“I’m worried about you,” my grandmother said. I could hear her worry vibrating over the phone lines hundreds of miles away. “You never call your grandmother anymore, and you’re always working. Are they paying you overtime?” I chuckled. “No, Grandma, nonprofits don’t pay overtime. Besides, I’m on salary and I’m leading this big new leadership project. I need to work late so I can get it all together.” She clucked; you know, that disapproving sound that only a grandmother can make. “Well, you can’t do nothing if you’re in the hospital, and that’s what’s going to happen to you if you keep working so much.” A few weeks later, I found myself doubled over in my bed, too sick to go to work for a week. In an instant, my fast-paced world had come to a halt. Through the fog of all the medication I was taking, I could hear my grandmother’s words ringing in my ears.

That’s when I knew I was playing the martyr role for my nonprofit. I had neglected to take care of my body, and overworked myself for the sake of the cause. Many of us are stuck in this rut. We love our jobs and our organizations so much that we let our passion consume us and forget about taking care of ourselves. I changed some of my habits after getting hit with illness, but it really is a daily effort to set boundaries with myself, and to value my inner life over my professional life. Asia Hadley shares some of her self-care practices on her new blog, Beacons on the Frontline:

  • Meditate daily in the mornings
  • Pray with my husband, recite our marriage pledge, and read an inspirational daily thought in the morning and evening
  • Maintain a gratitude journal
  • Practice yoga
  • Exercise daily (2-3 times per week at gym/other times at home)
  • Spend time with friends
  • Read
  • SAVY Sister Circle with my mother and sister each Sunday over the phone (Prayer over the phone)

Here are some other ways to ditch the martyr lifestyle as a nonprofit professional:

Ask For a Raise
As nonprofit workers, our biggest beef is with our notoriously low salaries. But that doesn’t have to be the case. We don’t have to live in near poverty. Everything is negotiable, whether you believe it or not. If you’re doing a good job, there’s no harm in asking for a salary adjustment. I’ll take you back to my post on how to negotiate a higher salary. If what you really need for your own peace of mind is more money, by all means you should ask for it. You may not always get it, but at least your employer will know that you know your own worth. If you don’t place a value on the work that you do, your boss won’t value it either. It doesn’t have to be all about money either. You can negotiate a work-from-home arrangement or ask for more vacation time.

Take Care of Your Body
Exercise is a neglected part of our health, no matter what career field you’re in. But when you are dealing with a stressful position in a nonprofit, be it fundraising, counseling, or job training, you need to take care of your body much more than anyone else. Getting in regular exercise and eating healthy is essential. Springing for a relaxing massage every once in a while is a good idea, too. And if you can’t get motivated to exercise, try hiring a personal trainer or joining a group fitness class. I’ve learned a ton of other tips about staying fit and eating well from my mom’s blog.

Feed Your Spirit
Sometimes our spirituality can suffer when we’re focused on helping others. Regular prayer or meditation can be helpful not only in times of high stress, but to keep you centered and balanced during each day. I’ve just started going back to church for morning worship after years of taking all my Sundays for sleep because I stayed up late working all of the other days of the week. I also meditate and pray in the mornings.

Let Your Light Shine
Be a positive influence on others, even if you’re stuck in what you feel is a bad career situation. You may be overworked, but you don’t have to complain about it to everyone who asks you how you’re doing. Chances are, if you’re feeling the negative vibes, everyone else is, too. Break out your smile and ask your co-workers how they’re coming along. When you radiate positive energy, it tends to spread to others around you.

Quit Your Job
I know, it feels like a cop-out, but sometimes, you just need to let it go. Your nonprofit job may be noble and important to the community, but let someone else have that role if it is not working for you. Find another job that is a better fit for your personal and professional needs. It is not the end of the world, and quitting does NOT make you a failure. On the contrary, it can spare you from years of unhappiness with your career just because you feel obligated to the mission.

What are some other ways that YOU sustain yourself and prevent burnout in your career?

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, DC area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.