Balance in Service

083117_tightropeBy Chelsea Elkins, Peace Corps Volunteer and Friend of Simple Intentions

My time working at Simple Intentions began almost 2 years ago and the bittersweet feeling that comes with a last day of work was just a few weeks ago. The significance of working for a company committed to disrupting workplace patterns of imbalance and burnout was not lost on me – as my own experience with burnout in the nonprofit sector still lingered when I started.

I was fresh out of college when I got my first job in the public health field, working as a Housing Specialist at a HIV/AIDS Center in Los Angeles. There were some issues with the role that are common with a career in non-profits: high workload, lack of resources, understaffing issues, a pay that was not quite comparable to my peers, and the mildly chaotic feeling that comes when an org with positive intentions simply can’t offer the funding and support needed to its employees. Those are all challenges that can be tricky to navigate but, with the right tools, are manageable.

After all, the reason why I took that job was I cared. I cared about the issue and about the population I was serving. I thought because I cared, because I was passionate, I’d be able to jump over any professional hurdles with ease. However, I soon learned that something as positive as passion can also be a driver of imbalance if you don’t set boundaries.

And that was my real issue: boundaries. Boundaries with my co-workers, with my clients, but mostly with myself. I fully admit to having a tumultuous relationship with ‘No’ and I was filled with remorse each time I used the word with a client seeking housing assistance.

“No, there’s nothing available.”

“No, your rental application was denied.”

“No, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”

Though I wasn’t allowed to work overtime, I clocked in extra mental hours each night preoccupied with my clients sleeping on the streets and wondering who I wouldn’t be able to help the following day. As one might imagine, I began to develop a very unhealthy relationship with work.

I would dread Monday morning almost as soon as I’d step out the door Friday evening. I started to eat lunch anywhere besides the office, seeking temporary refuge at coffee shops or parking garages – until one co-worker pointed out while walking by one day, “Your car is not a lunchroom.” I had become Cady Heron on the first day of school, eating lunch in a bathroom stall.

My lunch habits did evolve and I eventually stopped taking lunch breaks altogether, instead scarfing down food in front of my computer in an attempt to manage my growing caseload. I was constantly anxious, adrenalin and stress hormones flooding – and I lacked the awareness to realize that I was spiraling out of control.

The road bumps that come with working at a non-profit suddenly seemed impossible feats as I had never been taught, never been equipped with the tools to protect myself from burnout. It wasn’t until a client stopped in the middle of yelling at me to ask if I was alright (my eyes had done the unthinkable and were shedding tears against my will), did I realize I had pushed myself too far. I had reached my

limit, a form of emotional exhaustion that years later would be described to me as a brutal climax of “compassion fatigue.” I gave my notice a few weeks later.

I learned a lot from that experience, although it remains one of my most painful failures. That was never the perfect job for me – and part of me knew that going into the role. But if I had some of the perspective I have now, I could have walked away with a better experience and less strain on my mental health. My story is not unique – a continual fight against stress and burnout can often feel like the norm in the nonprofit sector, or in any service oriented role regardless of field or title.

I find myself now with an incredible new challenge in front of me as I prepare to depart as a Peace Corps Volunteer to promote health and HIV Prevention in vulnerable youth in Lesotho. I know I will face many of the same challenges I came up against as a Housing Specialist. One of the differences this time is that I have the awareness to recognize when I start to spiral – and some knowhow to get my balance back before the spinning begins. A peer who works at United Way beautifully compared working in service to walking a tightrope. Below the rope is the knowledge that this work will always be needed. Most problems in our world will not be completely solved in our lifetimes. You can look down on this from two angles. From one angle, this knowledge can overwhelm you, depress you, discourage you. It can be debilitating and infuse a sense of futility in your work. You might be tempted to walk backwards off the tightrope.

But from the other angle? It can empower you. It’s a constant reminder that this work (whatever it is) will always matter – and it will always be important. You are empowered to continue your journey, whatever may come on the other side.

I looked from one side a few years ago and I think I’ll choose to look from the other side during this next chapter. My favorite thing I learned at Simple Intentions is that we always can choose and re-choose whenever we wish.

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