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How association execs can recharge when facing burnout

Lack of energy and interest at job can be addressed through better self-care, prioritizing tasks, connecting work to results


April 26, 2019
By Walt Williams

Job burnout is a real phenomenon, although not one well defined in the medical literature or with easily identifiable symptoms. People who work with association executives say the C-suite isn’t immune, and they have suggestions about how best to address it.

Burnout is a problem Bill Pullen, president of BPA Coaching and Consulting, said he is seeing more among CEOs of large trade associations. The increasing pressures of the business and
political climates, as well as the rapid pace of modern life set by new technologies, appear to be taking a toll, he said.

One piece of advice Pullen has for executives experiencing burnout is to adopt the right mindset about the pace of the work they perform. Association leadership “is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.“They’re often trying to run a long race as if it is a short one … so there is that mindset, remembering that we’re in this for the long haul,” he said.

According to the World Health Organization, burnout has no universally accepted definition but is often characterized by researchers as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion resulting from “emotionally demanding” work situations. Research indicates people who experience burnout face higher instances of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and memory impairment.

Many studies on burnout have focused on its effects on demanding professions such as medicine. Research about burnout in the nonprofit sector is relatively rare by comparison. One exception is a 2011 survey of 2,000 employees by the online job site which found that half of respondents said they were either burned out or on the verge of being burned out.

What is the secret for avoiding burnout for association executives? For Jay Vroom, who recently retired as CEO of CropLife America after four decades working for associations, it was finding his niche. Many associations generate a large bulk of their budgets through nondues revenue, but the vast majority of money for CropLife America comes through member dues, which allowed Vroom to concentrate
on his passion for advocacy.

“Government affairs was really my professional sweet spot,” he said. “I certainly had experience in managing trade shows and advertising-supported publications, and that can be a tremendous source of revenue and great business experience. In the sectors I was in that had those additional assets, it was always a struggle, and it got to the point for me that not being distracted by that was a huge plus.”

Another thing that kept Vroom going was learning to navigate the different personalities among his group’s membership. There are always going to be members who “want more performance out of their trade association dues than any other investment they make,” he said. The key is striking a balance by recruiting people into your association’s volunteer leadership who will bring a range of opinions.

“You are not trying to avoid those personalities that may be excessively demanding but making sure you’ve got a balance of people that have reasonable expectations and will vote with their checkbooks to support additional initiatives,” Vroom said.

Keep your perspective

Executives experiencing burnout tell Pullen they often feel physically and emotionally exhausted and have difficulty striking a healthy work-life balance with their families. They also question their own ability to be successful, asking themselves, “Am I really up for this job?” One way they cope with this self-doubt is to work more, which generally isn’t a helpful strategy.

Pullen also emphasized that executives experiencing burnout need to prioritize their own physical and mental well-being. That means eating right, making sure they are getting enough sleep, exercising and making time for relationships and other interests outside of work.

“As a leader, if you are not taking care of yourself, you can’t be good for your organization,” he said.

Association leaders also should find ways to regularly connect with members to understand how their organization’s work impacts their lives, Pullen said. He recounted how one CEO made a point to often visit both members and the people those members serve, which allows the executive to return to the organization with a
renewed sense of perspective.

“Oftentimes (executives) are so busy running the organization they get disconnected from what has meaning for them,” he said.

Learn to prioritize

Cynthia Mills, CEO of the executive coaching firm The Leaders’ Haven, said “overwhelmed” is a word she often hears from clients these days. The term’s use appears to have picked up after the Great Recession, when many nonprofits made cuts and have never returned to pre-recession staffing levels. But she also hears many executives say the love for the work is still there, which is essential for preventing burnout, so the solution for some may be learning to better manage their workloads.

“One of the things I see in successful leaders is people who regularly go through prioritization exercises of their work,” Mills said. “They select, whether it is the beginning of the day or the end of the day, three things that they absolutely must accomplish the next day, and they are pretty consistent in knocking those things out first.”

Prioritization also is important for organizational goals, according to Mills. She said association CEOs in particular need to be very clear with their boards about what’s realistic in terms of goals and what isn’t. Strategic focus is very important, “as opposed to trying to do 25 things at the same time.”

At a personal level, executives need to find ways to refresh and restore themselves when they are not at the job, whether that is through spending more time with their families, riding a bike, reading a book or pursuing whatever strategies help them relax, Mills said. For example, some people she works with set aside a day of the week for a “digital free” day, in which they avoid social media and its deluge of information.

Executives should also set personal boundaries in terms of work-related communications, she said. That email sent by a staffer at 10 p.m. doesn’t need an immediate response, and executives shouldn’t expect staffers to make the same quick turnaround outside of business hours.

“If I’m CEO and I’m leaving at 6 o’clock, that is my boundary,” Mills said. “I’m not responding to texts or emails until the next morning. If it is an emergency, here is how I want you to deal with that.

“It’s a clarity around defining emergencies and defining boundaries, because if you don’t, you are going to be on 24/7 all the time.”