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November 30, 2022

How can you manage burnout and fatigue as a communications professional?

Sarah Boison

Should we strive for work-life balance or work-life harmony? Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Sarah Boison, digital strategist, about how we can support our colleagues, and ourselves, when we are experiencing burnout.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner of Big Duck. Today we’re going to talk about how you can manage burnout and fatigue as a communications professional, which is a topic I’m sure is on many of your minds and something that has been, I think, in the conversation at least since 2020. A lot of people have been talking more about this issue and it came up when I was chatting with my friend Sarah, and I’m excited that she’s here with us.
Farra Trompeter: So, let me tell you a little bit about Sarah Boison. Sarah uses she/her/hers pronouns. She is a digital strategist with over a decade worth of experience in public service and nonprofit roles. Sarah previously served as the director of digital communications at The Climate Reality Project and the digital director for Communities In Schools. I got to meet Sarah through the magical world of NTEN at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, and we have been in touch ever since–found lots of mutual connections and things to talk about including this very topic. Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah Boison: So excited to be here.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, so great to have you. So, as we were just saying in your bio, you’ve worked in a lot of different nonprofits, held a lot of different communications positions, different vantage points, and I’m curious if you could talk a little bit more about your journey.

Sarah Boison: My journey was not at all straightforward. Initially, when I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my career, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a print journalist, I wanted to write and cover stories. I wanted to travel around the country and be able to kind of really tell a lot of the vast and rich stories across America. And I think for me, part of that pivot actually happened in college where I realized that I really wanted to have an opinion. And I think during that time there weren’t as many like, I guess, pundits as people who are, who you see, like, on CNN or MSNBC, who really come forth with, like, their own opinions, even on, you know, like Fox News, too. So, you know, things were still kind of level headed. So for me, I was like, oh, I want to advocate for certain things in particular.

Sarah Boison: So, I actually found myself going down the public relations route, and I thought that, okay, maybe I’ll work and do media relations at a PR firm. I wanted to live in New York. I just had these big city girl dreams, and while I was in college we had the recession. Once I graduated, I found myself competing with a lot of people who had been out of work for quite a while and had a lot more experience than me and were willing to kind of take pay cuts in order to just kind of get whatever they could get. So, it was just incredibly hard for me to break through in the kind of, like, the for-profit sector. So I actually landed in a nonprofit sector by chance. It wasn’t something that I had initially planned for. Nobody had ever sat down and talked to me about, like, “Oh, you should do public service.”

Sarah Boison: One of my former employers, they gave me a chance based off of a lot of the work that I was just doing as a hobby. For me, digital was always something that I was just personally passionate about and it quite frankly was a hobby, and I turned it into a career. So, that’s kind of how I ended up in the nonprofit sector and I’ve been here ever since. You know, I’ve kind of found my niche in terms of being able to go to different organizations and show them how they can harness digital media in order to help propel their mission. So, it’s been a fantastic ride so far, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what’s next.

Farra Trompeter: No, I love that. And one of the things you were saying earlier really resonated with me. When I was in college, I studied Poli-Sci. I thought, oh, maybe I’ll go into politics, and I had this moment of, like, well actually it looks like to succeed in politics, you really have to kind of sell your soul and make a lot of compromises. And you know what, I wound up switching my major to psychology and eventually got into the wonderful world of communications and fundraising for nonprofits. It’s kind of funny how we go on that journey and where we find ourselves along the way and just being open to learning and thinking differently. So, I appreciate your sharing that.

Farra Trompeter: So, the past two years, or three, really, at this point, have really been stressful for all of us, and I know you and I have discussed in previous conversations how COVID really completely changed how we work and how we live. When we were prepping for this call, one of the things that you mentioned is that in a previous job at The Climate Reality Project, you were steeped in famine, flood, and fire and how much your professional life had really just had extra intensity to it because of the mission of the organization. And it really reminded me of other conversations I’ve had with folks who work with survivors of intimate partner violence, hate crimes, assault, and other attacks, and that whole vicarious trauma that they’ve experienced. And so I suspect this topic is really alive with folks who do work on the front lines, maybe not as much in communications, but I’m curious how it showed up for you and how you managed that.

