Executive Director, IONS
Reaching Our Limit
These days everywhere we turn there are conversations about burnout, staffing challenges, and how to create boundaries around work. In our research, we consistently hear that heavy workloads and burnout are the top issues affecting the Community Impact Sector – second only to funding challenges.
IONS is no exception – we are a small (but mighty!) team that strives to put out a high quantity and quality of offerings in support of the sector. The organization has been through a lot of change and upheaval in the past three years while under pressure to prove its value. And recently we hit our limit. This past spring, a variety of factors (COVID-19 hitting our team, unmanageable workloads, external deliverables, tensions around decision-making, etc.) brewed into the perfect storm, making us realize that we need to stop – breathe – and get our house in order so we can work together more effectively, ultimately for the communities we serve.
Focusing Our Work
In June we started a six-month, four-day work week pilot. The team agreed to experiment with collectively taking Fridays off and to track our experiences via journal reflections, team discussions, and surveys. Our excitement was matched with some trepidation, knowing that we were already feeling burnt out from the brunt of the spring’s busyness. How would we get everything done in less time? The answer is, we can’t. It was apparent that we had to do things differently if we didn’t want a repeat of past experiences.
We’ve had enough of the ups and downs of busyness that seem to take over throughout the year. And the fall is notoriously a time where things ramp up to a chaotic pace before we collapse over the holidays (last September I co-wrote a series with Saralyn Hodgkin on Reimagining Productivity for this very reason).
Over the summer, the team started coming together to identify ways to focus our work. Like so many impact organizations, our potential scope is massive. We’re passionate about what we do and often try to implement new ideas as they emerge. Our strategic plan pillars (Educate & Innovate, Collaborate & Activate, and Advocate & Celebrate) are strong guiding principles, but keep the doors wide open for activities and possibilities. We needed to choose what to address during a given time period to combat the ever-growing workload.
The more we discussed our focus, the more we realized that the learning priorities identified by the sector also hold true for our organizational work (Healthy Workplace Cultures, Systems Change and Innovation, Sustainable Operations, and JEDDI). Not only do we want to offer resources and capacity building opportunities for the sector around these themes – we want to experiment within our organization and share learnings, especially as it relates to our own workplace culture. Yes, we still have to meet our commitments, but while actively holding space for a much-needed internal reset. Focusing our work allows us to be more consistent and intentional about what we say “yes” to, prioritizing our energy and sector needs.
Not long after we started our weekly focus meetings, we realized that narrowing our scope wouldn’t be enough to address the issues we’re facing. We also needed to find ways to work better together – to find our collective flow.
The idea of “flow” and its relationship to wellbeing has been referred to as, “The rewarding experience of being fully absorbed in an optimally challenging task”, a state of mind where we’re not aware of the time passing and we feel in control of what we’re doing.
In one study (Peifer et al. 2019) that caught my attention, “unfinished tasks” was identified as a workplace stressor. The fact that it’s normal to get assigned new tasks before others have been completed creates a sense of never being able to keep up, which isn’t helped by the constant bombardment of alerts and reminders. Not surprisingly, this feeling has a negative effect on wellbeing and sleep. A suggestion made is to eliminate distractions and schedule more periods for undisrupted work (at IONS we book “focus time” in our calendars).
But, in the same way that burnout can’t be dealt with solely at the individual level, the team culture needs to align against task creep. In conversations, we’ve discussed how it can feel disrespectful to assign tasks without prior conversation about workloads and how it affects our areas of work; or when there is focus time in our calendars, but meetings are booked anyway; and how it can be frustrating when team meetings (even those aimed at finding focus and flow!) are too frequent and long.
Have we figured things out? Definitely not. Are we doing better at slowing down? For the most part. We’re realizing that this is the beginning of a longer journey, and likely one that many organizations will need to engage in as people are finding they can’t or won’t work at this unsustainable pace. Flexibility in the workplace is needed. In some cases, this may look like reduced hours such as with our 4-day work week (which is also a potential opportunity for the sector to emerge as an employer of choice!). But with that comes a heightened need to define our desired impact and find effective ways to structure our work that ensures we are in flow.
Next, we’re diving into experimenting with organizational structures and practices that hold promise for being truly transformational. We’re inspired by the idea of “teal” organizations described by Frederic Laloux and elements of the “Team of Teams” model (General Stanley McChrystal and Ashoka). We know there will be challenges and failures along the way, but we’re looking forward to trying and sharing our learnings with the sector.
Implications for Leadership
I was recently sharing some of the challenges I’ve faced this past year with someone and they were surprised since they thought I “had it all figured out.” I smiled because that’s so far from the truth. Since stepping into my current role about two years ago, I have experienced more self-doubt, shame, and humility than in the previous ten years combined. It’s a challenging time to be a leader in any organization and I’ve faced moments of thinking I may not be up to the task.
Looking back, I’ve realized that external pressures to produce and perform have led to distraction and not being able to complete tasks before other priorities emerge. And although we’ve engaged in many conversations about our values, group agreements and workplace tensions, we often lacked the deep implementation and practice needed to embody our discussions in our culture. It started to feel like a whack-a-mole game that can’t be won, which had negative implications for the team’s culture and wellbeing as I wasn’t always able to slow down and take notice when needs emerged.
I share this with the intention of helping others know they aren’t alone, and to speak from personal (flawed) experience of the importance of committing to finding focus and flow for ourselves and our teams. I’ve heard so many times in community work that we need to “Go slow to go fast” and more than ever, that’s ringing true in terms of how we work.
Executive Director, IONS
Annika supports the Board of Directors, oversees operations and the implementation of the strategic plan, and helps steward the NS Nonprofit Coalition. She develops partnerships and project opportunities and helps to elevate the voice of the sector.