Corinne O’Connell, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, watched the faces on her screen eagerly as she shared news with her leadership team last month: Starting immediately, all employees would be eligible for a four-week, paid “anniversary leave” after five years of service.
“Jaws dropped,” O’Connell said. Virtually everyone in that Zoom meeting had been with the organization for at least five years, she said, and they started talking about taking big trips and spending summertime with their kids.
This one-month sabbatical, on top of Habitat’s existing paid-time-off benefits, is the latest perk the nonprofit organization is offering to help prevent burnout. Several other nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia have similarly implemented extended time off, rest days and other benefits meant to combat work-related mental health struggles and prevent loss of employees due to burnout.
Burnout, which is plaguing workers in most industries nearly three years since COVID-19 arrived in the United States, can be of particular concern in nonprofit organizations. The work is sometimes emotionally taxing, and budgets are often tight so employers usually cannot just increase pay to account for long hours. The term burnout actually has its roots in the “helping” professions, as American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger called them in the 1970s, using burnout to describe the severe stress resulting from constantly caring for others.
“It’s still the case that people are looking to work in nonprofit jobs that they feel really are trying to make the change in the world that they want to see and be part of,” but they increasingly want time and energy for their families and lives outside of work, as well, said Nicole Meyenberg of nonprofit consultancy Fairmount Ventures. “People want to be able to do both things.”
In addition to curbing burnout, O’Connell said, she hopes the new time-off offer will help with hiring and retention, which have been a challenge across many industries in the last few years, even those that pay well. Before implementing the change, Habitat’s leadership looked at the data. Many people who left were dropping off at about the three-year mark, O’Connell said.
“There’s a limit to what we can sustain on compensation,” O’Connell said. “Hiring in this market as a nonprofit is the Wild West.”
Organizations across many industries have been facing hiring challenges because they have more job openings than there are people to fill them. Nonprofits saw a voluntary turnover rate of 20% in 2021, according to a survey by Nonprofit HR, and more than half of respondents said they had the most trouble retaining workers under age 30, suggesting that the problem could grow with time.
“It is not uncommon for us to have clients … who have had vacancies upward of one year,” Meyenberg said. “It’s especially brutal for nonprofits that don’t have as many tools … to attract people from the talent market or get them to stay.”
Habitat Philadelphia, with a staff of 63, has also implemented time for less tenured employees to recharge, implementing days of rest last year. The program was re-upped for this year, with four Fridays designated as non-work days for everyone. The organization also closed between Christmas and New Year’s Day last year.
Habitat builds, repairs and sells affordable homes to first-time homeowners in Philadelphia. That means the hours aren’t always the typical 9-to-5, and the work can be taxing.
“We can have the boldest, most audacious vision and strategic plan and goals. But if we don’t have the talented team to turn the lights on and deliver on it, nothing happens,” O’Connell said.
All sorts of organizations are experimenting with various methods for easing burnout, Meyenberg said. She noticed that many more nonprofits closed down during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day last year, marking a shift from previous years. Sabbaticals, like what Habitat is offering, are still somewhat rare, she added.
Nonprofit law firm Regional Housing Legal Services has offered sabbaticals — four weeks off for every seven years of tenure — for about a decade. Some employees are now on their second sabbatical, having worked at RHLS 14 years or more.
“I can’t tell you that it keeps people from leaving, but I can tell you that we haven’t had a lot of turnover,” executive director Dina Schlossberg said. She said nobody has ever come back from their sabbatical with a new job offer in hand.
Schlossberg noted the changing dynamic in public interest work. When she started out, the general sentiment was that anyone doing this passion work should be grateful to have the opportunity. It justified low pay and long hours.
“People can’t continue with that kind of attitude or motivation, because people have to eat,” Schlossberg said. “People need to be recognized for the value of what they’re doing.”
RHLS can’t pay even its most experienced lawyers comparable to what a first-year lawyer at a big law firm makes, she said, but it has stayed competitive with other public interest law firms. The organization also offers annual paid time off, four weeks of paid parental leave, and time off for all employees between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
At William Way LGBT Community Center, which has a staff of 16 and two more open positions, leaders found time off in the summer to be most useful for burnout. They began offering Fridays off from June to mid-September. This year, they also closed the center for two weeks to allow for staff to unplug. One of those weeks was used for management to conduct strategic planning on how to incorporate rest into the organization, chief operating officer Darius McLean said.
In implementing the additional rest days, he said, they framed it to community members as “we all have to take care of ourselves.” They worked on putting out messages about the closure ahead of time, so employees wouldn’t come back to a barrage of messages and requests.
“I’d rather serve 10 people extremely well than to reach 1,000 people in the city and they just know who we are,” McLean said.
Not every organization can swing extended time off for employees. Michele Gilbert, chief people officer at Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank, said her organization wouldn’t be able to offer sabbaticals. But it does offer vacation depending on tenure, and it closed between Christmas and New Year’s last year to give people time to unplug all at once.
Still, Gilbert said, “for me, I’m not convinced that PTO is the silver bullet for burnout.” She said it’s more important to divvy up the work, particularly the emotionally taxing work, on a regular basis.
She said Philabundance added additional layers to its employee assistance plan, which offers confidential counseling and referrals to counselors and therapists, during the pandemic.
The nonprofit also sees training as a major part of its retention and burnout prevention strategy. Each month, the entire 180-employee organization has an “employee engagement day” with professional development training for all roles, which includes mental health content and how the nonprofit’s mission affects the community.
Gilbert also noted one more important element to retention: pay. Philabundance recently conducted a salary adjustment “and made sure we could pay people their value.” This came after the nonprofit saw its revenue and workforce balloon in the pandemic due to increased demand for services.
“You still have to be competitive. I want the best of the best,” she said. “I’m literally trying to solve world hunger. I need to have brilliant people here.”