Sarah Boison: For me, one of the things that I often remind people about is that when you come across people who work in the digital space, whether they’re managing social media or email websites or they’re a community manager, managing small or large communities, we are exposed to very large amounts of negative content. Just as we’re exposed to a lot of positive, uplifting content that we can point to, we are also bombarded with messages of gloom and doom and facts and things that we have to honestly pour through on a daily basis. And for me, while I was at Climate Reality, it was my first foray really focused on environment, and it was a learning opportunity for me too. Like, there were issues regarding climate change and the climate crisis that I was already familiar with, but then in that role, there were details and things that I was quite honestly just finding out for the first time. A lot of information that honestly doesn’t reach people. And I think I started to realize how dire the situation was. With working in digital, I’m seeing that information coming to me in multiple forms, reports, it’s coming to me in the form of advocacy from other organizations, and we’re also ourselves, we’re on the front lines, like, really trying to encourage the administration to take action.

Sarah Boison: While I didn’t land in the non-profit sector by choice, I feel like I do have the heart of someone who fits well in the nonprofit sector. I’m just such a humanitarian at heart. But oftentimes it doesn’t always lend itself well to digital because you want to save and help everybody and you just can’t. And I feel like a lot of times I found myself in a position where I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do. “What can be done?” I think last year I really started to be more aggressive about taking wellness days, about taking mental health days. And not just taking them and telling my colleagues, “Hey, I’m taking a day off,” but actually being intentional and, like, being transparent and saying, “I really need to take this day off. There’s a lot that’s happened around the world in external things that I can’t change, and I need to take a breather.” And that breather wasn’t even just work. Sometimes it’d be like, “I’m not getting on social media today.” Or maybe instead of watching the news, I’m listening to a podcast or maybe I’m reading or you know, maybe I’m actually out in the world trying to spend time with people as much as I could. You know, given the COVID-19 pandemic, that looked differently.

Sarah Boison: One of the things that I was just really mindful of, too, and having spent a good chunk of my career in education, that was actually something that I noticed when I had transitioned into environment, and I’ve been very vocal about this. One of the reasons why I transitioned away from education for a little bit was primarily because of the COVID-19 crisis. It just did a number on a lot of families. A lot of students lost parents, a lot of students lost resources when schools shut down. A lot of people forget that students, oftentimes their main meal is when they’re at school. And as a communications and a digital professional, I had to absorb those stories. We were talking to students first hand who were in tears. That doesn’t just go away, right? It sits with you because if you want to do right by the people that you’re talking to in telling their story, it’s not just a passive thing. You’re getting to know these people on a real personal level. And it was a lot, and it’s something that I don’t think enough professionals talk about is the aspect of storytelling where we are taking in and learning more and hearing people’s stories and their stories are not over. They’re still in it. So that’s the part for me that was like, “Wow, what can I do?” And it got to a point where I had to set boundaries. I had to tell myself, “You know what? I need to take a step back.” I needed to literally restore my spirit because otherwise, I felt like I’m not going to be able to do my best job if I wasn’t at a hundred percent.

Farra Trompeter: Wow. Thanks for sharing all of that. Switching gears for a moment. Every day it feels like there’s a new communications channel or a tactic that comes out, and we know the nonprofit community is engaged on many platforms and they are certainly there beyond the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday work schedule. And as you mentioned, being in digital, and being in communications, can feel like it’s a 24/7 nonstop demand to show up. And how do you achieve work-life balance when it is that kind of world we’re operating in and our audiences are expecting us to comment back when they post something on Sunday at 1 p.m. or whenever it may be?

Sarah Boison: So, I have a hot take and that’s that I’m not sure I believe in work-life balance. I used to be a huge proponent on my social channels. I was all about the hustle and then work hard, play hard, and yes, I can have it all. As I’ve gotten older, I realize how that idea is a little bit naive for me anyway. Everybody’s different but I think for me, I’ve realized I need to better achieve work-life harmony.

Sarah Boison: So figuring out, am I working at an organization that’s aligned with my personal ideals? And not even just, like, my personal ethos, like, what I believe in and how I want to help people, but also, like, what kind of life do I want to have as an individual? Do I want to be able to log off and it’s not midnight? Do I want to be able to make sure that I am working on a team that understands that I need to spend time with my partner and my family and my loved ones to be able to continue to build those critical connections? And that’s something that is, quite honestly, still evolving for me. And it’s something that I realize there are going to be days where I am killing it at work. Usually, when I’m killing it at work, my personal life is suffering a little bit, and I’m speaking from current experience where it’s just like you’re working and everything is getting done and your boss is just like, “This is great. Everybody’s giving you props,” and then you’re home and your partner is like, “I haven’t seen you in three days.”

