For the last two decades, I have been working in the social sector, in different jobs, geographies, and fields. During my whole career, and particularly in my role as co-founder of Amani Institute, I have encountered and worked with incredible people doing outstanding work to improve our world and humanity. Some, unfortunately, quit after just a few years. Others stayed at it for decades. I noticed that some who decide to build a lifelong career in the social sector feel fulfilled and happy. However, others feel exhausted and burnt-out.
I wondered: Why do some people leave the social sector so soon? Why do some actually benefit from working from a deep sense of their purpose and towards impact that is meaningful to them, while others suffer negative consequences despite seemingly doing the same? With these questions in mind, I spent a year doing research as part of a Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Forty conversations guided the conclusions of my study and seventeen interviews of individuals that have been working for more than a decade in the social sector were analyzed in depth using the grounded theory method. The interviewees come from five continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, representing the international character of the social sector. Some defined themselves as social entrepreneurs while others as employees in a social sector organization. They work in a wide range of areas such as social business, impact investment, education, environment, peace building, youth development, humanitarian aid, health, child development and, social justice.
Based on the study, it was possible to categorize people working in the social sector in three groups: “deserters”, “thrivers” and “survivors”. More importantly, I came to understand how we can all thrive while creating impact.
Deserters: Although there is a flood of new individuals entering the social sector, an increasing flow of talented individuals is also leaving the sector. The growing turnover in social impact organizations has been recognized as one of the main challenges facing the sector. A great majority of the people that enter the social sector will leave their jobs in the short term, typically lasting only 1-2 years. Morrissette describes a “burnout/re-ignition cycle”, where people join an organization that they deeply connect with. However, then come the long hours and high workloads, but with little career or salary advancement. So, they quit, disenchanted and exhausted, and move to another organization full of hope. Only to start the cycle all over again.
Thrivers: Some other individuals stay in the social sector for decades. According to scholars and employers, people who stayed in their organizations and in the social sector did not stay for the reasons that deserters decided to leave (career opportunities, long working hours, excessive workload, and low salaries). They stayed because of their perception that they were living a life of purpose and impact. These employees believe their work is meaningful and worth pursuing because they are making a difference in people’s life. There is much research to support the hypothesis that people who are able to work with purpose and impact tend to be more productive, committed, motivated, efficient, have more positive relationships and above all, are happier. Thrivers are those who live, on a daily basis, the benefits of working with purpose and impact.
Survivors: Despite a great deal of research showing the connection between working with purpose and positive impact, only recently has there been discussion of the potential negative consequences of such a career, such as organizational exploitation or burnout. There are people that do not want to quit their jobs because they are deeply connected with the cause they are championing; but they are not happy either. They enter a vicious cycle where they experience negative impact on job satisfaction and performance and even their life satisfaction, but they do not quit their jobs. Survivors are those who experience more negative than positive outcomes from their social impact work.
How can you become a thriver?
Survivors and thrivers shared more qualities than you might expect. In my interviews, they agreed on ten characteristics that define them. What was a crucial insight was that it is the perspective and relationship of the individual towards each characteristic that determines whether it becomes positive or negative, and not the theme in itself.
- Positive relationships: The importance of human connection was consistent throughout the interviews. When referring to positive relationships, the participants mentioned the relationship with their colleagues, with the ultimate beneficiary of their actions, and with friends and family members, especially romantic partners. Positive relationships are a vital element of the well-being of people working in the social sector (and everywhere else!). Individuals that focused too much on the strategy of their organizations, scaling impact and fundraising but forget that much of motivation and happiness comes from interacting with people on a daily basis tend to suffer more despair and burnout.
Tip #1: Build positive relationships and foster high-quality connections
- Self-awareness: There was common agreement about the importance of self-awareness and its role in preventing burnout and in achieving a fulfilling and purposeful life. In fact, without self-awareness, you wouldn’t be able to even identify the next eight characteristics! Self-awareness is generally defined as the ability of an individual to separate his perspective from himself to the objective world. It is the awareness of your relationship to the world, your own being as a person, your behavior, your actions, thoughts and feelings, desires and interests. Self-aware individuals are better equipped to walk their talk, to be aligned. On the other hand, people that are not self-aware tend to suffer a decrease in well-being.
Tip #2: Practice self-awareness, act from your true self
- Sacrifice: Even though most participants recognized that they sacrifice important things (time with their families, better salaries, etc.), some talked about sacrifice as a variable that they could not control, while others felt that they chose to make sacrifices. The individuals that associated sacrifice with not having a choice tend to lose their sense of agency and autonomy and, in turn, experience feelings of exhaustion or burnout. Those that associate sacrifice with making a choice tend to enjoy their work and their lives.
Tip #3: Say “I want to”, instead of “I have to”
- Work Centrality: It is clear that work plays a central role in the lives of the individuals interviewed. They stated that they work a great deal because they love what they do. However, some preferred to focus only on work while others talked about the importance of integrating work with other aspects of their life. They understood that once they looked at things as a trade-off, “my family or my job”, the stress would start. Once they understood that they could and should do both, life became easier. Spending time with their families or practicing hobbies, in the end, also enriches their jobs and vice versa.
