Your self-care may be holding you back and making people around you hate your guts


meditation-473753_960_720On Friday I attended the Seattle chapter’s monthly ED Happy Hour. A bunch of EDs showed up and for four hours we all drank and laughed and stuffed our faces with sushi and discussed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and its parallels to nonprofit work. It was awesome, as usual, to get to hang out with my brilliant colleagues. At 9pm, as the group disbanded, we found out an ED was planning to head back to her office for a couple more hours of work. “What’s wrong with you?!” we hissed, pelting her with edamame shells, “Go home to your family!”

The majority of us in this sector, probably 90%, work ridiculous hours at very stressful jobs, and we really do need to take better care of ourselves, and our organizations as well as society need to do more to create supportive conditions—fair wages, adequate benefits, sufficient family leave and vacation time, a culture of learning and camaraderie, a working printer, two-ply toilet paper, etc.—so it’s not just our individual responsibility to ward off burnout.

There are plenty of thoughtful articles on these topics, such as this one by Beth Kanter called “How Can Nonprofits Switch from Scarcity to Abundance Mindsets When It Comes to Self-Care?” and this one by Mary Cahalane called “Your work or a life: A painful choice no one should have to make,” and this one by B. Loewe calling for “An End to Self-Care” (in favor of a more holistic “community care.”) I’ve also touched on this topic a few times, such as “7 self-care tips for nonprofit professionals” and “The courage for mediocrity: Why we nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break.

This post today, though, is to bring some balance. In some ways, maybe because we talk so much about it, that self-care has become somewhat of a punchline to various jokes: “Hey, are you attending that breakfast gala of one of our partner organizations?” “Nope! Self-care!” “Hey, I heard you were asked to lead the diversity and inclusion committee?” “I declined. Self-care!” “Did you drink my bottle of Mike’s hard lemonade that I was saving for lunch?!” “Yup! Self-care!”

In the past few years, I’ve been seeing more and more examples of people taking self-care too far, using it as an excuse to avoid doing stuff, and thus irritating their coworkers and also affecting their individual professional development. Maybe because burnout is a serious problem in our sector, some unicorns—especially the newer professionals—are trying hard to inoculate themselves from that happening to them. That’s understandable; the grizzled faces of sector veterans, haunted by years of gala planning and grant rejections, are not all that reassuring.

But there needs to be a thoughtful balance. I recommend everyone, especially professionals starting out on their career, to think through these questions when it comes to self-care and work-life balance:

How is your self-care affecting your work? If your self-care habits, the things that bring you energy, do not translate into your doing a better job at your job, or worse, preventing you from actually doing stuff and doing it well, then this is a problem. Usually it’s the reverse: those who take yoga classes and go on long walks and take enough vacation time tend to have more energy and higher morale, and this usually leads to higher quality work, so we should all think about increasing these activities. But I’ve also seen the opposite, where work-life balance philosophies and habits are used to avoid work, such as attending evening committees and weekend community events, or to avoid dealing with serious challenges at the office, or to avoid dealing with the fact that we are not very organized and are poor managers of time and tasks. If your work is to build community, then there must be flexibility in your schedule and energy allocation to be able to accommodate these community-centric activities and develop relationships, and this takes skills to manage.

How is your self-care affecting your team? Again, most of the time, the entire team benefits when everyone is taking care of themselves. Resentment builds, though, when it seems the individual is more concerned about their own sanity and work over that of the entire group: “Dammit, John’s missing the gala planning meeting due to hot yoga again?!” Another example is colleagues who work from home as part of their self-care strategies. Sometimes the office is distracting, and some of us can be more productive by working at home. But this needs to be balanced with the fact that most of us rely on one another to do our work. If I’m at home, sure, I can get my own work done faster (usually, unless Judge Judy is on), but it might also mean that it’s harder for people to reach me for information that they need to do their work. In addition to our individual responsibilities, there are group responsibilities and shared burdens and a sense of “we’re all in this together,” such as dealing with unexpected visitors, technology failures, etc. There was one time when my office was infested with rats, and many people decided to work from home; that’s great for them, but the rest of us had to deal with the rats, and that was not fun at all. Luckily the rats were eventually driven out by the cockroaches (#nonprofitratproblems).  