Sarah Boison: So, I’m really trying to manage that, and it’s hard because as communications professionals, if a crisis comes up or if something happens that’s outside of our control, we have to respond to it. And especially now with digital, people are picking up on the news faster than the news itself. Some people are reporting ahead of the news, and if it’s about you, if it’s about your organization or the work that you’re doing, you just feel a sense of urgency to get in front of that, and it can be very hard to give yourself grace sometimes, but I’ve learned and, one of the things we talk about here, like, in my household, is give yourself grace, not excuses. That’s probably my mantra for the rest of the year because now I realize that it’s okay. It’s okay if I’m dropping a few balls here in this area cause I know it’s temporary. I’m going to come back to it. I’m going to figure out what I’m going to do.

Sarah Boison: The thing that I’ve also realized,” and I think it’s something that we can all continuously improve on, is communicating with the people around me and just saying, I actually can’t do this right now, but here’s what I can do in this moment,” or, “Hey, I can’t do this right now, but you know what, in about a few days from now I would have wrapped this and I can come back to whatever it is you need from me or whatever it is you need me to do.” And I think just being able to manage people’s expectations around me is one of the things that I have found incredibly helpful in terms of figuring out how I can achieve that harmony.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I love that idea of work-life harmony and all the things you said about grace. I’m definitely thinking about that. I was on a plane recently where I was coming home on a Friday night and I knew I had an inbox of 300 emails and I was like, “Okay, I can spend time on the plane, catch up on my inbox,” and I was like, “You know what? I’m exhausted. I worked hard all week. I was away for work. I really just want to read a book and not think about this.” And the emails in the inbox, you know what, they’re going to be there. They’re going to be there if I decide to get to them over the weekend or on Monday morning. They’re not going anywhere. If I write back to people on Friday night, they’re not reading it until Monday anyway. So, maybe it’s okay if I hold that off. So, I appreciate that. It’s definitely something I have been working on in my own practice.

Farra Trompeter: And I want to just mention, we did a podcast, my colleague Hannah Thomas, a previous colleague, interviewed one of our clients, Fatima Jones from Apollo Theater, all about protecting one’s time and how wellbeing can play into decision making, that we’ll link to in the show notes. And then also another colleague in the world of mine, Michelle Shireen Muri, has a podcast called The Ethical Rainmaker, and she had a great conversation a few months ago with Marina Martinez-Bateman about toxic productivity. And I think all of these things are all related. And again, we’ll link to those in the show notes.

Farra Trompeter: So, the idea of burnout, this obviously is something that comes up in frequent conversations and I’m curious, how does burnout impact the people around you or impact you when others are burnt out, right? What do you do when, you mentioned in the last conversation, like, you need to communicate more, you need to let other people know what’s going on with you, when you need that time, or when you need to take time in one part of your life that you won’t be able to give to the others. But what happens when you’re working with people and you can see that they’re burnt out? So, however you want to address this, I know there’s a lot to unpack here.

Sarah Boison: Yeah. With burnout, I think especially now being, hopefully, on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way where we at least have a sense of how to navigate it a little bit better. I feel that, as a professional, we’ve become more transparent with our colleagues about what is going on with us. I just feel like, prior to the pandemic, people would be going through something and they would just take time off and just kind of disappear and then come back. And if you were close with that colleague, you would probably have some sort of sense of what’s going on, but other than that, it wasn’t really like a team discussion, or people broadly on that team might not know what’s going on. With COVID-19 and, I think, with a lot of people having to go into some sort of either remote or hybrid function, I think the lines between work and home have blurred so much that people absolutely have to communicate to their team when something is going on.

Sarah Boison: When the pandemic happened, I pretty much went remote, and I’m not currently remote per se, I’m more hybrid, but I’ve pretty much had the opportunity to work from home these past two years. And so I have seen how it has shifted how we communicate with each other. Because we’re not meeting with our colleagues as frequently in person, I feel like you can tell that burnout is impacting morale because people don’t want to be on camera, and people don’t want to talk. Zoom fatigue. Please just send me an email with five bullet points so I can just go about my day. You can just feel it a little bit more. I think people wore their masks a little bit better when they had to go into the office cause I was like, “Alright, I have to be on,” and then you also had that physical separation from work and home. So if something was going on at home you were like, “I’m going to deal with it when I get back there unless it’s urgent,” right? And then that means you have to physically leave work to go deal with it. But now, some people are working from home so if there’s a crisis at home, I’ve had so many colleagues be like, “Hey, can you please give me grace? My child is sick. My child needs set up for virtual school.” And we’ve had to lean into that. We’ve had to kind of come together as a team and not necessarily come up with formal plans, but be able to say, “How can we support you? What are the things that we can do to take some of the load off of you?” And I’ve seen that happen over the past two years where it’s been more of a team conversation of, “Look, there’s a lot going on. If you need to take time off, please do. Let’s come up with a plan to figure out who will cover you.”

