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Burnout: A burning issue for not for profit Boards

You’ve got dedicated, passionate Board members who work hard for your organisation – but the risk of burnout may threaten their wellbeing, as well as your impact.

The Board’s key purpose is to ensure and secure the organisation’s prosperity, so it goes without saying that Board member burnout can have a disastrous impact on an organisation.

Burnout is a state of emotional exhaustion that can reduce performance and even impact on our sense of purpose or identity. Unfortunately, it follows that this can interfere with the intrinsic values that drive us to show up and put in.

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So, what causes burnout? In the context of a Board member, it’s when an accumulation of responsibilities and pressures from both internal and external factors becomes too much. We all have personal challenges in our lives, including (but not limited to) work demands outside of our board role.

The good news is that burnout can be caught early. The below red flags are important lead indicators that may contribute to Board member burnout if not rectified.

  • Negative Board culture – this may manifest as a lack of common purpose and collaboration, and increased staff or Board member turnover.
  • Ineffective communication – characterised by a lack of objectivity and unwarranted criticism, or discussions that become increasingly confrontational.
  • Innovation vortex – a tendency to favour business as usual and dismiss new ideas, even ones with merit.
  • Disengagement – where members display a lack of participation in meetings.
  • Unequal workload – where 20% of the board members do 80% of the heavy lifting.
  • Poorly managed, unproductive, and adversarial meetings.

With these lead indicators, or ‘red flags’, in mind, let’s turn our attention to approaches that can help overcome them. It’s important to work through improvements in collaboration with the Board and through the Chair, as co-designing new processes and approaches can foster greater buy-in. The following is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a solid start to get you thinking about strategies and changes that you can implement:

  1. Ensure your Board has the right mix of skills, perspective, and background at the table. You may need to seek external support to correct any imbalances.
  2. Develop a process for inducting, mentoring, and coaching new members, ensuring they’re prepared for the workload and responsibilities associated with their new role. Get other members of the Board involved in the design of the new process to fill in any gaps and improve on the induction that they received.
  3. Similarly, make sure all Board members are fully versed in your governing document (i.e. your organisation’s constitution) and – perhaps most importantly – understand the ‘why’ of the organisation. Sometimes organisations can get so caught up in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their work that they forget the ‘why’.
  4. On the other hand, ensure you understand and respect why each Board member is there, and what they are looking to achieve in return for their investment of time, talent, and loyalty.
  5. Revitalise your agenda:
    • Implement a standing agenda item at the start of each meeting for Board members to share moments and observations where the purpose and impact of the organisation resonated with them.
    • Actively mediate agendas (and discussions) to ensure time and energy is directed into matters that reflect the purpose of the organisation, rather than matters that feed into self-interest.
    • Allocate time to identify and discuss professional development opportunities for Board members, particularly if they may address any shortcomings or imbalances as mentioned in point 2.
  6. Feelings of burnout can stem from having a ‘full plate’. If this is the case for you, it might be worth relinquishing other Board positions that you hold. It’s tough to do this, but you need to decide what is manageable and sustainable for your wellbeing, otherwise you’ll spread yourself – and your potential impact – too thin.

Have you noticed any of the red flags we mentioned within your Board? Next time you meet, pay attention to the dynamics of the group: is it collaborative, inclusive, and productive? If the answer is no, you’ve got some work to do – but we hope that these strategies can help you revitalise the Board and get back on course.

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