How is your self-care affecting your career? Earlier in my professional development, I attended a 7am monthly community meeting. It was torturous, since I am a night owl. A few times, I called in self-care, and stayed in bed. But through these meetings, I met mentors and strengthened relationships and learned skills critical to my professional growth. There have been many seemingly awful committees and projects that I nearly backed out for self-care reasons that have turned out to be instrumental for my work and career. These then became essential components of what brings me energy. Now I am mentoring others, and I’ve noticed there seems to be an increase in the perspective of “I can’t tackle that, my plate is way too full.” That’s fine, and probably even wise most of the time, but there is a risk of your missing out on the connections, skills, and credibility that will advance your long-term career goals. Some of the most successful professionals I know are the ones who see everything as an opportunity to learn, not as a burden that runs counter to their work-life balance. In the long-term, being able to achieve your career goals will probably make you happier than feeling like you’ve successfully protected your time and energy from unwanted intrusion.

Overall, this is a hardworking sector, full of dedicated professionals who pour their time and heart into making the community better. If anything, we all need to do more self-care, while we simultaneously improve work conditions and systems. Social justice is a long game; we have to take care of ourselves. 

But like the Force in Star Wars, there is a good side and a bad side. My friend who decided to work two extra hours at 9pm on a Friday night is setting a bad example for her staff and for the rest of us, and will continue to get cursed and hissed at during ED Happy Hour. On the other hand, some of us need to think through whether our philosophy around work-life balance and self-care is negatively affecting our work, making our coworkers resent us and bringing the team down, and jeopardizing our long-term professional goals. We need to consider how our short-term self-care is affecting our organization’s mission as well as our long-term self-fulfillment. 

Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be in the supply closet, where I keep a mini-bar. 

Dammit, I think I already used that ending line for the post last week. 

Oh well. 


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  • Richard Williams

    I used to run a small non-government youth and family service in the eastern region of Melbourne, Australia. When I started in the position I noticed that many of the staff were tired and overworked, which in the welfare sector had become proof of dedication to the work. Some staff had accrued ridiculous amounts of time in lieu.

    The first thing I did was reinstate the award under which everyone was supposedly employed. (We still have some employment awards in Australia. I’m not sure of the situation in the US). Enforcing the award meant that there were some entitlements that staff did not know about, and there were some which people thought existed that weren’t in the award. I was also generous in my interpretation of the category descriptions, which allowed me to move several staff to a higher category. This put everyone (including me) on an equal footing. Financially it was a calculated gamble.

    But for me the greatest benefit was that the award specified a 38 hour week, so I was able to tell the staff that they could not work more than 76 hours a fortnight. I left the time-in-lieu policy in place but instituted a cap of two days. I told people that if they could not get through their work in that time I was happy to review their workload. As well, I made clear that the award stipulated the maximum that staff could be required to do, but that they could use their professional judgement about whether to work outside the standards. They were allowed to, but there was no expectation or pressure to do so.

    The culture that we developed together was that we were all expected to work effectively, but not for long hours. I said to the staff that we were a welfare agency, and that if we could not look after ourselves we could not look after others. It meant that staff felt free to leave early if they’d had a difficult day or there were family demands, but they would also work late sometimes if the situation required it.

    One part of the award I didn’t enforce was the definition of normal working hours. I told the staff that they were professionals and could decide for themselves when to start and finish each day. I kept no record of hours worked, trusting staff to fill in their timesheets honestly. I knew that if we were to develop a culture of trust I needed to start by showing that I trusted the staff. This was my second gamble.

    This extended to other areas. Knowing that people who work in human services hate writing reports and applications, and are often not very efficient at it, I said that I’d do all the report writing as long as they gave me the data. I set up a database for all our programmes, and asked staff to fill it in each day. It was very simple to
    use and it gave me excellent data. The staff were delighted. It meant that they had more time to develop and run programmes and be out in the field doing the work they’d come into the sector to do. It also meant I had the least rewarding job in the agency, but I figured that that was why I was paid more.

    Every 6 weeks or so we would have a staff lunch. The rule we decided on was that everyone had to bring something that they’d made themselves. Buying something on the way was strongly frowned on. We had a reasonably good kitchen and on days of staff lunch it was often full of staff cooking together. The lunches were always lively affairs and could end up taking most of the day.

