Millennials burning out? Fight nonprofit turnover by showing the love

I once stunned an employer into silence during my exit interview.

When I left, I cited overwork and lack of recognition as my main reasons for leaving.

“We see how hard you work,” my employer said after a lengthy silence. “And we’ve always been so grateful. I don’t understand how you didn’t know that!”

Over time, I became less and less invested in my work because my supervisors showed less and less recognition of my effort.

For example, if I scrambled to complete an assignment minutes before a client meeting, I received the same lukewarm “thank you” that I got for projects I’d given 110%. As the months went on and the trend continued, burnout hit. And it hit hard.

I’m one of those Millennials who compensates for the smallest crack in confidence or job security by doubling my workload. And unfortunately for me—and for thousands of other people my age in the workforce—employers often overlook these “above and beyond” moments.

In the simplest terms, I didn’t know my employer appreciated my work—because they never told me.

Source: Accountemps/Robert Half, The Warning Signs of Burnout

Consider the difference…

The CEO at my first job out of college took a different approach to employee recognition. One day, I happened to take an elevator with the CEO and the founder of the company. The CEO, whom I had only met once, introduced me to the founder with my full name, title, and an accurate description of my role and responsibilities. He finished up with, “She does great work, our clients love her, and we’re so happy to have her.”

I was so flattered that I posted about it on social media, called my mom, and cried in the employee bathroom. (Sue me, I was 21.)

Employee recognition is critical to maintaining retention rates, keeping team members engaged, and getting the ROI from teams.

Otherwise, rates of burnout, disengagement, and voluntary turnover soar. So too do the costs associated with hiring and training new employees. At the end of the year, holidays, resolutions, and promotions hang on the horizon. It’s critical to call attention to employees’ work in the past year.

According to recent surveys, 69% of employees say they would work harder if their efforts were better appreciated by their employers.

This issue is especially prevalent in the nonprofit sector.

In nonprofits, long hours and low pay go hand-in-hand with high turnover (if you’ve heard the word “burnout,” you know what I’m talking about). According to the 2017 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, 81% of nonprofits do not have a formal system in place to boost employee retention. Meanwhile, companies that invest in employee recognition programs see a 31% decrease in voluntary turnover.

As the end of the year rolls around, recognition of employees’ accomplishments is the best way to keep team members in their seats.

“More money” might be the first thing that comes to mind. However, many organizations—especially nonprofits—simply don’t have room in the budget for cash bonuses, promotions, and other financial incentives. Luckily, a little can go a long way when it comes to employee recognition.

  • Recognize an employee’s hard work with a personal “thank you.” A sticky-note left on a desk, a personal phone call, or a quick chat at the coffee machine all let team members know that their work isn’t going unnoticed.
  • Go public with your recognition. Whenever you can, give your team the opportunity to publicly celebrate each other’s achievements, like a set time during staff meetings to call out team members who go above and beyond.
  • When possible, show appreciation through meaningful gifts. It doesn’t have to be an expensive gift, but when it means something, your employees will know.
  • Recognize hard work with an experience, rather than a “thing.” An Amazon gift card might get spent on household goods and then quickly forgotten, but your team members will remember a staff outing as an experience they shared together.
  • Reward employees with a more significant sense of responsibility. If an employee has just pulled off an impressive project for a client, give him/her the opportunity to lead the next campaign instead of regulating him/her to the same responsibilities. The new challenge shows the employee that you know that s/he is improving, and gives you an opportunity to gauge the reaction to increased responsibility.
  • Bend the rules to say thank you. An extra day off (or “self-care day”) might not be part of the PTO policy, but bending the rules shows that you recognize the effort your employees put in.

When it comes to employee recognition, you don’t have to throw a massive party and invite Beyoncé just to show that you care. However, proceeding with business as usual after a major achievement—or neglecting to recognize the hard work involved in employees’ day-to-day routines—is a surefire route to burnout, dissatisfaction, and awkward exit interviews.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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