Non-profit executive directors are dealing with a high level of stress, says a 2012 study. Driving Change: A National Study of Canadian Nonprofit Executive Leaders reports that nearly half of executive directors are experiencing levels of day-to-day stress that are excessive or approaching excessive. Are nonprofits unusually stressful places to work?
The impacts of stress on individuals, what causes it and what we can do about it has been the subject of numerous national reports both in Canada and the USA . Working conditions, broadly speaking, are certainly a source of stress for many people. Working conditions principally include the volume of work, the pace of work and one’s degree of control over the tasks involved.
The levels of stress reported in the study are those experienced by people in organizational leadership positions. This is likely not a surprise for the executive directors I know. Many would cite funding uncertainty and the burden of responsibility this carries with it for the welfare of both clients and agency staff as contributing to their stress. It is worth noting that the study was carried out under the auspices of the national HR Council for the Non-profit Sector, a body that had to close its doors last year because of the loss of federal government funding.
Is it likely though that nonprofit workplaces are more stressful than those in the private sector, especially in small businesses, for individuals of similar responsibilities? The Driving Change study does not reveal much about the causes or sources of stress faced by executive directors. Long working hours and unsupportive boards are clearly part of the picture it draws. It suggests that that these are problems that might cause a executive director to leave the sector, say to take a job in government. Volunteer boards would be well advised to be attentive to the quality of the work environment their organization provides for all staff and avoid taking their executive director’s commitment for granted.
The level of compensation paid to non-profit executive directors, as important an issue as it is in attracting and keeping talent, is not really a stress factor. People are attracted to non-profit organizations because of what they can do and the fact that, with small organizations especially, the potential for challenging and engaging roles is immense. The experience of leading a non-profit, some would say, cannot be beat.
It would be a mistake to think that executive directors and boards have their hands tied in addressing the stress associated with the work their organization does. Flexible hours, working from home, planned leaves, job sharing and attention to cultivating staff who can step into other roles can be considered. From a governance perspective, clearer direction through policy can help a lot. Social and emotional support in the workplace is also critical in helping alleviate the symptoms of stress and it would be interesting to know if non-profits in the social services field are any more attentive on this front than organizations in other sectors of the community.
It strikes me that one thing that an organization’s leadership can also do is be way more strategic in what their non-profit does in terms of both programming and revenue generation. Being “all over the map” has got to be stressful too.