This week we’re talking to Beth Sperber Richie.
We talked about:
• What is burn out is and why burn out is so prevalent in the nonprofit sector
• What the research shows about rest and productivity for organizations.
• What vicarious trauma is and how it impacts staff and an organization’s culture.
Beth Sperber Richie, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and consultant in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Richie works with non-profit leaders on how to sustain their staff and their mission given the grind of social change work. She gives workshops and presentations on managing stress and burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, improving cross-cultural communication and counseling skills and setting boundaries for front-line employees. Her workshops focus on practical skills and engaged involvement of all participants.
Beth on LinkedIn
Carol Hamilton: Hi Beth, welcome to the podcast, it’s great to have you on.
Beth Richie: Thanks, great to be here.
Carol: Could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this work and how you got to where you are?
Beth: I got involved doing clinical work with trauma survivors. I'm a psychologist, so the clinical work came logically out of the stuff I was studying when I was back in graduate school. I began working with trauma survivors clinically in the nineties, and as much as I'm passionate about that work, I've enjoyed that work and feel that it's been very meaningful to me over the years, I began to realize that I'm talking to one person at a time and I'm helping one person at a time. I started to look for the ways in which I could multiply the impact that I could have, and consulting with organizations just seemed like a logical next step. It really started when a friend of mine started an organization that helped landmine survivors all around the world, he was asking all the right questions about how to get landmine survivors back into the workforce. How do we take somebody who’s a farmer and who's lost their limbs in the landmine accident, and get that person back into the paid workforce. How do they support their family, but wasn't really asking the questions about what the impact of the trauma is on the person. I started asking him those questions and that led me to work as a consultant with his organization.
Then, because it was a new organization to talk to him a lot about what organizational policies and procedures and what practices can you put in place for your staff that's going to be dealing with this really traumatic material on a daily basis. That was what got my foot in the door. I saw that ‘here's a way to have an impact on many more people at once.’ That's what really hooked me to the idea of doing consulting in this area. I know that when you and I first spoke, we talked a little bit about the whole idea that you have about how important it is to make a healthy organism, relational cultures that it's not just enough to work with an organization, the goal is to help them make the organizational culture healthy. That's such a dovetail for me with this work that it's an opportunity to help organizations where people are helping folks who have experienced trauma, how they keep their staff healthy and how do they keep the organization healthy as they move through working in this arena, whatever that arena might be.
Carol: Actually, part of the goal of this podcast is to help progressive nonprofit leaders do that work that they want to do to build a better world, but without really becoming a martyr to the cause. Much of your work centers around that, and one of the things that you help organizations with is managing stress and burnout. I feel that that is such a large part of the nonprofit sector that people almost see it as a given.
Carol: To the point where, if they're not experiencing it, they think they're not truly dedicated to the cause.
Beth: Yeah, like they're not working hard enough if they're not in pain.
Carol: I'm curious, how do you define burnout? Cause I think it's a term that's thrown around a lot, but burnout is another level and I'm not sure that everyone really defines it the same way.
Beth: Well, I think you're right. Everybody does not define it the same way. When I'm working with organizations, I get people to take a look and do a little bit of an assessment of their own level of burnout. For me, burnout is not just that there is stress in your work because lots of work has stress. Burnout to me is like the moral distress or the moral level of fatigue, where you just find it difficult to get the motivation to do even a simple list of tasks. The other piece of this for organizations that work with trauma survivors is the vicarious trauma of hearing those stories has an impact on the listener, to the point where they can actually get post-traumatic stress symptoms, similar to the ones that the survivors themselves get, where their worldview is actually shifted. I think that that's particularly a hallmark of vicarious trauma, but I think it's true, in burnout that it's almost a worldview switch where, what used to be something that motivated you and got you excited, that you had the drive and the burn to make this change in the world that gets to the point where you're tired and hopeless, [to the point] that there's actually been a shift in the way you view the world. To me, that is the difference between burnout and just general stress. I think general stress is easier to recover from than burnout. I have a couple of nonprofit leaders that I'm working with at the moment who both like the idea of burnout rehab. That's what we've been calling it.