Sarah Boison: Granted, this should always be built in. I’m a proponent, no matter if you work at an organization, a company, a government, wherever, there should always be someone who also knows how to do some of the things you do so that you can take a break. That’s just the truth, right? A lot of us became remote workers for a bit, so to speak. I think we were able to really be able to see if the work culture was contributing to that burnout because if it carried over into the home, I feel like it exacerbated, I feel like it just got even that much bigger. Like, if you were already stressed out, now you’re stressed out at home and you’re stressed out at home at work. I think people really reached their breaking point and had to confide in their colleagues and say, “Look, I can’t answer this email at 7 p.m. I need to have dinner with my family,” or, “I need to go take care of a sick parent. I cannot take this call at 7 p.m. That, by the way, we wouldn’t have anyway if we were going into the office.”

Sarah Boison: Those are all things that, I feel like, has shown up now because of the pandemic. For me and for other people who are probably thinking about, like, “How do we support our colleagues, and honestly, how do we support ourselves if we feel like we start to experience burnout?” One of the things that I’ve personally started to do is to just be completely transparent with my boss. Like, “Hey, you’ve just assigned 10 things to me, and I already told you that five of these things are time sensitive and now there’s more stuff coming.” I’ll usually be upfront and say, “Hey, there were some things that I had already planned or had set aside and things that I need to tackle. It’s not that this won’t get done, it’s just that let’s work together to find a timeline that is realistic and achievable for both of us.” `Recognizing that that conversation doesn’t always work either, but the answer is always going to be “no” if you don’t have the conversation so you’re better off having it. And honestly, for me, having that conversation has actually helped to set examples for some of my other bosses. Like, they’ve started taking time off. They started prioritizing their family. Sometimes it’s the nudge they need, too, to say, “No, I’m not going to review this item at 4:55 p.m. I’m going to go pick up my child. Goodbye.” And that’s fine. And as their colleague, I need to be supportive of that. If we’re working together towards a goal, which is whatever, meeting the mission of that organization, as a team, the stuff that impacts us individually, we’re people, right? We’re people who are helping to get the work done, and if we’re supporting the people, ultimately, you’re also supporting the work.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot here to think about. A lot of my own behaviors to question. I want to wrap things up. I love to give people some things they can think about, and possibly do for themselves. There’s already been a lot of great nuggets of wisdom. You mentioned, you know, you want to unwind, listen to a podcast, like, hey, tune into some. We’ve got over a hundred episodes of The Smart Communications Podcast. You can do that, but really, what are some suggestions you have for communications professionals to manage their own fatigue and prevent burnout? What’s worked for you or maybe other people you know?

Sarah Boison: Right now I have four things that really come to mind. The first one is to take a break. So, for communications and digital professionals, we are constantly writing, we are constantly reading, and studying, and having to absorb information and then distill it down into content and messaging that makes sense to a broader audience. That’s work. And it can be very exhausting, sometimes mentally. I’ve found that, in the pandemic, I have a lot more writer’s block than I did prior to that because there’s just so much going on and sometimes I’m like, “I just can’t.” And it’s just been helpful for me to kind of take a break away, specifically, from the devices. One of the things that I’m trying to be better at is if I’m working from home, I don’t typically have the TV on just because it, more than likely, it’s going to be on the news, and then as soon as something happens, that could be a complete disruptor to my day, right? So that’s kind of a boundary that I’ve set for myself personally.

Sarah Boison: But also an easy way to do it is, like, lunchtime. Admittedly, I’m trying to get better at this. Actually taking a lunch break. Like, not eating your lunch in front of the computer while still trying to answer emails and do work. And even if it’s like, “Oh, I don’t have another space,” just shutting off my computer and, like, actually enjoying the lunch that I’m eating, you know? It’s helpful. It’s helpful for creativity. And ultimately, if you’re someone who has paid leave and paid time off, take it. I went on a vacation to New Orleans recently. I felt like I was on the verge of burnout. I didn’t even take that many days. I came back with renewed creativity. I had all these ideas and I felt like they were there, but I just needed the space to, like, not think about anything serious for a few days and just kind of relax and have fun. I mean, as adults, we should have more fun, right?

Farra Trompeter: Nothing a beignet and some live jazz can’t fix.

