Why You’re Stressed at Work

Stress, Work, Burnout, Fundraising, Nonprofit, Wellness, Danielle Collins, Primavera

If you’re stressed at work, I get it.  In fact, I have a long history of working for nonprofits as a fundraiser.  My professional journey became especially interesting when I burned out after three successful capital campaigns.

Don’t misunderstand, I was passionate about the mission of every organization where I worked.  But my passion transformed into exhaustion, and my mind, body, and spirit were depleted.  Burning out for me became a major life event that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I quit my job.  I sold my house.  And then for good measure, I broke up with my boyfriend.

Ahhhh. . . Good times.

I’m happy to share my boyfriend and I later reunited, and we’re now married!

As I began to heal, I realized how important it was that I build a career that was better aligned with my values.  So, I went back to school, and today I’m a professional coach, helping people who are burning out to renew their passion.

I love my job!

I’ve been on an odyssey to learn about strategic management issues that lead to burnout, as well as to look deeply at my own choices and actions.  I want to share what I’ve learned with you, and help you create a culture of wellbeing.  To begin, let’s consider the science of stress.


How Your Body Responds to Stress

We experience stress at work when we feel overwhelmed by our responsibilities.  To understand the consequences of this, let’s consider our remarkable bodies.  They evolved to keep us safe from real danger, like a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the forest.

Our primal “reptilian brain,” which includes the hypothalamus, releases stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) to help us fight, flee, or freeze.  This means blood flows toward our muscles, our immune system is activated, and our levels of blood sugar rise.

This stress response, essential to surviving immediate and real threats, creates problems in modern life.  Today, thanks to our culture that promotes overwork, we’re chronically stressed.

We worry about how we were treated by a previous supervisor.  We worry about making our development goals.  We worry about our reputation as professional fundraisers.

We worry about the time away from our families, and if our jobs are right for us.

Our bodies respond to this chronic stress by keeping our blood pressure high and building plaque in our blood vessels.  We’re at greater risk for cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

The connection between our bodies, minds, and spirits is real.  I understand this based on my training as a wellness coach, yet I also know it’s true from my own medical history.  When I was burning out, I experienced multiple physical ailments.  Thank goodness, they’ve subsided now that I’m aligning my life choices much more closely with my own core values.

I’m not trying to convince you that we should have stress-free lives.  In fact, some stress is inevitable, and our goal should be to develop a healthy perspective about it.  In future posts this year, I’ll share ways you can build your resilience and recover from stress.

Right now, let’s look at what leads us to feeling overwhelmed and fatigued at work.

Stress at Work, Nonprofit, Fundraising, Burnout, Wellness

Six Key Contributors to Burnout   

Six factors are shown to lead to burnout, according to Emiliana Simon-Thomas at the Greater Good Science Center:

1. Workload

When a client shares her goals with me, I support her in several ways.  One of them is to ask, “Is this reasonable, in the time you have?”  It seems our human condition is to underestimate the time a project requires.  We habitually have too many tasks to complete, in too little time.

Fundraising is emotionally intense and intellectually demanding, yet we no longer enjoy slower periods between campaigns or special events – instead, we jump from one to the next.  Plus, we’re given additional responsibilities thanks to downsizing.

To our detriment, our culture values “busy-ness” at any cost.  We wear our overwork like a badge, and we think this is what makes us important.  In turn, we don’t have clear boundaries between work and home, we check our emails when we’re on vacation, and we don’t know how to take breaks during the day.

Ask yourself, do you most value your employees who work the longest hours, or those who produce the greatest results?  Send your employees home, and stop rewarding people who work late.  Remember that as humans, we need time to rejuvenate – throughout our workdays, as well as between projects in our development plan.

2. Reward

Some nonprofits are notorious for expecting their employees to accept low pay and poor benefits.  There is an expectation that we should under-value ourselves because we’re passionate about the mission.

While we need to be paid what we’re worth, studies show that the intrinsic reward of a job well done is important too.  We crave the satisfaction of enjoyable work, and we thrive when we understand how our talents help our organization to fulfill its mission.

In addition, being thanked for our efforts makes us want to contribute more – in fact, research by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino shows that fundraisers were motivated to call more prospects if they’d been thanked by the leader.

3. Fairness

We experience fairness when we feel respected by our bosses, boards, and colleagues.

While we might think money and success leads to happiness, research by Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley showed that we’re more likely to feel happy if we feel respected and admired by our friends and colleagues.  People feel empowered when they’re accepted by their group and held in high esteem.