Carol: What are your steps for burnout rehab?
Beth: It depends on the individual human being, right? Each burnout rehab is its own special thing. [What] I say to everybody I work with is you need to find the thing that works for you and then apply it liberally. The metaphor I use is that of a stress fracture. Despite not being athletic myself, I produced three children who are athletes. One of my children played right through a stress fracture, he continued to play. My daughters are the same way, one of them had her knee ripped open in a soccer incident and she wasn't even aware that she was bleeding. They had to take her off the field because apparently it's not legal to bleed while you're playing soccer, you have to be taken off the field. She didn’t feel that it was necessary, but those to me, those metaphors of the stress fracture or you're playing hard that you don't even realize you have a ripped open knee, is exactly what happens with our nonprofit leaders that they're working hard and strong. [They’re so far] beyond stressed that they're at the point where they don't even realize that they're bleeding or that they have a stress fracture. In the same way that with a stress fracture or with an open wound, you would have to come off the field. That's step one for burnout rehab.
[The problem,] as far as I'm concerned, is how to get off the field when you don't want to get off the field completely. The athletes don't want to get off the field completely, they don't want to go off the field at all and neither do the nonprofit leaders. We have to get them off the field, and one way or another figure out ways to put boundaries around their work, either in terms of time like, “you are allowed to work X or Y amount of hours a day and that's it, or you are no longer allowed to work Saturdays and Sundays, or I know nonprofit leaders that I've worked with who are working on vacation, I remind them that that's not actually vacation. Some of it is putting boundaries around the work, recognizing that you have a stress fracture and therefore you shouldn’t go back out on the field and play the sport again. The other is to figure out what's sustainable for them in the long haul, how can they individually find that burnout rehab that works, the metaphor I like is the idea that we all think about filling our cup, is your cup half full, is it half empty. The whole notion of a full cup to me is that that full cup can then spill over onto other people, a lot of nonprofit leaders feel that if they're not feeling burnt out, then they're not really working hard or they're not really doing it right. I remind them that their own cup is actually a way to help other people, because it allows them to keep going in the long haul.
Carol: I think [it also] models that for any staff that are working for them, because I've talked to many executive directors who say: ‘well, I tell my staff not to work on the weekends,’
and I say ‘okay, are you working on the weekends? Are you answering email? Are you sending them an email on vacation?’ Well, if you're doing that, no matter what you say - my mother loved to say, ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ but clearly that doesn't work. We watch how people behave and that's really the expectation. People see that and they feel they have to work towards it.
Beth: They have to match what the leadership of the organization is doing. I’ve said more times than I can count that whole thing about emailing on vacation. You can have a company policy that says you absolutely must take X or Y amount of vacation, [and] I know a number of organizations that respond to this [with] mandatory vacation. [They say,] you must take a break ‘cause we want you to be here for the long haul, but then they write emails on vacation. If you're writing emails on vacation, then your staff gets the message [that] they should never take a break. We've got excellent research out there that talks about what taking a break does for people and how much more productive people are, even after a short break. It doesn't matter what field they're in, this research has been done across many different fields, I think one - I'm not going to come up with a citation right off the top of my head - but I think of one group that looked at basketball players, their free-throw percentage went up when they took breaks from working out. We know it's true with folks in the arts. We know it's true with folks in business. We know people have looked at this in terms of the research, on taking a break on from many different perspectives.
People who take vacations get higher ratings from their supervisors in terms of being more effective employees, and it's correlated very strongly with the number of days of vacation they actually take. We know that the research tells us that this is how we rehab for burnout and how we come back. As I say, it's an individualized program in terms of how you actually get the person to make the cognitive switch to: this is actually good for me, I really need to do this. I have sports injuries and I feel like I've probably experienced burnout at some point in my career, [and] I do feel like with both, you don't come back to where you were before the injury. I think it ebbs and flows over the span of a career, what you might've been able to do in your twenties, or maybe when you were in a startup phase with an organization, it needs to shift. Yet the times people don't shift because they started out a certain way, working a certain way either for an established organization or as a founder let's say or whatever, and then that just becomes the culture. So being much more mindful of how you’re setting those boundaries and then what are those different things that fill your cup?
