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13 tips for staying motivated in your CSR career!

Staying motivated in your career, no matter the time of year (but espeically in the middle of summer) can be a tricky skill to master. The question of how to get motivated (or how to get your staff motivated) is an important one in any sector. We spoke with a number of experts to find tips on motivation for people working in nonprofits, social enterprises and charities (the social sector).

What motivates people?

Dr. Michael Bassous who specializes in human behavior at work, and who has worked in the nonprofit sector, says, “Whereas workers in the labor market are generally motivated based on the fulfillment of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the emergence of each level of needs rests upon the satisfaction and fulfillment of the previous level…for many nonprofit workers, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be inverted or un-sequential; esteem and self-actualization needs may be of same significance as lower needs – physiological and safety needs.”

Jennifer Moss, cofounder of employee engagement platform Plasticity Labs and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work says that while lack of employee motivation is an epidemic, employees in the social sector are generally more engaged.

This is because employees in the social sector are more often driven by the cause.

What demotivates people in the social sector?

But while employees are attracted to the sector because of its purposeful nature (increasingly true among Millennials and younger employees) and are often willing to make substantial trade-offs for their cause, this isn’t the end of the story when it comes to motivation. In fact there are several ways in which social sector employees are particularly prone to become demotivated.

  1. Compassion fatigue. Moss says, “Compassion fatigue can be a by-product of caring about what you do. People who are purpose-driven in their work can become demotivated by being depleted and exhausted from giving.” Bender adds that this is a result of “constantly giving without giving to yourself.” The General Social Survey of 2016 found additionally that the more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel at work.
  2. Loss of hope resulting from outside factors. Plasticity Labs regularly assesses happiness among workers in Canada and the US: Moss notes, “Hopelessness is hurting nonprofit organizations.” Less political factors can also play a role in demotivation: one former ED in Alberta notes that the downturn in the provincial economy has had an enormous impact on motivation.
  3. Decision making disengagement. According to surveys of nonprofit employees by TalentMap an increasing numbers of staff are disengaging as they don’t have input into decisions and directions that affect their own ability to contribute to their cause, distancing them from that sense of purpose that engaged them in the first place.

So, what to do?

Bender, whose background was as a disability manager and who today offers Mental Health First Aid workshops, says it’s important to pay attention to your health and well-being, and how you are coping, and communicating that, especially when you need help — before you get burned out. Setting priorities is important: not everything can be done at 100%, immediately. Bender says, “This means creating boundaries around how much you can give. You can be absolutely committed to the mission, but don’t sacrifice your health to it — partly because nothing is more important than your health, and partly because if you neglect your health, you won’t be able to contribute.”

Bender encourages clients to create a self-care plan and to actually use it — beginning with changes as small as adding more water to their diet.

Practical motivation tips

Sometimes, we may be generally practicing good self-care but we just don’t feel like working on a particular day. Here are some tips for building motivation on those days:

1. Don’t wait to feel motivated. Psychology writer Oliver Burkeman notes in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking: “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated…If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realize that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.”

2. Create a simple routine or habit to get motivated, just as sports players have pre-game routines that help signal to them that it’s time to play ball. Keep in mind that it takes longer to form a habit than we think: according to researcher Philippa Lally, it can take months to form a new habit. Leadership coach Kathy Archer adds, “We only have so much willpower in a day and it gets depleted. Create a habit where you don’t have to think or motivate yourself – and take the thinking out of it.”

3. Reduce any friction that stands in the way of motivation. Moss had a colleague who struggled to exercise and so slept in workout clothes and put his shoes at the end of the bed.

4. Practise the Pomodoro Technique where you work for 25 minutes without interruption, and then take a break.

5. Mix it up. Bender says it’s important to bring a playful approach to our work, to find new ways of challenging ourselves, rather than slogging through the same old-same old in the same old way.

6. Talk to yourself, says Archer. Be aware of the thoughts that make your brain wander, and talk yourself into doing a task, rather than out of it. She adds, “Assess your resistance. What are you afraid of? If you really did that task, where might it get you? Do you really want that? Are you properly resourced for it?”

7. Use what psychologists call “structured procrastination”, where you turn to smaller, easier tasks even if that means ignoring the bigger task really needs our attention.

8. Practice gratitude. Especially for people struggling with low hope, Moss recommends the nightly practice of gratitude journaling, noting that science shows that gratitude is very influential on motivation even for seemingly unrelated activities. Similarly, she encourages people to step back and look at cycles within organizations and society both to understand and reframe what is going on, and to also build resiliency by seeing how struggles have made them stronger.

9. Schedule self-care late in the day. This is Bender’s favourite tip, she says, because it means that people always have something to look forward to, regardless of how their day has gone.

10. Don’t rely on caffeine to keep you going. Instead consider walking meetings, drinking water, or simply getting up and walking around for a few minutes.

11. Feeling sick? Go home for the afternoon rather than going through the motions.

12. Come back to your passion and where you can have an impact, Archer advises, rather than remaining stuck in the heavy weight of frustrations beyond your control.

13. Reward yourself after accomplishing a task. This could be as small as allowing yourself to check social media after finishing a task.

Know when to fold ‘em

Sometimes, the Mondays arrive early: if you find yourself with an impending sense of dread every Sunday night because you have no motivation to return to work, it may be time to re-evaluate.

Bender says, “Everyone has days where they have to push through and find motivation, but it depends on how frequently this happens.” She advises clients who have lost their passion to figure out what has contributed to them feeling this way, and to make the necessary changes to take care of themselves and to recover their passion.

Sometimes this means leaving the organization. Bender says, “Even if you love the cause you are working for, if your values aren’t aligned and especially if your organization doesn’t treat its employees well, you will likely get more tired. You won’t be able to fulfill your passion for the cause because you will become sick.”

Moss says, “We tend to blame ourselves if something isn’t working, but knowing you aren’t happy and are becoming depleted is a reason to leave.” Moss also advises people in this situation to get support in place before leaving—such as a therapist—so leaving can be a healthy decision.

There’s probably no human being who wakes up every single day completely thrilled about their work, but whether our lack of motivation is temporary or ongoing, as people who work in a caring sector, we have a responsibility to pay attention to our own needs and that of our employees so that we can truly accomplish our mission of doing good.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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Susan Fish

Susan Fish

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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