We lose trust when our organizations send the message that money is more important than the employees.  This creates a culture where employees are treated as workhorses, rather than cherished. As you can imagine, this is a slippery slope in development departments.

4. Autonomy

One of our basic psychological needs is autonomy.  We thrive when we’re in charge of our own life and choices – we feel good when we can solve our own problems and take initiative.

When organizations discourage creative problem solving, employees become less innovative.  In addition, we see micromanagement as a lack of trust.  Employees thrive when they’re given the tools and trust to succeed.

5. Values

When our core values aren’t aligned with the values of our organizations, we may experience burnout.  We may also feel overwhelmed when there is a difference between what organizations say they value, vs. what they actually do.

I’m trained in Values2Wellbeing, and I help my clients understand the difference between their core values (the values they were born with) and their acquired values (the values they adopted from outside sources, like their parents, social media, or work).  We thrive when we pursue our core values.  Our acquired values, however, don’t always serve us.

If you’d like to understand your own values, click here for a free strategy session.

When our core values match the values of our organization – everything is great!  It’s possible our values don’t match though.  For example, perhaps you value independence, and your work environment demands teamwork.

The fit between ourselves and our work isn’t perfect, and that’s normal.  If there is a great discrepancy between the two, however, we need to be careful.  Research shows that when the value doesn’t fit, change must happen.

We can help the organization to change, but more likely. . .

We may change ourselves by trying to acquire the value of the organization, even if it’s not a good fit for us. Our work then feels more challenging, and at the same time, our gremlins tell us that what we do is never enough.  In turn, we re-double our efforts, working even more hours, and creating a lifestyle where there’s no time to enjoy what makes us truly happy and fulfilled.

6. Community

We’re biologically designed for connection, so we thrive in a healthy community.  Ongoing conflict is destructive and makes us less productive.  Learning to take ourselves less seriously by being playful is an important and fun way to build community.

Research shows that when we have a best friend at work, we’re seven times more likely to feel engaged in the job.  Most of us in the United States, however, don’t have close friends at work.

Emma Seppala and Marissa King, with the Greater Good Science Center, describe how friendships at work can make us happier and healthier, but they also acknowledge these relationships can be tricky when we blur the boundaries.  Whether or not you choose to pursue true friendships at work, you can still focus on compassion and authenticity, creating a “friendly” environment.


Tips for Team Leaders

  • Make sure your employees have a workload that is manageable, at a pace that is sustainable.
  • Respect the needs of your employees to rejuvenate at home, and do NOT email or text them after hours or on vacation. Healthy boundaries are important.
  • Thank your employees regularly, and in many creative ways, for all they do.
  • Ask your employees, “What do you need?” and remember that everyone is creative and resourceful. They don’t need to be rescued, but they may want your support (which may include training, time, empathy, or money).
  • Give your employees the freedom to pursue innovative solutions. We thrive when we focus on risk-taking and creativity, rather than perfection.
  • Help your employees understand how their responsibilities transform your organization. Let them know they’re an important part of meeting your mission.
  • Learn even more about your staff so you understand what fulfills them, and then nurture your employees by assigning them activities that inspire joy at work.
  • Create a safe environment that includes camaraderie and trust. Encourage your employees to plan group outings at least once a quarter – during the workday!
  • Take responsibility for any mistakes you make by apologizing.
  • Celebrate often! Don’t wait until your team reaches your year-end goal, and instead celebrate small wins each day.


Super-Cool Bonus Tip

Beware of losing your empathy as you gain power as a leader.  According to Dacher Keltner at the Greater Good Science Center, this Power Paradox is common throughout different industries, as well as across the centuries.  I have witnessed this myself in the nonprofit world.

Studies show that when we feel powerful, we’re more likely to act impulsively and unethically.  We feel less grateful, and have trouble seeing the perspectives of others.


Yet most leaders began their journey by wanting to empower employees.  How can we stay true to our original desires, to cultivate respect and kindness?

  • Watch out for thinking you have all the answers.
  • When you listen to your employees’ concerns, don’t interrupt or check your cell phone. Give them your full attention.
  • Stay humble, and practice empathy and generosity, giving to your employees the resources they need to thrive.

It takes courage to overcome burnout, and we all have a voice in the solution.  Stay tuned for my next posts about increasing our resilience.

We can do it!

Danielle Collins, Coaching

P.S.  Feeling overwhelmed and burned out?  I offer a free strategy session for folks who want to understand if coaching is right for them.

P.P.S.  With the Coronavirus at our doorstep, it’s more important than ever that you stay home if you’re not feeling well.  Take good care of yourself.

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