Carol: I feel like I've seen much about that research that you're talking about and yet somehow in our culture, there's still so much bravado about this macho, ‘we've got to always be working, got to always be busy. I'm busier than you.’ stuff that I'm trying to step out of.
I don't need that, but how the hell is it for most people, they think, ‘well, it's not possible for me to do it differently.’
Beth: Yeah, and some would see [it as] a failure of their imagination that they can't imagine that taking breaks would have a positive impact on that, that they could do it in a different way than they did it in their twenties now that they have different responsibilities at home, it’s ironic. I think that Corona and the Coronavirus has caused a lot of people to really rethink and to look for new ways to figure this out. Just plugging through is not going to work if you’ve got an eight year-old at home who needs your attention and needs your help getting the education that they need. Folks are, are looking around and saying, ‘oh wait, I have to figure out a new way.’ I think that this is an opportunity, that's the silver lining, there's an opportunity here to get a little bit creative about how people approach their work and look at it in a different way. When you described the whole notion of burnout rehab being this combination of sets and boundaries, and then the TLC and how you fill your own cup.
What I always say to people is ‘sometimes how you fill your cup is the work,’ and I like to say self-care is not always a bath bomb. Like this is not about going to the spa.
There are a lot of people for whom the work itself is fulfilling that it does fill their cup. I say amen to that, then you're probably not burnt out, but for other folks in your organization that might not be true. The other piece of this is that, when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to fill your cup. Part of the reason the work fills your cup is when you are connected to the mission.
What ends up happening is we get into getting ready for the board meeting, the actual getting ready for the board meeting becomes this huge stress. That is a disconnect for me. What is our mission or what is our goal? Even though the board is important and that helps move the organization forward, it is connected to the mission [and] when we get too wrapped up in the, ‘I've got this meeting and then that meeting,’ or ‘I need to make these fundraising calls,’ or ‘I need to get ready for the board meeting,’ whatever the day-to-day logistics of the organization are that those logistics disconnect from the mission and the part of what refills our cup in the work is mission-driven work or mission-focused perspective.
That's something that people can get this too disconnected from, and that can contribute to burnout. When someone says, ‘no, I just care so much about this one work. That's what drives me. That's what fills my cup.’ to that person, my response is ‘okay, when was the last time you were really connected to the mission of the organization, as opposed to just what it takes to run an organization.’ For people who are not yet willing to say, ‘oh, I just need to fill my time cup.’ That means going out in nature, for those people, I would say, ‘ when was the last time you actually were connected to why you came into this work in the first place?’
Carol: They could do both. They could take a walking meeting. I've been doing a lot of those since Coronavirus. I am pro-walking-meeting.
Beth: There are ways to combine moving your body, being outside, and something done, it's a win, win, win.
Carol: You work with organizations where the staff are really experiencing what goes beyond day-to-day stress of vicarious trauma and compassion, fatigue. Can you first, both define those things and then tell me who's typically affected and how that shows up in organizations?
Beth: Absolutely. The difference to me between vicarious trauma, let's say in burnout, is that piece that I said before of a shift in worldview of seeing the world as a little bit less safe, or that if you had gone into this believing that there are good people in the world and there's good things in the world, being exposed to a steady diet of trauma can eat away at that pretty quickly. The other way I think of it is in terms of how you get burnout or how you become burned out and how you get vicarious trauma, you could get vicarious trauma after a particularly difficult one-time experience, whereas burnout is more like the steady drip of water eroding rock. You wake up one day and look around and say, ‘oh, I'm burnt out,’ but it's been based on this slow, steady drip of the difficulty of the work that you're doing.
