On Stress, Sabbaticals, and Systems Change: Tributaries October 2021

“Maria, I don’t have any fight left in me,” my friend told me recently over lunch. She shared the impact that years of organizing and advocating were having on her. Her exhaustion was palpable. We talked in whispers, careful not to let the people around us hear us commiserate about the challenges of running organizations, managing people, raising money, and holding space for our communities’ hopes and dreams. The pressure to keep up appearances in public weighed heavily on both of us. As two women of color in leadership, we recognized how intense the pressure is to be everything to everybody.

I wish I could say that this conversation was unique. In the past year, several friends and colleagues shared similar sentiments. What I hear in their stories is a sense of shame for feeling so tired. The responsibility of leadership—particularly for women, BIPOC folks, and queer and trans folks—is incredibly heavy. It comes with expectations to be exceptional, to represent all people who share our identities, to know just the right thing to say, and to be impervious to stress and exhaustion.

The weight is crushing.

The realities of the past 18 months have only exacerbated the problems leaders were already facing. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to further isolate people. Continued state violence against Black people; the attacks on reproductive rights; and the murder, kidnapping, and trafficking of Indigenous women have all increased a sense of fear and anxiety. The leaders I know are in a constant state of vigilance—sifting through the events of the day to identify and address the most urgent issues only to find themselves buried under a heap of problems that cannot be ignored.

We have to name this experience for what it is: trauma. Human beings have only so much capacity to cope with conflict, stress, fear, and anxiety. Trauma seeps into one’s whole self all the way to the molecular level. It impacts our homes, our relationships, our bodies, and our minds. In my case, I have been coping with severe trauma from my past, and I have sought out therapy to process my experiences. I learned that my trauma manifests itself in severe panic attacks, a deep sense of loneliness and isolation, and physical pain. The layers of stress caused by the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, holding my team together, and more caused all of my symptoms to worsen.

Meanwhile, popular culture and social media promote self-care practices that require time, money, and proximity to luxury. Yes, of course, a mani/pedi provides a nice 90-minute escape. A nap on a Saturday afternoon is a relaxing respite. But how do we address the long-term impact of working for racial justice? How do we make enough room for people to be simply human? How do we support leaders to not just survive but to thrive?

The hard truth is that change must happen at the systemic and institutional level. The nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are depleting people, treating them like expendable resources. These systems are rooted in racial capitalism and white supremacy, which commodify Black and Brown people, protect and grow the wealth of a few, and maintain the status quo.

In particular, the philanthropic sector perpetuates these problems by creating a false sense of scarcity. It pits people against each other to compete for crumbs, all the while trying to convince them of its benevolence. If funders truly valued leaders, they would support them to care for their employees and themselves.

One way is to provide people with sabbaticals. At Headwaters, we have a practice of providing all full-time employees with the opportunity to take a six-week sabbatical after five years of service. Staff receive their full salary during that time and there are no expectations on them to do anything other than rest. The benefit is not reserved solely for me as President. Providing sabbaticals to people in administrative and support roles is critical—they are the folks often managing the most important details of an organization.  

In 2019, I took a sabbatical right before taking the helm at Headwaters. For the first time in my career, I truly disconnected from work. I spent my days walking my dogs, cooking for my family, and reading books. By the time my sabbatical was coming to a close, I felt ready to take on the next phase of my work as Headwaters’ new leader. More importantly, I came back ready to lead my staff in a way that demonstrated my care for their whole persons.

Another way is to reframe transitions. Gone are the days when people stay in a job for 20 or 30 years. The thought of transitioning out of an organization is met with a lot of pressure from donors, funders, and community members to stay put as a sign of stability. In fact, sometimes funders withhold support when a leader signals their departure to external stakeholders. Additionally, leaders often feel an incredible responsibility to the organization, so they will not even mention transitioning until they are completely burned out. This is not only a detriment to the individual but also to the organization and the community it serves.

What if we thought of transitions as leadership development opportunities? In a conversation with a long-time CEO about best practices for transition planning, this question stopped me in my tracks. I’d been in conversations with other leaders who urged me to start transition planning, even though I’ve only been President of Headwaters for two years. “I’m not ready to leave! My work isn’t done yet,” I responded.

By helping me to reframe transition planning as leadership development, my colleague showed me that part of my role is to build the bench of leadership for Headwaters’ future. I know from experience what it means to have been mentored, invested in, and given room to grow. My predecessor David Nicholson gave me every opportunity to succeed, and he was there for me when I failed. He gave me the time and space to learn new things. When the time came for David to leave Headwaters, I felt confident that I was the right person to lead the Foundation.

In addition to providing individual support to leaders, the nonprofit and philanthropic sector has an opportunity to make other significant changes for the better. Movement work is heart work. It attracts people who want to change the world, sometimes to their detriment. We are on the verge of losing an entire generation of people willing to do this work because of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual toll it takes. This isn’t the first time we’ve lost people. What will it take for the sector to remedy this churn and burn?

Years of struggling with trauma and stress came to a head for me this spring. I was the worst version of myself, and I knew something had to change. I sought out help from family and a close circle of friends. I reached out to my co-chairs and Headwaters’ senior leadership to let them in on the reality of my mental health. With their support, I took a month long leave of absence to focus on healing.

After a month away, I came back to work with a renewed sense of purpose. I established boundaries around my time and energy. I felt clearer about my gifts and what I have to offer our movements. I started to say no to opportunities that didn’t suit my talents or my foundation. I made more time for reading and reflection and rest.

I can’t say that I am completely healed. I am not sure if I will ever be. But I am better. I look back and know that the support of my friends, family, coworkers, and board of directors made all the difference. I was nervous about being vulnerable and asking for help—not because I thought they would reject me, but because I felt like I was failing them. Instead, I was met with kindness, compassion, and generosity.

Imagine what would be possible if what I received became the standard for how we treat leaders. What kind of world could we create if people were not just allowed but encouraged to care of themselves? It is possible to create a culture of abundance where people have the time, the resources, and the space to focus on their health, their relationships, and their joy. A culture of scarcity will try to convince us that these things will detract from productivity and create an entitled work force.

I believe that shifting culture is necessary for systems change. Rest results in strength. Healing creates energy. Joy sparks creativity. Connection creates community. Dreaming leads to transformation. This is where the potential lies.