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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Addressing mental health and burnout in nonprofit staff and volunteers

mental hEALTH

Employee wellness has become a bigger priority in workplaces as the understanding of the relationship between mental health and productivity continues to evolve. In the last few years, studies have demonstrated that poor mental health is associated with low productivity and high levels of burnout –a physical, emotional, and mental state of exhaustion resulting from overwhelming stress. 

Occupational burnout is recognized by the World Health Organization as a phenomenon resulting from work-related stress that has not been successfully managed.  

The nonprofit sector attracts employees that are passionate about making a difference in the world and care deeply about the wellbeing of the communities they serve.

Unfortunately, these workers seem to be more vulnerable to developing burnout. They carry the immense pressure of meeting the demand for basic needs services while juggling between heavy paperload, grant requirements, tight budgets and under-staffed teams to carry out fundraising activities and events. 

The McKinsey Health Institute 2022 global survey on employee mental health and well-being found that nearly one in four workers are experiencing burnout symptoms, which include cynicism, demotivation, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. 

In the U.S. specifically, 48% of nonprofits struggle with burnout, according to the 2021 Nonprofit Employee Benefits Survey. 

The physical, psychological and emotional health concerns that arise from burnout leads to more people wanting to leave their jobs because of their lack of engagement, reduced performance, low satisfaction, and poor daily functioning. 

Employers can ease this burden by committing to create wellness solutions and a stress-free work environment to prevent and resolve burnout among staff and volunteers in nonprofits.

Encourage conversations about mental health

Stigma around mental health keeps employees from discussing it with coworkers and bosses since they are afraid of losing their jobs, being misjudged, damaging relationships, and affecting future professional opportunities. 

Nonprofit leaders should start conversations about mental health to ensure workplace wellness because burnout significantly affects turnout rates and staff performance. 

Compared with the industry average (12%), the nonprofit sector has one of the highest employee turnover rates (19%) in the U.S., according to a 2016 Nonprofit HR and Guidestar survey. 

Hiring and training new employees can be cost-ineffective for nonprofit organizations that have limited resources because it costs from six to nine months’ worth of salary, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management. 

Offer mental health insurance benefits and a wellness stipend 

A step that leaders can take to address mental health and burnout is investing in their most important asset: their workers. 

The lack of time and financial resources to cultivate wellness habits contributes to people neglecting good mental health over a paycheck that ensures their basic needs are met. 

Giving economic aid encourages workers to engage in therapy, yoga classes, meditation and exercise –activities that prevent burnout and mental health conditions. 

This is beneficial to nonprofit leaders because employees miss 217 million workdays each year for mental health issues, which is equivalent to $100 billion, according to an article by the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Providing mental health insurance benefits and a wellness stipend shows that leaders care about their employees’ overall wellness, while also tackling the issue of high turnover rates in nonprofit organizations. 

According to a 2021 employee engagement survey by King County some of the main reasons for workers to leave their organizations are for a pay rise (60%), burnout (54%), a high workload (21%), and better benefits (16%).

Establish a space dedicated to self-care and mental health days off

Leaders can increase workplace wellness by setting a space dedicated to self-care activities such as meditating, journaling, stretching, praying, and reading. These activities can be beneficial for workers as they boost creativity, restore motivation and encourage mindfulness. 

Introspective activities can help workers remember how their contribution and purpose is connected to the nonprofit’s mission, which will inherently increase productivity and performance. 

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that requires one to be intensely focused on one’s breath flow and feelings in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing this in the job setting promotes openness and patience when workers are facing a stressful or difficult situation. 

Build an appreciative work culture

Recognizing milestones and small successes reminds workers and volunteers that their contributions –sometimes slow to reveal– are causing incremental improvements for people in the community they are serving. 

Nonprofit leaders can encourage gratitude in the workplace through daily affirmations or monthly office events where they show appreciation for each other’s work. This is beneficial for employees and volunteers since it stimulates communication about how individual actions contribute to a collective mission. 

Burnout is an increasing mental health issue among nonprofit workers and volunteers because of the demanding workload that they face to ensure the wellness of the community they serve.

Preventing mental health issues and burnout among workers goes beyond leaders taking action to increase productivity and performance levels. 

Investing in wellness solutions can help relieve occupational stress, reduce the instances of burnout and decrease turnover rates while creating an appreciative workplace culture. 
Offering the resources to cultivate mental health habits and creating a space in the office to do so can be beneficial to workers since they foster patience, integrity, openness and respect, which are values necessary to succeed at work. 

Image by Lillian Finley

Learn more with our Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate

The Optimizing Human Resources Strategies in Nonprofits certificate is for individuals seeking knowledge and skills in nonprofit human resources, volunteer management, change management and conflict resolution.

Course content includes:

  • Complying with federal and state employment laws and compensation systems
  • Recruiting, managing, motivating and rewarding both staff and volunteers in order to effectively utilize their strengths
  • Effectively lead and champion change within an organization
  • Developing strategies to overcome internal and external conflict

Nicole Macias Garibay


ASU Lodestar Center Blog