    The culture that we developed meant that we all knew of each other’s work. It was an encouraging environment in which people supported each other, sometimes working in each other’s programmes, and felt free to discuss difficulties. There was also no place to hide incompetence. The quality of the work was maintained by collective expectation, and I ended up sacking two people whose incompetence became clear and who could not respond to the help available.

    The gambles I took were far more effective than I anticipated. Sick leave fell
    dramatically, from 57 days to 11 in three years. This, coupled with the co-operative work arrangements, meant that we had no locum costs. But the most surprising result, so surprising that I rechecked the figures, was that over three years our productivity increased by more than 20%, measured by the amount of contact time with children and young people.

    For me the most important outcome was that, without any planning or discussion, we developed the practice of never turning anyone away, something of which we were all proud and for which we became known in the region.

    None of these strategies is earth-shattering. When another worker in the region said we were remarkable, I replied that we weren’t remarkable, just ordinary people who had found ways of working effectively, which can seem remarkable. I also came to understand that management is primarily a support role, most of it removing obstacles to people doing their jobs well. Self-care only made sense in a culture of collective care and responsibility.

    • Rachel Meytin

      Wow – that’s awesome. Wish I could work for you – you sound like a great boss.

  • blubird

    I think it’s amazing that you and other EDs get together in a pleasant and safe way. I’m from a small community and there is always tension between us and our sister agencies because grants are getting so competitive.

    • Elisabeth Piff

      Blubird – You can call everyone together! It may initially be small, or it may be something that wanes over time, but you may find some of your best allies in that kind of group. Or, at least someone that understands much of what you are dealing with on a daily basis!

      Vu even has a list of actions, with associated points, that you can use for the competitive people in the group!

      It won’t necessarily ease the competition for the grants, but you may also find ways that groups can partner.

      I am just jealous that our group isn’t nearly as cool as Vu’s. I have no idea what Star Wars and nonprofits have in common!

  • Rebecca Sutherns

    It also occurs to me that sometimes self care becomes one more thing on our already too long to-do list. When we need self care most, we probably needs others to look after us and look out for us. So keep those edamame shells flying!

    • That’s a great point. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we moved from “self-care” to caring about each other?

  • Julie Reiskin

    Great points … I think those of us in constituent led organizations have less of a need for the silly level of self care and don’t see self care as isolating ourselves from coworkers because our coworkers are also our friends and community. I really enjoy being around my staff and board members and members of the organization I direct. I agree that sometimes stretch goals end up being most rewarding.

  • Mieke Vandersall

    I didn’t realize that this was a thing…I thought I was just frustrated with a few people, but glad to hear that it is more than my individual frustration. Thanks for opening up this at times hard generational conversation!

  • Ryan P. Wilson

    This hits right at the crux of where I live right now.

    I have always been a “community building comes first,” individual. It didn’t matter the time or the place of the meeting, event, or last-minute project that got dumped on me, I was willing and able to take it on if it meant better results for my community and organization. I would take my walks and vacations, but always leave my email tethered to my phone, but for the most part the needs of the many outweighed the needs of me.

    About 18 months ago, however, I started having phantom pains that couldn’t be justified. It was eventually diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. The amount of energy I have in a day is now quantifiable. I know that the early morning breakfast meeting means I’m going to be in no functional shape for that planning committee at 7:00pm. My team is supportive, but because of the invisible nature of my restrictions the self-care of working from home because I can physically get the button-down shirt on this morning, feels terrifyingly like rationale for “I don’t want to come in today” and for my team to become disgruntled.

    I don’t know if there is truly a one size self-care fits all, but it is my belief that if we’re open and honest we can find a way for everyone to get what they need, both individually and for our communities.

  • House0fTheBlueLights

    Self care is the only care I get. Ditto thanks, and oh yeah, I raise my own salary, too.

  • You know what this will do, right? Those of us wracked with guilt for not solving all the world’s problems will only feel worse.

    And the people who casually avoid small problems like rats will do so, guilt-free.

    Oh, it’s too much. I can’t handle it!



    Kidding. Great points, as usual, Vu.

    • Anita

      “You know what this will do, right? Those of us wracked with guilt for not solving all the world’s problems will only feel worse.” EXACTLY.

  • Karen Staley

    Wonderful perspective!! 🙂 Thanks for a great start to my Monday.

