Burnout and compassion fatigue are common issues in the nonprofit sector.

Whatever role one may find themselves filling in a nonprofit, whether it be an organizational role, working directly with people in need, or managing a team, the resulting exhaustion and overwhelm that results from the demands of the work can be very real, and very disheartening. It can end up spilling over and affecting every aspect of life. Because of this, daily self-care rituals and the implementation of healthy boundaries is incredibly important for anyone who plays a part in helping these organizations make an impact.

If you are a nonprofit worker (even if you are not, stick around because this article can still help you!), you are among a group of empathetic people who do what they do because they find reward in making the world a better place. You are an instrument of compassion and proactive change in the world. You are a valuable person who is serving the human race by using your skills and passions to take necessary action towards a healthier and happier future for all of us. As an instrument of healing to society, it is imperative that you are in your most optimal state of mental and emotional health in order to continuously serve through your work. If you lack the proper self-care, your ability to show up and serve the people you care for is hindered. Ultimately, honoring yourself means honoring the people you serve. 

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You live your life to serve the people you are most connected to, whether it be your family, friends, or the organization you work for, but you never prioritize caring for yourself. You feel guilty when you take the time and energy to care for yourself and believe that the time could be better spent working or caring for others. You continue to deny yourself quality alone time or self care, while you gradually become energetically and emotionally depleted. In the end, you find yourself overwhelmed and even a little resentful towards those you are serving. It’s such an uncomfortable place to be for someone who lives to love others.

One of the problems in this scenario is that self-care is being perceived as a privilege or a treat- and in some cases it is, depending on one’s life circumstances and how they define self-care- but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of things we can do to take better care of our mental, emotional, and physical health whether we are short on time, money, or both. 

This article will provide you with some realistic and creative options to take better care of yourself on the day to day. You don’t have to drastically change your schedule or spend a lot of money to make positive, lasting changes in your quality of life and efficacy at work. If you want to make a big gesture and give yourself a spa day or begin weekly one on one yoga sessions- more power to you! It’s just that you don’t have to do something grand or life-altering in order to take care of yourself. You can start small.

Stick to your routine- but be present in it.

Most of us wake up in the morning and go through our routine without even thinking about it. We are on autopilot. We get out of bed, shower, brush our teeth, do our hair, and get dressed while our mind is elsewhere for the entire 45 minutes. Our physical body is taking care of preparatory necessity, while our mind is planning for the workload we are about to take on for the day, is in worry mode about a personal issue, or distracted by our kids or spouse needing our attention. We are completely passive and unconscious to the present moment, and this is our norm.

But what if you tried something else? What if your morning looks like this instead?

Your alarm goes off. You wake up, take a second to notice the new day. It’s cloudy, but you believe it’s supposed to be a nice day today. You turn off your alarm.

You lie back down and check in with your body. You notice any discomfort, and stretch a bit to release a little tension. You briefly massage any parts of your body that need attention.

You sit up. You pull the covers off of your lap and place your feet on the floor. The floor is cool, a welcome sensation. You stand and stretch your arms above your head, bending side to side to open your body up.

You take two or three steps to your bedroom door, and reach your hand out to grip the doorknob. You turn the knob and pull the door open.

You head towards the bathroom, staying attentive to each and every footstep.

Instead of rushing through your bathroom routine, you pay attention to each and every moment. In the shower, you allow yourself to truly feel the warm water running over your body while taking long, deep breaths of steamy air.

When you floss and brush your teeth, you take note of the purpose behind this action- to take good care of your oral health for the long term. You notice each and every stroke, and taking only a few more seconds than usual, allow yourself to more diligently and effectively clean your teeth and gums.

If you live with others and your child or spouse needs your attention, you stay attentive to their true needs in the moment. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or passively filling your role as spouse or parent, you choose to be completely present with each person in your household when the moment provides the opportunity to do so. In turn, they feel seen and heard, even if only for a few seconds of the day. Before each person leaves your presence, you take a moment to let them know you love them, in whatever way that works for you. A conscious hug, kiss, or kind word. You know that these small acts matter, so they have become a priority of your mornings.

If you drive to work, you feel the key in your hand as you slide it into the ignition and rev up the car. You consciously commute, paying attention to the subtle nuances of the drive- the road, the people walking by as you are stopped at a stoplight, the moment the light turns green, the cars and motorcycles around you, your foot shifting from the brake to the gas pedal, the sound of the car shifting gears. You choose to stay calm and patient during traffic jams. It’s something out of your control, after all.

Whether you are at the office or you are working from home, you take a few minutes to arrange your desk to provide yourself with an organized space that is conducive to a full and productive workday. Perhaps you take the time to fill an essential oil diffuser with a citrus blend. Maybe you play some light music to set a calm yet motivational tone as a backdrop for your work.

This presence and mindfulness spills over into the rest of your day, helping you to feel more grounded and secure in each moment, and thus more organized and inspired at work. You stay in good spirits and your day passes smoothly and effortlessly. You stay conscious and present with each person you interact with, and are a positive and productive asset to the organization. You enjoy your evening, knowing that your workday was a success. There is no reason to concern yourself with work until tomorrow when you are once again present to the needs of the moment. You let go and enjoy your evening in the way you choose to.

On the outside looking in, you have just experienced a normal day. You woke up, got ready, worked a full day, and returned back to your personal life at the end of the day. It’s just that instead of being a passive participant of life, you were more consciously engaged with it, thus allowing yourself to show up in a more positive, impactful way. Your relationships were nourished and your workload felt less overwhelming. At the end of the day, you felt accomplished and in control. All it took was a simple mindset shift and bit of conscious mental effort.

