Nonprofit organisations can be prone to encouraging overwork, simply because they know their employees are emotionally invested. Alexandra Lamb analyses Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman’s recent argument that nonprofits should transform their workplace culture to have more productive and happier workers.


The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman asks,What if your organisation’s culture encouraged you, and everyone who worked there, to embrace self-care without guilt? What if you could feel the vibrancy of your organisation when you stepped into the physical office or hear it in the voices of staff when they talked about what it is like to work at your organisation? What if every time your organisation advertised a position you were flooded with exceptional applicants because of your nonprofit’s reputation for a culture of well-being with policies and benefits to support it?’

In recent years there has been a profusion of books and articles, gurus and mantras hailing ‘self-care’, ‘well-being’, ‘personal development’ or ‘wellness’ as the elixir of the modern workplace and modern worker.

And why not care for yourself? About 20 per cent of our population will experience some kind of mental health issue in any given year; around 1 million Australians have depression and over 2 million have anxiety. Two-thirds of Australia’s full-time workforce work more than 40 hours per week and nearly a fifth put in over 50 hours a week. A recent ANU study blamed an entrenched ‘overworking culture’ for the fact that one in five Australians aged between 25 and 54 don’t have time to exercise or eat healthy meals.

So why do some people critique self-care and wellness? Svend Brinkmann is a Danish psychologist and so-called leader of the anti-self-care movement. His recent book calls out a fad that pressures exhausted individuals into trying to keep up, adapt, or be flexible to a runaway pace set by the modern workplace and ‘accelerated culture’.  Rather than accept the prescribed remedies – coaching, mindfulness, positive thinking, etc, one should reject this status quo altogether.

Similarly, Miya Tokumitsu hit a popular nerve with her critique of the popular ‘Do What You Love’ mantra. She more recently cautioned against the use of wellness to create a servile and flexible workforce. ‘I feel like it’s very attached to worker surveillance,’ she said in an interview with The Atlantic. ‘It’s all about opening the worker up, even your body and your interior thoughts, to potential monetization by the employer. They want you to stop smoking so you’ll stop taking cigarette breaks. They want you to lose weight so you’ll be more attractive as a salesperson.’ While she grants many wellness programs may come from a place of caring, ‘at the end of the day [it’s] about profitability (…) about making workers happy so that they will produce more.’


Tokumitsu asks, what if workplace wellness leads to decreased productivity? Would companies still encourage these activities? Alex Lamb has found that the workplace arrangement shown above has led to a significant increase in wellness and decrease in productivity.

In her praised Jacobin essay, Tokumitsu exclaims ‘nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.’ It exalts the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for work and therefore extracts underpaid or even free labour. It also divides classes of workers – those in the privileged position of having higher paid jobs and good conditions that enable them to love what they do; and those in poorly paid, physically demanding, or menial work with poor conditions who don’t have lovable jobs and are either asked to nonetheless be ‘passionate’ about what they do or are simply ignored by this mantra altogether.

The Nonprofit is the kind of job touched by the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra. It connotes a noble vocation with righteous pursuits, entailing self-sacrifice, unwavering commitment and immaterial rewards. Beneath the surface however, the work can also include the drudgery of funding applications, the exasperation of nettlesome donor requests, the trauma of conversations with people in distress, the exhaustion of working two people’s jobs with one person’s funding. It is worth pointing out that women comprise a majority of the low-wage or unpaid workforce and of the lower rungs of the nonprofit workforce. Tokumitsu isn’t the first to point out that ‘women are supposed to do (this) work because they are natural nurturers and are eager to please; after all they’ve been doing uncompensated childcare, elder care, and housework since time immemorial.’

Beth Kanter

Beth Kanter

Now that we’ve got some of the caveats out of the way, let’s look at what The Healthy, Happy Nonprofit is actually advocating.

Authors Kanter and Sherman make an important distinction between self-care and what they term ‘WE-care’. More than a wellness program, it is about creating a whole new workplace culture that nurtures and supports workers.

The book, which the authors refer to as a ‘tactical roadmap’, is replete with checklists to identify poor self-care and gauge stress levels, and tips to change bad habits and adopt healthy practices. Beyond the individual however, it is a manifesto to revolutionize workplace culture and as such is pitched at managers and their employees alike to take action – from the top down or bottom up, to create a healthier, happier workplace.

Aliza Sherman

Aliza Sherman

The authors acknowledge the shallowness of some of the self-care activities out there – ‘ when self care initiatives are treated as extras instead of being built right into the fabric of your organization’s processes and policies for worker well-being they are nothing more than a band-aid, barely disguising the chronic stress and dysfunction eroding you organizations ability to meet its mission.’ They argue instead, ‘authentic self-care (…) needs to be embedded into organizational culture to prevent staff members from pitting their own needs against the organisation’s mission.’

Their solution, ‘WE-care’, places the onus on the organization to support individuals’ efforts toward self-care. WE-care:

  • Recognizes self-care as an inextricable part of work
  • Acknowledges an organizational responsibility for self-care
  • Builds healthy work-life boundaries into workdays and workweeks
  • Ties passion for personal well-being to passion for organizational mission
  • Goes beyond a focus on physical health
  • Helps the nonprofit become a high-performance organization and sustain results

It is pitched at nonprofits because Kanter and Aliza hail from that sector and have observed over their accomplished careers, the stress and burnout suffered by workers in this industry. They strive to address the contradiction in the way many nonprofits seek to improve conditions for the people they serve, while ignoring the conditions in which they themselves work. How, they ask, do we take care of each other when we can’t take care of ourselves?

