healthy lives, I began to ask myself this last year: why not me? I mean, if we in nonprofits work so hard for the people we serve to be happy and healthy, why can't we give our own selves a break? Take a vacation? Be with family? Take time for rest? And, heaven forbid, say NO sometimes?
I took a pretty radical step in my own self-care practice last year. First, I left my job, which was not a good fit and certain dynamics there ensured that even with the strongest self-care practices, things wouldn't be getting any easier. Leaving your job is definitely not the answer for everyone, nor is it one I promote (I mean, we want people to stay in the work not leave it!); however, there is a reality to recognizing if you are in a culture that will simply not support your well-being for whatever reason. Then I bought a one-way ticket to South America and traveled for six months, rediscovering my spirit, my passion and a deep well of happiness. I came back a new person, truly. And though most folks won't have this kind of opportunity, each of us can find our own radical stance towards our happiness and health. Not everyone may agree with it (you may even question it yourself at times) but choosing balance and health over stress always reaps rewards.
The thing is, your stress doesn't serve anyone. It certainly doesn't serve you; illnesses and injuries increase with stress. It doesn't serve your loved ones; we can't offer the support our family and friends need if we are always at work (which includes physically being at home but still checking emails on your phone). And it doesn't even serve your cause; stress leads to burnout and lower productivity.
There are two types of self-care: nerve-care and soul-care. Nerve-care just scratches the itch, and is a short-term shot of escapism; think TV or alcohol. Nerve-care can be addictive, isolating and self-destructive (much as it feels good in the moment to just 'not think about work for one minute'). Soul-care, on the other hand, is long-term. It is healthy and healing and connects you to the universe and those around you. Soul-care is restorative. The occasional nerve-care is fine, but only long-term soul-care will restore and sustain you.
So I want to give you permission: take a break. Seriously. That might mean 15 minutes where you turn your cell phone off and meditate in your office (right now: go!), or a 3-day weekend getaway, or a full-on vacation. Maybe you can go for a walk outside, or go home early and make a nice dinner. You must create sacred space where work does not own you, where Stress is not your god. Do it for yourself, for your loved ones, for your cause.
This little acts of radical wellness begin with each of us, but must flow into our organizations and culture. I use the term 'radical' because by definition it means the deep challenging of traditional and accepted norms. And when nonprofits and society at large are calling for access to our lives 24-7, putting up real boundaries (and sticking to them) is a radical act. But as we amplify our cry for change and more individuals call for a new norm, perhaps one day it won't be so radical to honor our spiritual and emotional self.
Here's a tip to make this a reality. Write down 3-5 things that make you feel balanced and healthy. Is it cooking? Exercising? Gardening? Meditation? Reading? Get specific, and say how often you need to do each thing during the week to feel healthy. Share this with your boss, Board, or coworkers. Let them know you need their support to keep your commitments for balance. It is in their interest to support you so that you will stay in the work and be your best on the job (and if they are reluctant, remind them that burnout serves no one).
Set an example for those around you in (and out of) the nonprofit sector of what it means to be balanced. Healthy. Not owned by stress.
Your happiness really is worth investing in.