Dear Nonprofiteer, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I work as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter.  Next week is my sixth anniversary on the job and honestly I don’t know if I’m going to make it that far.  For some indefinite period of time I’ve felt like a hamster on a wheel: doing the same thing over and over again with the reward of doing the same thing over and over again.  The clients keep making the same mistakes–sometimes the same clients, sometimes different but equally frustrating for me.  My sister case managers do nothing but wring their hands and self-medicate with food.  And the administration spends all its time talking about money and "metrics" as though the work we do here on the front lines isn’t important.  How can I make it through one more day? 

Signed, Down for the Count

Dear Down,

A friend of ours, a physician, is fond of saying, "If you just shut up and listen, the patient will diagnose himself."  Anyone who listens to you without interrupting will find the diagnosis arriving gift-wrapped: you’re burned out.  This is not a mere manner of speaking but an actual condition of bone-deep exhaustion and loss of purpose.

It’s easy for the Nonprofiteer to say, "So quit;" when she found herself in the same position, she was able to walk out the door and live on her savings from a previous, far more lucrative job.  But this may not be an option for you.  So try the following half-measures:

  • Go to your direct supervisor and say to her what you’ve said here.  Ask if there’s any way you can take whatever vacation is owed to you RIGHT NOW.  If not, arrange a date certain–not more than two months away–on which you will leave on vacation.  ("Vacation" can simply mean sitting at home, though if you have kids you’ll also need to arrange for your husband, mother or best friend to take them off your hands for a substantial chunk of every day.  Or "vacation" can mean going somewhere, which is possible even without spending a lot of money.  The Nonprofiteer knows of an amazing woman on the board of a local DV agency who puts her second home at the disposal of those whose work involves combating violence against women so they can take free, if brief, jaunts away from it all.) 
  • During vacation do not check your work e-mail or answer your work pager or phone.  As the advice to drug addicts goes, "Do this for a week.  If it’s hard, do it for two weeks."
  • Take every second of vacation you’re owed, and take your accumulated sick leave while you’re at it.  If you’ve been at your job for six years and you’re as conscientious as most DV workers, that will probably add up to about 3 months.  This may well be the longest time you’ve had off since high school.
  • Use the first month of that to lie in a bathtub and read Harlequin romances.  Use the second to lie in a bathtub and read "What Color Is Your Parachute?"  Use the third to moisturize your water-logged skin and identify solid, real-world, substantial alternative job opportunities.  Consider hospital work, which has more predictable hours; agency administration, which will provide a whole new set of challenges; even business, where you may see opportunities for providing goods or services your clients need and no one else offers.
  • While you’re at it, identify solid, real-world, substantial changes that could be made in your current job that would make it more pleasant and productive.  These may be as simple (in theory) as "weekends off" or as complex as "revamp the case reporting system."  They may be as low-cost to your employer as "I’ll leave the office for lunch every day" or as expensive as "you’ll reimburse me for graduate school tuition."  List these first in order of descending priority and then in order of ascending cost, and see if you can’t get the lists to match.
  • On your post-vacation return to your job, meet with your supervisor again and give her your ideas.  As a boss of the Nonprofiteer’s repeated ad nauseum, "Don’t bring me problems–bring me solutions."  Tell her how she can keep you, or how she can smooth your transition to the next phase of your career.  Easy on the reproaches ("This job has driven me to a nervous breakdown"); acc-en-tu-ate the positive ("I’ve figured out how I can be more effective" OR "This has been a great opportunity but I’m ready to move on to something that’s challenging in a different way").  Even if you’re leaving, there’s nothing to be said for burning bridges–and if you handle it right, the conclusion of your "challenging-in-a-different-way" speech can be, "Can you help me?"  Probably, she can and will.

If all this sounds impossible or unreachable, try to recognize that you’re suffering from an upside-down variant of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which prisoners identify with their jailers.  You’ve identified with your clients, who as DV victims rarely can imagine they have any options but to put their heads down and try to get through to next week.  But you’re not a victim, and you do have options, and next week will only be better if you figure out a way to make it different.

You can’t save anybody else if you don’t save yourself first.  Please do.

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

  1. john tiebout Says:

    This isn’t so much a response to this column as it is a deeply felt appreciation for finding someone out there who just cuts right through it. Thanks for doing what you do. It matters.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    What I do is easy compared to your work and that of other full-timers in the sector. Hang in there!

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