A common trait they observe among many in the sector is a view of self-care as ‘something getting in the way of their work serving an important cause. Self-care is seen as a guilty pleasure, a sometime or once in a while feel good luxury instead of an individual and organisational necessity.’

To justify this ‘guilty pleasure’ they argue to the bosses that their research has found that nonprofits that practice healthy, happy ways of working are ‘also high performance organisations’. And to the workers they argue ‘you’re no good to anyone – not your family, not your friends or community, not even your employer, coworkers or the people you want to serve, if you are depleted of energy and unable to function at your optimal levels.’ ‘If all nonprofits were happy, healthy nonprofits, think how much mote effective we would be in solving some of the big social change problems of today’s world.’ Importantly also, the book is a loud cry that exclaims don’t feel guilty about looking after yourself – you matter too.

To me it is a no-brainer that, as Kanter and Sherman argue, a happy, healthy workplace makes people feel better both within and beyond the office; it makes them enjoy their jobs more and perform their roles better; it leads to a more creative, productive and energetic workplace environment, and it retains good staff and attracts good talent in a sector where salaries are not the highest draw cards.

It does not fall for the criticisms I mention above. Ultimately it is about creating and implementing a workplace culture that does encourage workers to slow down, do less, leave on time, separate work from leisure, and enjoy time-off. The book does not advocate for any one solution but does provide a multitude of tips and advice from people who have found benefits in these activities – one office booms the Toto’s song ‘Africa’ to force workers to leave on time every Tuesday. Another workplaces focuses on results rather than hours at work, enabling workers to come and go whenever they please to attend personal or family activities. Another workplace integrates exercise and meditation activities into the workday.

Drilling down into the detail, Kanter and Sherman present a model for ‘healthy, happy living’ represented by five spheres. For them, discussing self-care should not be limited to the individual but rather embedded into the world and how we interact with the people and the environment around us.

  1. Self – how we take care of ourselves, including good sleep, healthy diet, adequate exercise and sufficient down-time to practice the activities that give us rest and joy, is central to all other spheres and enables us to approach work in a more refreshed, energized and focused manner.
  2. Others – including family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, people in our communities, including online communities, affect our entire selves through our interactions and relationships. It is easier to have a positive effect on the people around us if we are healthy and happy but if we are stressed, depleted or frustrated, we can effect the well-being of those around us in negative ways.
  3. Environment – including the indoor and outdoor environments have a major impact on the way we feel and conduct our work, including the way we sit at our desks, the amount of movement in our day or the quality of the air we breathe.
  4. Work and money – can be major stressors and when we don’t have good boundaries and emotions around these it can lead to overwork, unmanageable to-do lists, strain on families and burnout.
  5. Technology – our continuous access to personal technology and the internet through our mobile devices can negatively affect our well-being if we do not schedule down time from these devices and set boundaries (for ourselves and our families).

Quoting the Executive Director of the nonprofit Exhale, Aspen Baker,  ‘Self-care is not  a simple feel good activity. It’s a much deeper and ultimately more meaningful tool. Self-care is a discipline that honours what is sacred, including the hard work that provides meaning in our lives’.

A difficult union in this book is understanding wellness as a right versus seeing it as a tool for enhanced productivity. Self-care in this book is sold on the basis of improving productivity, not, because the authors care most for this, (it is after all relegated to the fifth point of the five-point description of ‘We-care’) but perhaps rather because this is how it will most effectively be bought and implemented by directors, managers and all workers. For them, their ‘eye on the prize’ is a ‘happier, healthier people, a happier, healthier nonprofit and more impact without burnout’.

I know from my own experience how transformational some ‘wellness’ practices have been to my own life – at work and beyond work. I have no doubt that the practices advocated by Kanter and Sherman can have an enormously positive impact on people’s lives. However, it is important to heed closely their warning that for everyone in a workplace to thrive, self-care activities cannot be considered extras or band-aids, but rather integrated into the fabric of the organization’s processes and policies for worker well-being. If not, they will barely disguise chronic stress and dysfunction. Central to workers’ well-being is not how many adult colouring books are provided or whether there is a meditation room, but rather whether the office is flexible enough to provide what workers need, and does not demand excessive workloads that eat into people’s important leisure time.

While the book professes to being a ‘strategy’ for achieving a happy, healthy workplace, it more than anything strives to cultivate a culture – i.e. that driving fore behind your organisation’s vision, mission and values. And, as management guru Peter Drucker says (whom they quote), ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.


AlexLambAbout the reviewer

Alexandra Lamb is an advocate who works in the non-for-profit sector and has worked in politics, media and international and non-government organisations.



Has your workplace made changes to make its workers happier and healthier? Has it worked? What change would you like to see in nonprofit and social movement organisations? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Get your own copy of The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, and check out the great collection of resources provided by the authors, Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman.