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Can delegation help nonprofit leaders avoid burnout?

Burnout - we’ve all heard about it, experienced it, or seen it happen to someone else. The signs can be subtle, or they can be as clear as day: lack of productivity, poor performance, cynicism, disconnection from the work, loss of enjoyment (professionally, at first), feelings of apathy and often physical manifestations of a state of chronic stress. Burnout doesn’t just happen one day, it creeps in slowly. As it creeps in, there is opportunity to realize what’s happening, and the root of the problem can often be addressed. And contrary to popular belief, burnout CAN be reversed, and it doesn’t always have to result in the individual leaving the organization, or even profession, they love.

Burnout often presents in folks who identify with a strong inner people pleaser, savior or martyr – those who have a hard time saying no; those who spend their time caring for others, maybe at home and at work, and feel guilty because they can never give fully at one place or the other.

Sound familiar? This is a likely profile of many nonprofit leaders – throw in the struggle to delegate effectively or ask for help, (thinking they can do it all independently, but then maybe get a bit resentful when others don’t pitch in) and you have a recipe for burnout. I see this a lot in my work with nonprofits and I’ve been thinking…

Can the nonprofit leader actually avoid the dreaded burnout by learning the art of delegation and shared responsibility?

The benefits of effective delegation go beyond the mental and physical health of the organization’s leaders. The happiest workers are those who feel empowered and engaged, so being trusted to take on tasks and projects may result in a more committed staff and pipeline of future leaders (that has to help combat burnout, right?). In addition, a leader who effectively delegates will be building an organizational culture that prioritizes employee investment and recognition.

Some leaders seem to struggle with delegation for fear they will be losing control or oversight of critical tasks. However, in a well-functioning system, the lines of communication work in a such a way that the manager is provided with key updates and is made aware of any challenges or adjustments, as needed. In turn, the manager puts trust in the employee to do the work she was hired to do.

There are a few keys to successful delegation practices: identifying the right person to do the job, handing over the entire job when possible (no micromanaging!), being clear about expected outcomes and objectives and remaining open to suggestions and ongoing discussion.

Although burnout can be complex and the antidote may be just as complex, perhaps if nonprofit leaders put preventative practices into place that support a healthy work environment and act as protective factors against chronic stress, they can avoid having to deal with burnout in the first place.

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