  • mbutown

    This is very true. Like “personal days”, self care days have to be utilized when they least impact the organization. At the end of the calendar year, I learned that I had a “butt load” (an actual measure) of vacation and sick time. I had not allowed myself to take the time that I had earned, let alone any “comp time” for the overtime that I had worked. Balance is so important to overall mental health. But the fact that I took all of it in bulk at the end of the calendar year, might have rubbed a few folk the wrong way.

  • Katie Kosseff

    Hi Vu, I enjoyed your post as always. I think a corollary to this topic is “work smarter not harder” topic and, relatedly, the idea that nonprofit leaders really have to have discipline about evaluating projects against organizational vision/mission. For me, at least, there is nothing more draining than going to a meeting about a poorly thought out project or an issue that was previously solved but for which people weren’t held accountable to their deliverables. These meetings drive me to self care! Conversely, there’s almost nothing more energizing than a great meeting (and the subsequent project work) with talented and accountable staff about something that’s really important to the organizations work.

  • Jackie Barton

    I think the trick is in understanding the motivation– avoidance versus making room for your human self? Blanketing a phrase like “self care” to dodge annoying meeting times and those inevitable heavier work cycles is different than saying, “I am a whole person with a need for breaks and a whole life, so I am going to take the vacation time I earn. I am going to understand that there is always more work to do than I can complete in a given day and therefore go home and eat dinner with my family (or friends or dog or hot yoga instructor) and come back tomorrow ready to work again.” We have switched from a guilt-riddled, long hours all the time workplace to a more sane, take your vacation workplace, and we’re actually getting more done and bringing in more funding. Our morale is better. It’s real. You EARN your vacation. Take it.

    • That’s great advice, Jackie! And so cool to hear how well it’s working!

  • bethkanter

    Today is my birthday! Your post is a great a birthday present!! I love it!!

    As you may know, I’m working on a book about self-care for nonprofits – both individual and how it can scale in the organization’s culture.

    I agree with you that it is important not to have individual staff members pit their self-care needs against the organization, but it has to be an overall or collective effort that makes self-care part of making sure that the organization has impact. That self-care is part of the culture and is not resting on the backs of individuals.

    It is important to educate folks about what self-care means — it should be a habit, not epidosic. Also, understanding what positive self-care behaviors — stuff that brings people energy versus negative self-care behaviors — the latter which you pointed out so well in your post. Positive self-care (walks, yoga,getting sleep, or whatever works) is very personal or customized to the person – so helping folks identify what works for them and creating a plan to make it a habit is important – and that is something some nonprofits encourage. Again, it has to be acknowledged within the organization.

    And not just the organization’s culture (although that is critical), but a thoughtful plan and policy — not just about health care, but also organizational work loads, work environment, and cues. This includes stuff carefully constructed and honored work at home policies or encouragement of taking time off.

    I just read an interesting post on Medium from a start up – Base Camp — and how they encourage self-care organizationally. Yes, I know they’re a for-profit and nonprofits could never afford some of the perks like the organic fruit in the break room. But was interesting was the “informal policy” about not overworking themselves:

    “And while this isn’t a formal benefit, we encourage 40-hour work weeks. I only make this point since our industry is perverted and often asks people for regular 60+ hour weeks + regular pushes on weekends. We don’t want people working more than 40 hours a week in any sustained fashion (we even built in a “Work Can Wait” feature in Basecamp 3 which turns Basecamp notifications off after work hours and on weekends). In a crisis, or a once-every-couple-years special push, we may require very short-term extended hours, but otherwise we strongly encourage a maximum of 40-hours a week, and 8-hours of sleep a night.”

    There is also the work culture of working 80 hours a week – and I know it is hard to change, especially when there are such limited resources and we feel that can compensate by over working ourselves. But the research shows that when we overwork, we are way less productive, and it is also starts to impact our attitude and health. If we think that self-care is just the quick surrender when we’re stressed out, that is a temporary fix. We need to make good self-care habits a part of our work – because it helps our organization’s get better results.

    Thank you for writing about this important topic!

    • Patricia Garza

      Thanks for this reply! I totally agree that I would like to see this adopted more culturally into the organizations and less thrown on individuals where these lines can get blurry.