The other piece between burnout and vicarious trauma, to me [is that] vicarious trauma is actually probably about being exposed to traumatic material, whereas burnout can happen in all sorts of organizations. You might be an organization that is working on social change and you might feel burnt out by the slow pace or by the backward steps that you feel like is happening in a particular environment, but that's different from actually being exposed to traumatic material. Who tends to get vicarious trauma? I would say most times it's first-responders. It's in this environment, healthcare workers, but it's also people who hear the stories. I've worked now with two and am working with two different gun violence prevention organizations. You might go into that because you're politically motivated and you feel like you want to change the political strategies and you're an advocate, but you’re telling the stories of people whose lives have been shattered because of a murder that they experienced or because they were part of a mass shooting or because of other traumatic material that, that they're going to have to process.
Anyone in the organization who is having contact with survivors and in most gun violence prevention organizations, the survivors are at the forefront of the advocacy work. You're going to be hearing those stories and anyone from the person who's sitting at the front desk to the CEO, to the ED, whoever it is, one in the organization could potentially be exposed to the traumatic material. That's different than just the burnout - one of my children works in the climate change field and she might argue that there's some pretty traumatic scenarios out there. It's an example of it's a long haul. It's a lot of work and you could get burnt out by the enormity of the problem and the small steps that you are making to make change in that arena, but you're not actually being exposed - for the most part - to actual trauma or to the traumatic experiences of others. That's a big deal, and certainly people who get vicarious trauma can be burnt out, but it's not always true that people who are burnt out all have vicarious trauma if they've not been exposed directly to that material.
Carol: My daughter worked doing direct service with a number of different groups, working with students in lower resource schools, helping them with college access and there was always something going on with one of the students, maybe not directly with them, but then with their friends, family, and just hearing those stories all the time. One thing that was interesting that you said before was that people can experience PTSD symptoms. I feel like in the media, and what people have heard about PTSD, it's okay. As if veterans are the only people [who] experience PTSD and that's not true. I'm curious if you could just share some of the signs that people might, if they're experiencing that and not really knowing what's going on, what might be some things of how it shows up for them?
Beth: Particularly for people who [have] vicarious trauma that I always described the post traumatic stress disorder symptoms as being a pendulum swing between numbing out and over feeling or, or feeling to a larger degree. We call it hyper-arousal in our field. That you go from 0 to 60 in terms of emotional response. Some of the other classic symptoms are people having nightmares or having flashbacks to the event that can even be true. If you just heard about the event and didn't witness it or didn't experience it yourself. I can say personally, one of the ways that I realized I had vicarious trauma in the early days of becoming a therapist to work primarily with trauma survivors was that I would have nightmares about the things that had happened to my clients happening to myself or to members of my family.
It can show up in all sorts of different ways, but I think those are the two hallmarks if you're feeling a lack of feeling, a numbed response to something that in the past probably would have generated some response for you or in the opposite direction. I feel like everything people think of PTSD being somebody hears a car backfire and they think it's a gunshot and they jump through the roof, but that can be true for anybody. They can have a hyper-emotional response to a story here, to a smell. to a sound that is not like a gunshot, there are lots of different ways that people can experience that. That could be true for your daughter as well. She’s heard those stories enough that she becomes hypervigilant about scenarios that she might be in that are similar to what she's heard from her clientele.
Carol: How does this impact the organization at large? I mean, certainly it impacts the people who are providing direct service working on the front lines, but I'm guessing that there are ways that it shows out throughout the organization and impacts culture as well.
Beth: Yeah, it's a great question and absolutely the most obvious [is] when you have high turnover in an organization, because people, , as you said, people think of the progressive nonprofit world as - I've had people say to me, ‘we assume that people will be gone in about 2-2 ½ years.’ That that's the timeframe and that they see that as an acceptable outcome. They’ll just get some new 20-something graduates from college
Carol: And give them vicarious trauma.