While experiencing entire days living in flow is totally possible, the truth is that it probably won’t always go this smoothly. In fact, you may go a few hours or even the entire day being completely checked out, even when you had intended to stay mindful. It’s all part of the process. The best thing you can do is intend to stay present, do your best, and forgive yourself when the universal human habit of living in your head gets the best of you.

Even when you only sparsely check in with your mental and emotional state, you will still find that you are gradually gaining more substantial feelings of calm and control on a regular basis. Aim to live in the present moment, all the while keeping in mind that you are human and will most certainly find yourself in moments of unconscious thought or worry. No big deal. Let go and lovingly bring yourself back to the present moment, once again.

Assess your values, and assert your boundaries.

Because people who work for nonprofits tend to be passionate about their roles and the mission of the organization they work for, the lines between their personal and professional lives are prone to becoming blurred. They might find themselves responding to work emails just as they are turning in for bed or worrying about work issues on the weekends when they are technically supposed to be ‘off. While many nonprofits are working to establish a healthier work/life balance within their work culture, it is also the individual’s responsibility to set reasonable expectations with the company they work for and stick to them. These will be unique to each individual and should be based on one’s values and overall life priorities.

The question is: How do we clearly define our values, and how can we translate them into our role at work? Here’s a simple yet powerful suggestion: Sit down for a few moments and search your heart. Allow all of the static of societal, professional, and familial expectations to clear and ask yourself what your most important priorities in life are. I’m going to guess that it’s not the deadlines or the tasks or emails that fill up your day. No, your true values are deeply personal- they are the essence of who you are as a human being.

When you truly listen to your heart, it’s always simple.

Maybe you simply want to be conscious, purposeful, loving, and kind. You want to feel needed and a part of something bigger than yourself. Maybe you want to fill the role of providing a sense of security and abundance for yourself and your family. Maybe you want to nurture your family and make sure they always know they are loved and safe.

Your true values are probably a combination of these kinds of qualities and the balance between them will constantly shift throughout your life. Your work, of course, plays into these, but I’m assuming that getting work done and satisfying your boss is not at the top of the list of the roles your heart is crying out to fulfill in life.

After establishing your truest values, write down your practical non-negotiables. These are the things that you can not and will not let work get in the way of. Quality time with your best friend or partner. Your kid’s baseball games. Your poetry class. Then take a moment to observe the daily habits of the past week or month- both personally and professionally. At any moment did you ignore your inner voice and agree to things that compromise these things? Where can you shift your perspective and your communication with others to allow these core values to be rooted and stay nourished in the long term?

Here’s a tip- when you are asked to take on a task and agree to it carries even the slightest bit of hesitation within you, postpone your answer until the end of the day. This gives you time to assess whether or not this is doable, or if you’d be compromising yourself to take it on. When you make your decision, you will be able to explain exactly why or why not you can agree to the request. This makes everything clear for everyone involved and helps you to follow your intuition and maintain your self-respect.

There are many more practical steps you can take to assert healthy boundaries without compromising your position or work relationships. For example, in this article by PsychCentral, Melody Wilding, a therapist who works with young professionals and business owners, lays out detailed, step-by-step suggestions as to how to assert boundaries in the workplace while maintaining values. She highlights the importance of creating structure, setting up contact availability expectations, addressing boundary violations as they come up, and ways to professionally and respectfully communicate your needs with your employers. When you are clear and reasonable about your needs, most employers will understand and even respect you more for upholding your personal values.

If you have never asserted these types of boundaries, this may feel a bit uncomfortable at first. As long as you are respectful, reasonable, and professional, there will be nothing to worry about. You only have your sanity and quality of life to gain!

Get into your body. 

Being attentive to your body doesn’t mean you have to suddenly take on a vigorous exercise routine or change your entire approach to physical health. You can simply choose to be more aware of your body’s needs, and make small decisions to connect more intimately with the amazing vehicle your mind and spirit inhabit on the day to day. You will be surprised by how much better it is possible to feel when you take just 15 minutes per day to attend to your body. You’ll sit up straighter, feel more motivated, and experience more calm and connection on the regular. It’s totally worth it.

This attentiveness will look different for everyone. For instance, if your job involves sitting at a desk all day, you might want to take a few minutes every day to do something a bit more active. Do some jumping jacks, try out a 10-minute power yoga class on YouTube like this one by SarahBeth Yoga, or take a short walk or run around the block when the weather is nice.

If your job is physically demanding, a short and relaxing stretch routine geared towards mobility, like this one by Mady Morrison, at the end of the workday might be the way to go.

Of course, there are many options, and YouTube is an amazing resource for short, fun workout tutorials, whether you want to try strength training, Jiu Jitsu, or axe throwing. Follow your interests and do one small thing per day to show the skin you’re in some love and attention.

Let go and dance!

This last suggestion is for everyone: Get up (or stay seated!) and DANCE every once in a while. Dancing is a fun workout that boosts cardiovascular health, muscle tone, mobility, and brainpower. In the privacy of your bedroom or in the kitchen with your loved ones, put on your favorite upbeat music and move around a bit. Be funky, be weird, and be free. No rules, no judgment. Dance is an inherent part of being human and can be a form of therapy for the mind and body. Give it a try and experience the transformative powers of release and expansion that it offers.

By Krista Simpson