  • Trudy Soucoup

    “We need to consider how our short-term self-care is affecting our organization’s mission as well as our long-term self-fulfillment. ” I would agree. If you are using ‘self-care’ as a short-term excuse for avoiding things you don’t want to do, it is just that – and excuse. However, if you have a long-term plan on how to model and instill self-care in a thoughtful and meaningful way in your organization – keep doing it. The mission needs to outlive you…the only way it will do that is if you and your colleagues at work are here long enough to make an impact. You can’t do that when you are dead or in a mental health facility.

  • jahphotogal

    Vu, you are right about this, of course. But there are other reasons some people can’t attend early morning and evening weekends. These reasons tend to be short, messy, and hungry at inconvenient times. I wasn’t able to attend a very valuable monthly networking/support event for years because it was at 9am, an hours’ drive away and I had to put my kids on the schoolbus at 8:30. They tend to need to eat dinner most nights, and often have things like soccer practice or homework that requires some level of attention from me. (My spouse does his share but also works in nonprofits, with the added inconvenience of a 2 hour daily commute.) Now they are teenagers, one with her drivers license and a beater of a car she bought herself (working for another nonprofit all summer) so I’m finally able to start going to all the meetings I’ve missed for years. I really admire the community parents who go to a hard job every day and then show up in the evenings to try to make the community a better place, but I can’t judge those who stay home either!

  • In addition to the terrific articles you pointed to above (Beth Kanter’s, Mary Cahalane’s, etc.,) Joan Garry wrote a wonderful post about the importance of self-care. She tells the story of burning out her development director so terribly that she ended up showing up to a board meeting on a heart monitor. Crazy stuff.

    Take care of yourself! Not to the point of using ‘self-care’ as an excuse not to do work. That’s ridiculous.

  • verucaamish

    I think this leads to a core question of how does self care manifest across the board for all staff, partners, and constituents. Does the rule of off hours meetings apply only to the E.D.? Does only senior leadership get a sabbatical? How do we make organizational change as opposed to personal change?

  • Anonymous11

    Great article! It’s so entertaining to read your writing! I laugh out loud. Love it!

  • Ron Ein

    Remind me to tell you about ExComm when we meet this week.

  • Lorraine Thomas

    I work for an organization that basically exists to support caregivers in caring for themselves while their patient is in the hospital. I’ve been with this program for over seven years, five on the inside – reminding the guests of our house that they have to look after their own needs to be any good to their loved one – and over two on the nonprofit side making sure that there are the funds to take care of these amazing people. So it was a real smack in the head yesterday when I left my husband in the hospital (with our adult daughter and my sister-in-law, btw) to get my hair done. (Because I really, really needed to get my hair done. Trust.) And about halfway through I started feeling overwhelming guilt. I had to remind myself that doing something for me, when the Spousal Unit was perfectly well cared for, was as much for him as it was for me. And this afternoon, with him safely home, when the PTSD of the last three days started kicking in, I realized that taking the afternoon to pull myself together was as important as anything else right now. The thank you notes and invoices and data entry can wait one more day. And I’ll be much better at it after I’ve processed what we just experienced, had a nap and maybe a little brown liquor. Because self-care. Excellent post, Vu. Cheers.

  • Ale Santaolalla

    Hi, I want to sign up for the weekly newsletter but I keep getting an error message. How can I sign up? I need my weekly dose of NPWB!

  • Fleur Larsen

    Yes! I call this ‘righteous selfcare’. I live here in Seattle and the local flavor in part stems from people not saying no to things, over committing and then flaking out because they are on day 9 of being sick. There is a culture of white, female martyrdom that sets a tone and cultural norm of reactive self-care. I am a recovering bleeding hear myself and speaking from experience (tried to save all young people I ever worked with) this dynamic is steeped in ego. We praise each other for being so ‘passionate and committed to the mission’ yet do not hold onto the integrity of our word. When my self-worth is dependent on the degree of praise and recognition for my service I am to my community then I am not coming from a place of true contribution to the work. As a friend put it ‘it’s like a drug, when people tell me I’m a rockstar, I feel high and only when I stopped working 60hrs for 40hrs-the praise stopped and the withdrawls started’.

    As a white female I get to grapple with my privilege around my self-care. The internalized sexism messages of my inherent worth being dependent on my use (and beauty) make me vulnerable to the acting out racist conditioning.
    Can there be true equity in charity?

  • Michael Barrick

    All true. This education needs to be poured down the throat of the nonprofit world so they get it.