6 Ways Nonprofit Professionals Can Conquer Post-Pandemic Workplace Stress

You’re in year three of a challenge you initially thought would be resolved in two weeks. And even as we make strides toward returning to “normal,” there are many unanswered questions about what the future of work will look like for nonprofit professionals. But here’s what we do know: there is no going “back to normal.” And the anxiety most of us have felt during the pandemic will not disappear magically. Stress and burnout will undermine our recovery if we do not make personal and workplace well-being an urgent priority.

So if you’re feeling tired, exhausted, or worn out by recent change and disruption in your life and work, you’re not alone. The pandemic has contributed to a number of stressors that have made finding balance and getting things done more challenging. But what is stress anyway?

What is stress?

Contrary to popular belief, all stress isn’t bad. Some stress can be good for you. In fact, stress is a natural part of our life and work. Our goal isn’t to eliminate all stress—it’s to learn how to recognize it when it occurs and manage it more effectively for our benefit.

A bit of pressure can help keep the brain alert and support you in getting focused. This is “good” stress or eustress as it’s sometimes referred to by researchers. This type of stress can lead to a positive response such as when you learn a new skill as a result of stepping outside your comfort zone or taking a stretch assignment at work.

“Bad” stress or distress is typically what we associate with being stressed out. This type of intense, chronic, or frequent stress can leave us feeling overwhelmed and drained. Common sources of work distress include interpersonal conflicts, disorganization and clutter, multi-tasking, and physical discomfort.

Key Causes of Pandemic Work Stress

There are five key factors contributing to our increased stress during the pandemic.

  1. Prolonged Uncertainty—The past few years have created prolonged uncertainty and disruption, which make planning difficult. Too many unknowns for too long creates stress and anxiety that eventually takes a mental, emotional, and physical toll on us.
  2. Social Isolation—Physical distancing has prevented us from having the type of human-to-human connections that help us thrive. Working in the post-pandemic workplace can feel lonely.
  3. Work-Life Imbalance—Boundaries between work, life, and even the days of the week have been blurred beyond recognition. And it’s become increasingly harder to manage expectations from a distance.
  4. Workplace Burnout—Mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion from chronic work-related stress and overwhelm have skyrocketed in recent years. This exhaustion can stem from having unclear goals, unmanageable workloads, unreasonable time pressures, limited resources and support, lack of flexibility, and interpersonal conflicts.
  5. Technology Burnout—The onslaught of using video conference platforms and other virtual tools for everything  from work meetings to family holiday celebrations has resulted in overload, burnout, and screen exhaustion.

So how do you effectively manage stress in the post-pandemic workplace?

What to Do About Post-Pandemic Workplace Stress

1.  Acknowledge the new reality. The way we live and work has changed. We’re not going back to the way things were before. Taking the time to recognize and acknowledge what is, even when you don’t have all the answers (e.g. sharing the facts, being honest, acknowledging everyone’s emotions, etc.), helps create a shared understanding and common sense of safety.

This type of acknowledgment helps:

  • increase fulfillment at work
  • create a healthy work environment
  • keep staff motivated staff because they feel seen and heard and have a sense of certainty even during uncertain times

2. Know the signs of distress. My colleague Beth Kanter and author of The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit reminds us that sometimes we are experiencing distress or burnout and are not aware. There are physical symptoms like headaches, aches and pains, insomnia, and inability to concentrate as well as a general feeling of hopelessness and anxiety that can lead to depression. It is also important to ask the right questions and get feedback, so you get to the root of the stress. This means being able to define it in your own words with trusted friends and colleagues.

3. Set healthy boundaries. One of the biggest stressors we face is our increased workload and the unwritten assumptions about when we need to be available for work that accompany it. We can address this by having explicit conversations with our teams that address key questions such as:

  • Which hours will you be available for work each day?
  • Which hours will you be available for life outside of work?
  • Which tools should colleagues use to reach you for urgent matters? What about non-urgent issues?
  • What’s an urgent matter?
  • How soon should someone expect a response from you depending on the level of urgency?

Establishing and communicating these boundaries removes the guesswork around when and how you are available for your work and personal life and reduces any stress and anxiety you may feel about needing to be on and available 24/7.

4. Practice healthy productivity. Given our increased workloads, we may be tempted to work longer, harder, and faster at the expense of our own well-being. Too many of us are up checking emails, responding to text messages, scrolling through social media, and going through our mental checklists before even rolling out of bed. We spend our days in back-to-back meetings and sitting behind a screen all day. This is a form of toxic productivity.

You can break this pattern by making a commitment to practice healthy productivity. This means acknowledging rest is one of the more powerful productivity tools we often overlook in our desire to get ALL the things done right away. One way to put this into practice is to proactively build breaks into your schedule. This might mean using a productivity strategy like the pomodoro method which alternates work sprints with short breaks and/or shaving 5-10 minutes off the default length of any meetings you schedule (e.g. a 60-minute meeting becomes 50 minutes; a 30-minute meeting becomes 25 minutes).

5. Practice being socially distant from your devices. Tech use has skyrocketed for many of us during the pandemic and during the transition to the post-pandemic workplace. Technology has been a lifeline for keeping us connected and productive. But it has also increased our stress levels. One way to address this is to put in place healthy boundaries for our tech use similar to how we’ve been diligent about protecting each other from the spread of COVID-19. When working, eating, and sleeping, we have a perfect opportunity to be socially distant from our devices. These breaks allow our brains and bodies to recover from the stress of being constantly connected.

  • Start by charging your devices outside of your workspace and adding tech breaks to your calendar to check in throughout the day on any important calls or messages.
  • Turn off notifications for non-missional critical apps.
  • Put away your devices during meals.
  • Buy a real alarm clock and charge your devices outside your bedroom so you can get uninterrupted rest at night.

6. Proactively plan for and take time off. One of the consequences of toxic productivity and increased workloads is taking time off becomes an afterthought. Research shows that workers who take vacation are more productive at work. Rest is a powerful productivity we often underestimate. We can address this by making a habit of planning ahead 90 days at a time the days we plan to take off. This will allow you to plan ahead, get coverage, if needed, and have a less stressful time off.

While these tips won’t eliminate your stress, they can support you in more effectively managing in the post-pandemic workplace.

Looking for a deeper dive on well-being in the post-pandemic workplace? Download your free copy of The Hybrid Workplace Wellness Playbook for Grantmakers.