Beth: Exactly. I think that there’s the sense of it [being] inevitable and my feeling is [that] it's not inevitable. It doesn't have to be inevitable and you lose things as an organization; that turnover is really expensive. It's expensive in terms of time, cause now members of your staff have to spend time - even if you have an HR department - other members of your staff or content folks are all going to have to interview people and figure out who they want to bring on. You have that time issue. Time, obviously, costs money and people are not doing the other things that you need to be doing. When you're doing that work, you have to train new people over and over again, you lose the historical memory that goes with the folks and you lose the relationships that those folks have built, whether it's with a board member or with a fundraising source, a funder, or with other members of the staff you lose when they burn out and leave, or when they get vicarious trauma and leave, you lose all of these intangibles in addition to the time and money that you've spent on the hiring process. Turnover is more than just another hiring process, which is exciting.
Carol: It also impacts all the people who are left behind because I'm thinking over my 20-plus years at nonprofits to think I'd have to go back and calculate, but what was the percentage when I was actually doing a part of someone else's job because we all had to. So-and-so left and we had to divy it up. People don’t feel like there's the bandwidth or the resources to hire a temp, or that feels harder than just doing it yourself or those kinds of things, there's all sorts of ripple effects.
Beth: Those ripple effects then potentially contribute to the burnout of the rest of your staff, because they’re doing more work.
Carol: It’s a vicious cycle
Beth It can be, my feeling is [that] it doesn't have to be right.
Carol: What are some of the things that organizations can do to take steps to have it not be an inevitability?
Beth: There are actually some decent organizational assessments out there, mostly talking to the members of your staff to figure out - one of the things I think that's helpful about bringing a consultant like me in is that I can do that in a way that folks potentially can feel like their responses are actually anonymous. They can be - hopefully - a little bit more candid and honest about what their experience is like. Sometimes people don't even realize that that’s what they're doing. [They’ll say] ‘I'm sending an email on Sunday night because I'm living at home with my family during Corona. I know that tomorrow morning, when you all need this information, I'm going to be homeschooling my kid.’ Okay, great. How about you try making that explicit, I'm sorry, I've sent this email more times than I can count. I'm sorry.
I'm sending you an email on Sunday night. I don't expect a response and the reason I'm sending it on Sunday night is because I know you need this tomorrow. I know that I have the following things tomorrow that are not work related. I have to take my kid to the doctor in the morning, therefore, whatever it is to just send the message. a piece of it is assessing the culture. To see whether this is a, we should be responsive all the time. This is a 24/7 experience, always be available. See if that message is being sent out there, but the other piece is to actually ask staff what would support them.
Just as you asked me before, well, what does burnout rehab look like? my response unhelpfully was, it depends on the person. The same thing is true. What's going to work for this staff? I don't know, but I'm going to ask the staff what they think, ‘Oh, well, we're going to put in a wellness program.’ That's always my favorite. We're going to put her in a wellness program, we're going to convert this empty office into a wellness spot, we're going to put water sounds and an exercise ball and some yoga mats and let people do what they want with it. My feeling is don't waste your money. Even though that's not a lot of money, don't waste your money. Spend some time talking to your staff about what actually feels like a wellness moment for them. Maybe what feels like a wellness moment for them is everybody actually getting together and talking about the work, right? Maybe it's about sharing wins. I have one organization that I work with that in the last couple of weeks has decided to give all of their employees eight hours of flex time to use during the work-week. At any time you want to discuss it with your manager, but here's some flex time because they're recognizing the impact of coronavirus and what it means to have your whole family at home. You might not have computer access or wifi access at X or Y time during the day, or you may need to be caring for an elderly relative or for a child or for each other or whatever it is. That was something that came from the staff. As something that would be useful to them, if they just felt like they were not stuck inside those core hours then they could help their kid during the day and work at night. Maybe they can't get an eight hour work day, [but] having those eight hours of flex flexibility gives them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have had, but to me it's really about assessing from that particular staff what feels to them like it would sustain them in the long haul.
Carol: A lot of this comes down to setting appropriate boundaries and, as you said, filling your cup. What are some of your favorite ways to fill your cup?