Tip #4: Learn how to integrate the job you love with other things you also love. It is not a A or B, it is an A AND B
- Responsibility: People dealing with complex social problems feel a sense of duty to solve them, to use their skills for the common good. Sometimes, this feeling is so extreme that they feel they should solve the entire problem, taking full responsibility unto themselves. Some even felt like heroes, with a big burden on their shoulders. Those that see their responsibility as unlimited have a higher chance of suffering certain negative outcomes such as stress and burnout because they are not able to meet their own expectations. However, those who are very clear about their limited responsibility, and about what they are trying to achieve, were able to be more effective, assertive and blissful about their work.
Tip #5: Pick a piece of the world to save, not the whole!
- Privilege: The sense of responsibility in most cases was linked to a sense of privilege. People working towards social impact feel privileged with their lives. Privilege is not necessarily linked with one’s economic status; some linked privilege with educational opportunities, a loving family or even painful events that allowed them to learn and grow. However, for some, their sense of privilege was rooted in guilt because of what they have or were born with. They feel embarrassed when not “doing good” since “they have so much”. But those who feel lucky and grateful for their privilege or simply accept their privilege tend to have a more optimistic outlook on life as well as experience more joy.
Tip #6: Free yourself from guilt. Instead, be grateful for your privileged position in the world
- Empathy: This is a main characteristic that people working in the social sector have. According to Bloom, there are many definitions of empathy and as a result, he prefers to distinguish between sympathy, “the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and feel what you think they are feeling”, and compassion, “the ability to value other people and care about their welfare but without necessarily feeling their pain”. People who feel sympathy, or the pain of others, suffer more, could experience burnout, and are more likely to take the wrong moral decisions. On the other hand, compassionate people put limits on their own empathetic feelings and introduce a filter of rationality in order to understand the situation to better solve problems.
Tip #7: Regulate your empathy
- Motivation: People who work in the social impact sector are motivated to improve the world. However, many confessed that is hard to remain focused on their intrinsic motivation. Sometimes they get distracted by other motivations that are more linked to their ego. Ryan and Deci define this type of motivation as “regulation by contingent self-esteem”, or the motivation to avoid guilt or anxiety or to maintain a sense of worth or ego. However, when people are able to act from their own life’s purpose (intrinsic motivation), they are at the peak of their potential and feel happy. Even when they are “on autopilot” or being “sucked by the organizational machine”, they remember why they do what they do, their purpose in life, and thus regain energy and fulfillment.
Tip #8: Remind yourself daily why you do what you do.
- Impact Achieved: People who work in the social sector want to have a positive impact on society. However, from the perspective of thriving, the actual impact that the individual has is less important than their self-perception of their impact. Some people recognize the impact they are having while others are not able to tangibly see such impact. For people that cannot perceive their impact, they feel disappointment and frustration. They feel they are working hard but they don’t see the needle moving. It is far easier to track how much money they are making or the ladder they are climbing, whereas impact may take years to track. Other people were able to perceive their impact frequently and describe the specifics of the impact, even if this impact was very small and relatively insignificant considering the size of the problem. Yet, they were able to feel they are actually making a difference, that they have agency to make change.
Tip #9: Celebrate your successes, even if they seem small to you!
- Prioritization: Your entire bookshelf could be filled with books about self-care. However, people in the social sector tend to associate self-care as the opposite of caring for others and as being selfish. But those who don’t take care of themselves end up burning out. That is why the continuum, in this case, is from prioritizing others to prioritizing both others and self at the same level. Those who take care of themselves know they will be in a better position to do the work of supporting others. Having their own basic needs covered is just the first step in prioritizing self and others. It also implies taking time off, saying “no” more often, knowing how to set limits and spending time with your loved ones without feeling that you are letting others down. Additionally, it is about prioritizing others and self because of the recognition that supporting others brings joy to oneself. For people whose careers are about supporting other people, their own happiness and others’ happiness are intertwined.
Tip #10: Take care of yourself so you can better take care of others. Remember that taking care of others is also taking care of yourself!
Where do you stand?
Of all the people I know working in the social sector, nobody is located on the thrivers side in all ten dimensions. However, the more dimensions in which an individual can locate him or herself on the thrivers side, the greater the probability that they will experience more positive outcomes. In addition, the ten dimensions are related and interconnected. Each reinforces and complements the others. This means that if a person works to move themselves towards the thrivers side of the spectrum in one dimension, other dimensions might move too. This applies equally with moving towards the survivors side of the spectrum on any dimension.
How do you rank yourself on these ten dimensions? Are you more on the thriving or surviving side? Where do you want to improve?
My hope is that after reading this article, you will be able to continue your invaluable contribution to the world not only in a more impactful way but also by thriving in the long term.