What are the True Costs of Burnout for Nonprofits?

Burnout occurs in every sector, but it has a special reputation among nonprofits. Google “nonprofit burnout” and you’ll find a book-length list of articles dedicated to preventing or managing this all-too-common occurrence.

Yet while the human costs of burnout have been well explored–low morale, health-damaging stress, job dissatisfaction—many nonprofits do not consider the significant cultural and financial costs that accompany burnout. If nonprofits want to recruit and retain the best changemakers, why do we continue to allow burnout to be the unaddressed elephant in the room?

Below are some fascinating facts about burnout and how it affects organizations—as well as tools that organizational leaders can use to address it (instead of expecting employees to manage their stress away).

Burnout costs nonprofits thousands of dollars in lost staff each year. When an employee leaves, it takes an estimated six to nine months of that worker’s salary for the organization to find, train, and hire a replacement. But burnout becomes doubly expensive the more experience, training, and skills that an employee has. For example, a CEO making $100,000 a year costs $213,000 to replace (213% of the employee’s original salary). Given this reality, it makes sense for nonprofits to invest significant efforts in retaining their senior-level staff so that vital knowledge and skillsets are not lost.

But keep in mind: even the youngest, most enthusiastic staff members suffer from burnout, too. Work with your staff to devise strategies for keeping all levels of staff engaged, balanced, and feeling appreciated–and then give them the autonomy to carry out those ideas.

Burnout “sickens” an office’s culture. People notice when their coworkers become unhappy and change their outputs. The Wall Street Journal reports that “bad behavior, such as anger, laziness, and incompetence, is remarkably contagious.” In addition,  a study of nurses working in intensive care found that those who heard their colleagues complain about burnout were significantly more likely to experience it themselves.

Work with your staff, particularly managers, to identify signs of burnout and create a formal plan for addressing it. Psychology Today notes that burnout is “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness, and lack of accomplishment.” While not all burnout is caused exclusively by professional stress, naming and acknowledging it can be a powerful first step in letting employees know they are supported. Organizations that work to mitigate burnout early on can reduce turnover and maintain a healthy office culture. 


 3 Tools for Nipping Burnout in the Bud

  • Incorporating this stress-performance curve into weekly supervision meetings is a useful way to visualize, quantify, and discuss employees’ needs and workloads.
  • This mobile app allows employees to capture their work demands, office environment, and job satisfaction–and then create a customized action plan to share with supervisors.
  • This burnout self-test can help employees gauge how close they are to becoming burned out.