Sarah Boison: Yeah, exactly. It was very much, I guess you can say the medication that I needed in that moment. So, I highly recommend taking a break. The other thing and I’ve mentioned it so far, is to communicate. There is power in asking for help. This is geared specifically toward my fellow nonprofit communications professionals. Because a lot of us are like, “We can do it all. We can do the jobs of three people. Our capacity is short,” you know, capacity, that’s the buzzword. And sometimes we really need to say, “No, I cannot do the jobs of three or four people. Here is what I can do, and let’s figure out what makes the most sense,” and also saying, “Hey, I need help. I cannot do this by myself. I cannot do this in a silo. I need assistance.” It’s okay. And I hope that more people lean into that. It can be very difficult for people to ask for help. It’s difficult for me. But I have found that when I do ask for help, the irony is that the work actually gets done faster.

Sarah Boison: And the other thing is to set boundaries. I know that’s something that everybody is working on,I’m working on. Every day cannot be work 24/7. It just can’t. I know, again, with communication, sometimes it can be an all-hands-on-deck effort and there could be a crisis or there could be something going on and we have to show up. But there’s also times where I feel like we need to get better at saying no and showing up for ourselves and saying, “I really can’t do this right now,” or, “Hey, I understand that this is important. Let’s figure out, maybe there’s a better way to do this. Maybe this particular approach is something that maybe can be modified so that we can actually take care of ourselves in the way we need.”

Sarah Boison: And the last thing, this is more, I think, for organizations to think about. So for leaders, people who have the ability to kind of think about their team structure, I just really feel like we have got to do a better job at making sure that communication professionals have either, like, a deputy or a backup or somebody who also understands the work that they’re doing. Because I just have heard so many stories about people who have not been able to take a break. “I have to get this press release out, I have to get this social post out. If I don’t get it out, like, it’s like the world is on fire,” and then it’s like nothing gets solved until they get sick. The person is sick, they’re out.

Sarah Boison: I think COVID really revealed that because I don’t wish Covid on anybody. I had it recently and I was down for the count and my team showed up for me. It was great. And it was one of those things where I think people also learned how much I do. And it just was a reminder to me, and to everybody else, that you cannot be the only person on your team that knows how to do something. I feel like you’re already on the road to burnout if that is the case for you, and I just highly recommend, like, team leads, leaders, and organizations, and quite frankly, like, I’d advocate, like, if you’re just an employee at an organization and you know that you’re the only person that knows how to do a certain thing, honestly start advocating for yourself to make sure that somebody else also knows how to do it. They don’t need to know how to do your whole job, but if there is an aspect that you know could potentially cause you burnout, having somebody else who also knows how to do it might help to alleviate the pressure on a day where maybe you have competing deadlines and you know somebody else can kind of step in and take a little bit off for you so you can focus on something else. So, all of those things I think are pretty important, and hopefully, we can all, as one community, work together to just kind of make sure that burnout isn’t something that people are experiencing every day.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I want to just jump into the last comment you were talking about with team structure. Just two thoughts came to mind. One is I actually did a podcast with Amy Sample Ward from NTEN about continuity planning, and at NTEN every staff has a continuity plan, it’s not just the CEO, and there’s backup for who can do what if someone has to be out in an expected or unexpected way and really dividing up people’s jobs doesn’t have to all go to one person. And at Big Duck, one of the things that we do is, we try to have handbooks or documentation for a lot of the core things we do so that if all of a sudden Jen, our marketing manager is out, and I’m like, “Oh no, I have to send out the e-news. I don’t remember what our login is. I don’t know how to send our e-newsletter out. I haven’t done that in years,” I can go to the handbook and it reminds me of the steps I need to take. So, sometimes even just documenting some of the core processes that you do can be helpful to know it’s written somewhere everyone on the team has access to it. Even if your backup isn’t there, there’s backup for the backup. So just thinking about that last point, I think there’s a lot for people to consider and dive into.

Farra Trompeter: Well, Sarah, I’ve loved talking to you as always. I appreciate your sharing your ideas and everything you’ve been through. If you’re out there and you’d like to connect with Sarah, you can find her @SarahBoison, that’s S-A-R-A-H-B-O-I-S-O-N, on Twitter and on LinkedIn. Sarah, thank you so much for being here. You’ve shared so much, but is there anything else you want to say before we wrap up?

Sarah Boison: Yeah, I just want to remind people, give yourself grace. There’s so much going on in the world and there’s so much that we can’t control. Take things one day at a time and just know that we’re all working towards such powerful missions and give yourself some breathing room to say, “You know what, let me rest. Let me recover, and then let me come back, and we can join that great fight together,” but take care of yourself, too.

Farra Trompeter: Yes, everyone out there do take care of yourselves, and have a great rest of your day.