Why are nonprofit leaders my age so good at burning out their staff?

I’m a 1971 baby, pure Gen X — we’re the latchkey kids who are tech-and-race-savvy enough to translate for Boomers, and cool enough to be friends with Millennials.

Gen X invented the term “slacker” but we can hustle, too — I’ve spent 27 years in nonprofits, slurping too much coffee and pushing environmental activism and political candidates and national service.

I’m generally proud of my generation, but I’m disappointed in Gen X and Boomer leadership of nonprofit organizations right now. We are failing the social change movement by not recognizing the need for health and balance in stressful nonprofit work.

I’ve spent two years trying to get nonprofit and education leaders to pay more attention to their team’s health. I certainly expected “no budget for this.” But time and again, Gen X and Boomer leaders throw up other resistance, as well.

Here are other ways nonprofit leaders resist wellness initiatives:

  • Many nonprofits lack human resource professionals to support wellness programs.
  • Those that have HR? It’s usually because they have a lot of turnover, so there’s no time for wellness.
  • It’s private.” There’s reluctance to address mental and physical health at work. We get it.
  • We’re not ready.” As with race conversations, leaders are scared to bring up wellness topics that they might not be prepared to handle.
  • “They are whiners.” Some Boomer and Gen X leaders are resentful that their Millennial employees are clamoring for better work-life balance. We think, “I had it rough; they should just buck up.”
  • Most nonprofit leaders are putting out constant fires, and don’t have time for non-urgent problems like health. Until someone burns out and they have to be replaced.

Look, I get it. I was a hard-charging boss, too, fueled by mission passion. And I burned out a few times, despite years of yoga. I’m sure I contributed to others burning out, too.

Which is why I know wellness can’t just be a box to check. It should be a culture shift — promoting well-being for all staff. Leadership is key.

A good boss who says “Our people are our most precious resource” will provide support for their folks to stay healthy amidst a pandemic and a stressful political environment.

A good boss, who can be any age, knows employees who have strong physical and mental health will bring their tip-top selves to work every day.

A good boss would download our Wellness Equity report, detailing lessons learned from our Nonprofit Wellness Pilot that wrapped last year.

Okay Gen X and Boomers.

We don’t have time to wait for the Millennials to take over everything.

We need cultures of well-being. Take action now.

Or these fires raging all over the world will surely burn us out.

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Susan Comfort

Susan Comfort

Co-founder of NonprofitWellness.org, manager of the DC/Balto/Pitt Alvéole teams, Tinkergarten leader, queer parent, bee promoter.