Lesson in sustainability from an executive given a gift of time
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
-- Bertrand Russell
In high school, Susan Ohmer put that quote on her mirror. It followed her to college. And when she became executive director of Petersburg Mental Health Services, Bertrand Russell’s words lingered at the edge of her memory.
Rasmuson Foundation has long recognized there’s a short bench of excellent chief executive officers running Alaska nonprofit organizations and increasing pressures on the ones we have, like Ohmer. That is why the Foundation decided in 2003 to begin direct support to nonprofits so they could afford to release their chief executives for restorative sabbaticals. We jokingly called it “Give Me a Break” and soon decided the sabbatical program didn’t need a catchy name. The first awards went out in early 2005.
This program has matured over a dozen years into a solid strategy for sustaining nonprofits by recharging their leaders. As of 2017, 72 Alaska nonprofit executives have benefited from what Ohmer, whose sabbatical was last fall, describes as an amazing gift.
“I didn’t realize how empty I was until this experience reminded me of how I used to be — someone who wasn’t always tired or thinking about work or trying to solve never-ending challenges associated with nonprofit rural behavioral health services,” Ohmer wrote in a self-evaluation of the experience.
The Foundation currently offers up to $40,000 to nonprofits and tribal groups to cover salaries and other expenses while the CEO steps away for three to six months of personal growth, rest and renewal. Along with the Individual Artist Awards, the sabbatical program is one of only two that the Foundation operates directly. Sabbaticals remain rare for nonprofits. Most are in academia.
The New York Times put a spotlight on sabbaticals for nonprofits in January under the headline “When Being Unproductive Saves a Career.” The opinion piece discussed foundation-backed sabbaticals — and mentioned ours — as an antidote to burnout, especially in high-stress areas such as domestic violence shelters.
“They appear to work best under certain conditions: The leave is uninterrupted and entails little or no contact between the leader and his or her organization,” Courtney E. Martin, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, wrote in the Times.
That’s the Rasmuson Foundation approach. A staff member orients every executive in how to disconnect from professional life. The program requires recipients to stay in the job at least a year post-sabbatical; most stay much longer. An evaluation by Agnew::Beck completed at the end of 2016 found the benefits are transformative for the executives and also radiate out to the organizations.
“The absence of the leader challenges staff to test their abilities, find solutions to issues that arise, and depend more on one another,” the evaluation said, recommending only minor tweaks.
Get stronger by stepping away
A powerful testimonial about the experience comes from Ohmer, one of six leaders on a Foundation-funded sabbatical last year.
“There were many benefits, but the most important one was that I regained a sense of abundance. That there was enough time. Enough energy. Enough love,” Ohmer wrote in her sabbatical report for the Foundation. She didn’t have to stress over making time to visit her mother, or saving energy to handle a psychiatric emergency.
When she started Petersburg Mental Health Services in 1993, she was a solo operator and the only clinician in town. The workload, complexity of tasks and size of the staff all grew. At its peak the clinic relied on five full-time clinicians. Then state grant money began drying up. The government pushed Medicaid billing. Her clinical staff dropped to two full-time therapists and one who was part-time. Ohmer saw clients five days a week, handled all the after-hours emergency calls and squeezed in administrative tasks catch-as-catch-can.
Before her sabbatical began in August, she felt depleted and defeated. She hadn’t completely unplugged in 25 years even when on vacation. Her husband, family physician Mark Tuccillo, was the same. She was thinking about leaving.
When she was selected for the sabbatical, she committed “to live it fully, knowing it was a chance of a lifetime.” She worked extra hard in the months preparing for it. A part-time clinician filled in as interim executive director. Mainly “my staff really stepped up,” Ohmer said.
At the start, she left town for a week to make herself stop working. She removed work emails from her phone. She and her husband traveled to Europe for the first time. They went on a cruise. They got into RVing.
That work-life balance
She thought she might feel lost without the anchor and affirmation of work, the way some people struggle in retirement.
“It never happened,” she wrote in her report. “I feel more valuable as a human being, not less.”
By the time she returned to her job in December, she had re-centered on a healthier work-life balance.
Now she mainly sees clients on Fridays. She takes lunch with her mother three times a week. She tries not to work too much on weekends. Some staff members retained additional duties that they especially liked or that added meaning to their work.
She still handles psychiatric emergencies but dedicates most of her workdays to administrative and financial management, giving those areas their proper due.
“I am liking my job a heckuva lot more than I was liking it before,” Ohmer said.
Seven more Alaska nonprofit leaders are taking sabbaticals in 2018. Nominations for the 2019 round are being accepted until Oct. 1, 2018.