Burnout: Where Nonprofits are Leading the Charge

Posted August 9, 2019 by Sasha Butkovich in Managing Your Team
Nonprofits have been leading the way in addressing employee burnout. Discover three lessons on mental wellbeing from nonprofits that businesses of all kinds can use.

People who don’t work in the nonprofit sector tend to have a few preconceived notions about the industry. One common one is that nonprofits don’t pay well, and may offer better benefits to try to make up for lower salaries.

According to Rick Cohen, Chief Communications Officer & Chief Operating Officer at the National Council of Nonprofits, the low pay part of this stereotype has mostly been busted — salaries in the nonprofit sector are basically on par with those at for-profit companies nowadays.

But the part about offering good benefits and taking care of their teams? That’s no myth.

“I think nonprofits do still have the reputation of making sure they take care of their employees,” Rick said. “We want to make sure we’re taking care of our employees so they can take care of the people who turn to the nonprofit for its services.”

Offering benefits to your employees is important because it shows them you are invested in not only their overall health, but their future.

This emphasis on employee wellbeing gets at the heart of a couple key issues that employers of all kinds grapple with: burnout and mental health. More and more businesses are beginning to understand that supporting happier, healthier teams leads to happier, healthier (and more successful) companies.

“I think the nonprofit sector was just out in front of what is now a trend — and hopefully a new normal — where all businesses are really looking out for their employees,” he said.

So if nonprofits have been blazing a trail in addressing burnout, what can folks in the for-profit sector learn from them? Here, find three big lessons on mental wellbeing from nonprofits that any business can benefit from:

Lesson 1: Don’t be Afraid to Tackle Mental Health

It may seem obvious, but the first step is to get over your fear of having the conversation about mental health.

“Nonprofits are a little bit less afraid to go in that direction and have the conversations,” Rick said. “It’s even more important now, because you see more focus on appreciation of employees, you see more focus on mental and emotional health. I think that’s a good thing.”

It might feel safer to remain in the dark, but not knowing about a problem doesn’t mean it will go away. Sometimes you have to ask the scary questions if you’re going to find solutions and work toward a more productive environment. Employees and job seekers will take notice.

A company’s focus on employee wellbeing can be a big difference-maker when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. If the salaries between two jobs are the same, what will make a prospective employee choose you? It may just be the mental health benefits you offer, and a culture that addresses burnout head-on. Current employees may also leave for greener pastures — like companies that care about their lives outside the office.

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Lesson 2: Check In and Find Creative Solutions

Part of having a conversation around employee wellbeing is simply checking in. Talk to people. Ask how they’re feeling and how they’re coping with their workload and stress level. It’s a really good place to start, as many nonprofits can tell you.

“Different organizations have different systems, different processes, different ways they check in, and different services that they offer,” said Rick. But ultimately, it comes down to what’s in the employee benefits package — whether it’s the mental health coverage that’s offered through the health insurance plan, or just providing access to counselors.

In the nonprofit world, employees might be working to help shelter animals, homeless youth, cancer patients, or others in need. The work can often take an emotional toll. Some organizations find it helpful to reassign people to other roles on a temporary basis, to help them reset.

“Having somebody step over to the administrative side for a couple of weeks before coming back to the more service-related work can be helpful, because some of the work is tough,” said Rick.

Even if the work at your company isn’t quite as emotional, think about how you might be able to incorporate this concept. If an employee is struggling with burnout, are there opportunities to do different work for a while? This could be a great way to ease stress and help them reset.

Lesson 3: Realize Mental Health Support is a Win-Win

The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million people around the world suffer from depression, with many also suffering from anxiety. Providing benefits and resources for your team to deal with these issues can lead to happier employees, which is fantastic in and of itself. On top of that, happy employees are also good for business. It’s just a win-win all around when companies make sure their teams are taken care of.

Developing the positive aspects of work and the strengths of employees promote mental health.

“For businesses, it helps people to be more productive and more loyal to the organization, and not have their eye on the exit,” said Rick. “It’s better to take care of the people that you have so that they stick around.”

High employee retention means you don’t lose the institutional memory those people have, and you don’t lose the skills they bring to the job. Plus, you don’t have to shoulder the costs of hiring and training the next person.

“I’m thrilled to see just how much more focus there is on mental health just in the last couple of years than there was previously,” said Rick. “It’s just better for everyone.”


Nonprofits have been addressing burnout from an empathetic perspective and making sure that their employees feel cared for. But no matter your business, or the products or services you offer, employees can experience burnout. Follow the nonprofit sector’s lead, and support your team’s mental wellbeing in an effective and compassionate way.