Beth: Being in nature is huge. On mother's day, my husband, who, he and I have been married for almost 30 years and he knows me. He knows the goal is to get to some body of water. There are no large bodies of water near where I live but we can walk to a creek and that'll do, we get outside near water. That for me is the big one. Then the other one is music, either making music with friends or listening to new music that I just got exposed to for the first time. Those are really big for me in terms of filling my cup. How about you?
Carol: Well it's funny, water for sure. I once went on a vacation where we only were by water one day and I realized, no, this is not a vacation for me. I need to be by water, the entire vacation, whether it's a beach or at a lake, or kayaking or some body of water, anywhere I [need to] have water. I spend my summer at the pool. I'm a little nervous about this summer. I think kayaking] will be the thing that keeps me going throughout the summer months. Also doing something that uses a different part of your brain. You talked about music, I used to play music as a younger person and maybe one day I will again, but these days I've been playing around with drawing. I'm no great artist, I actually do not call myself that purposefully so that I can continue to just dabble in that. Then for me, sports, anything active. Getting the body moving, all those things that don't have to do with being at a computer.
Beth: Getting away from the computer is huge, especially right now. What I say to people is that sometimes it even helps to be doing something that is a volunteer thing. My family packs boxes at a local food pantry and it's physical work. I like that, it's different.
It's not sitting at a computer, but also, I'm not in charge. That fills my cup. Being able to do something that's good and helpful for somebody else, but I didn't have to organize it. I can just show up, pack my boxes, be with my family and leave. Fantastic. It doesn't have to be a bath bomb. Sometimes it is actually about providing service, but providing service in a way that feels different for you or is not the same thing over and over again, because our brains crave novelty, and we need to use our bodies in different ways and we need to use our minds in different ways and anything we do that steps away from our day-to-day can be very useful.
Carol: I actually have often reminded boards and people working in recruiting volunteers that they shouldn't assess that, say they need someone to work on marketing and communications that they should go after someone who does that professionally well, in fact, they may want to do something totally different and they may want to facilitate your small groups or do workshops or do some other thing, and someone else who is interested in that and may want to try out those skills as a volunteer. Oftentimes volunteering gives you an opportunity to try something different, or like you said, just show up and be told what to do, not be in charge. You have something concrete that has happened by the end, this had a clear impact on someone.
One of the things I like to do is play a little game at the end here. I have a couple of icebreaker questions. Let me pick one. If you could never work again, how would you spend your time?
Beth: Oh, if I could never work again... I hate to be one of those people that sounds like the people we're talking about who are burnt out, but honestly, I really do love this work that I'm doing with organizations. I would do this for free, that's a terrible marketing strategy, but it's true. I do need to pay the bills, I can't do it for free, but I think that would be one thing I would do, one of the things I know about myself is that I like variety. That would be one thing I would do, somehow finding a way we mentioned to be near a body of water would be something I would do. I would play my guitar and sing as often as I possibly could, find some other people to hang out with who had nothing else they had to do and just spend hours singing. My life could be one long campfire with a guitar. I would love that.
Carol: What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Beth: I actually had an opportunity recently to do a webinar for some social service agencies in DC. The mayor of DC, mayor Bowser has put some focus and some money into looking at the district's response to trauma. I've been able to do one webinar in a series, and I'm going to get another one in the can coming up in the not-too-distant future and I'm really excited because those are the folks who I most want to be in touch with. Those are the frontline workers who are the government folks in DC who are handing out food stamps and who are trying to find people housing and who are trying to find people jobs. I think both burnout and potentially vicarious trauma is high in that group of folks. I'm really excited to have an impact on those folks who are providing such important services in DC.
Carol: How can people find you more about you or get in touch?
Beth: People can find Fermata Consulting on LinkedIn, F, E, R, M, A, T, A, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would say LinkedIn is probably your best bet.
Carol: We'll put those links in the show.
Beth: That would be terrific. I'm always happy to hear from folks who I don't know, who have questions about the work I do. Feel free to reach out and shoot me an email and I'm happy to be back in touch.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you being on.
Beth: Sure, I'm looking forward to hearing all of your podcasts, not just this one.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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