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Beating Generosity Burnout: How to Effectively Share Your Time and Expertise Without Exhaustion

Acts of generosity at work are often born from good intentions - a desire to help colleagues succeed and the organization thrive. However, for many dedicated professionals, undisciplined generosity leads down a path of burnout. When helping behaviors become habitual with little regard for one's own needs and boundaries, exhaustion is sure to follow.

Today we will explore the research on generosity burnout, discuss its detrimental impacts, and provide practical guidance for sharing time and expertise more effectively within organizations.

Causes of Generosity Burnout

Repeated acts of generosity seem virtuous on the surface, but unregulated helping often stems from unresolved personal issues that create a need for external validation. Research shows several factors contribute to a vulnerability toward generosity burnout:

  • Sense of scarcity - Those with a scarcity mindset believe there is not enough recognition, appreciation or resources to go around. This drives over-generosity in a "what's in it for me" quest for approval and visibility (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013).

  • Codependency - Some give too much to feel needed or avoid asserting their own needs, stemming from codependent tendencies and a lack of self-worth disconnected from pleasing others (Beattie, 1987).

  • Perfectionism - Overly generous types are often high achievers who equate their value with productivity and accomplishments. They cannot rest until all tasks are flawless and deadlines are obliterated, leading to perpetual over commitment (Hewitt & Flett, 1991).

  • Martyr complex - Those prone to burnout may find purpose and meaning through being a "hero" who sacrifices for others. This feeds an ego need for recognition as the organization's indispensable problem-solver (Cialdini et al., 1997).

The Impact of Generosity Burnout

Allowing one's generous instincts to run rampant without restraint takes a severe toll both personally and professionally:

  • Emotional/physical exhaustion - Constant giving beyond reasonable limits leads to chronic stress and fatigue over time (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

  • Decline in quality/output - Burned out individuals struggle to maintain standards as their capacity dwindles and focus fragments (Shirom, 2003).

  • Interpersonal strain - Relationship conflicts often emerge when boundaries are blurred and colleagues come to expect round-the-clock availability (Bakker, 2009).

  • Loss of balance/identity - Outside interests and self-care fall by the wayside, jeopardizing holistic well-being (Scott, 2009).

  • High turnover risks - Unchecked burnout commonly ends with resignations from dispirited, disengaged employees (Schaufeli & Greenglass, 2001).

Clearly, generosity taken to an extreme holds costly consequences for individuals and their organizations. Sustainable contribution requires establishing prudent limits.

Setting Boundaries to Avoid Burnout

To circumvent generosity burnout and share one's efforts responsibly, structure and self-discipline are paramount. Several strategies can help professionals and leaders effectively steward their time, energy and expertise:

  • Prioritize important tasks. Saying "yes" to low-impact requests spreads focus too thin. Utilize the ABC prioritization method - activities yielding the most valuable outcomes deserve priority (Covey et al., 1994).

  • Learn to delegate. Micromanaging everything oneself breeds inefficiency and fatigue. Trust others' capabilities and parcel out appropriate responsibilities (Maxwell, 2007).

  • Establish "drop-dead" deadlines. Internalizing unrealistic timelines perpetuates a frenetic pace. Commit to reasonable goals and timeframes, implementing "no" if necessary to adhere (Covey et al., 1994).

  • Schedule rest. Dedicate inviolable personal time for recharging through hobbies, family, exercise and disengaging from work matters totally (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

  • Communicate availability transparently. Establish clear parameters for when/how teammates can access assistance to set fair availability expectations (Conard & Matthews, 2008).

  • Accept imperfections. Striving for flawlessness breeds anxiety and avoids learning from mistakes. Redefine productivity in non-urgent areas to allow for satisfactory quality (Brown, 2018; Schwartz & McCarthy, 2007).

  • Saying "no" is necessary. Polite declinations preserve goodwill better than resentful over-commitments. Reserve generous acts for initiatives aligning with strengths and passions (Conard & Matthews, 2008; Schwartz, 2004).

  • Surround with boundary respecters. Associates valuing work-life separation provide a supportive buffer against habitual over-availability and guilt-tripping (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

These strategies require self-awareness and willpower but enable professionals to maximize contributions sustainably over the long haul. Organizational cultures must also foster reasonable expectations.

Application in Higher Education

For those in academia, balancing scholarship, teaching and service obligations invites burnout risks through difficulty upholding personal boundaries. Research highlights specific challenges:

  • Tenure clocks pressure "all-or-nothing" productivity mindsets instead of balanced lifestyles (Guthrie et al., 2005).

  • Students expect round-the-clock access to professors accustomed to "24/7" ideals (Magnuson, 2009).

  • Perceived faculty duties change more rapidly than contractual obligations (O'Meara et al., 2017).

To avoid burnout, professors can:

  • Limit non-tenure committee work to preserve research/teaching focus (O'Meara et al., 2017).

  • Establish student communication norms like response windows and "offline hours" (Conard & Matthews, 2008).

  • Request reduced service roles after tenure to maintain work-life fit (Guthrie et al., 2005).

  • Utilize sabbaticals to recharge through non-work activities boosting well-being (Bronsteen et al., 2016).

Institutions also play a role in normalizing imperfect outputs and cultivating wellness priorities beyond just metrics of productivity (O'Meara et al., 2017). With cooperative boundary-setting, higher education remains rewarding for all constituents in the long-run.

Application in Nonprofit Organizations

Mission-driven nonprofits cultivate generous cultures but should heed burnout risks amongst hard-working staff. Common issues include:

  • Understaffing magnifies load on devoted individuals attracted to the cause (Hwang & Hopkins, 2012).

  • Revenue streams fluctuate, pressing employees for continuous fundraising and networking above job descriptions (Love & O'Hearn, 2019).

  • "Always on" availability creeps in to solve all community needs urgently (Boyar et al., 2020).

Conversely, nonprofits can curb burnout by:

  • Distributing work evenly to establish realistic workloads respecting people's limits (Hwang & Hopkins, 2012).

  • Clarifying staff roles and accountabilities to give permission to say "no" outside scopes (Boyar et al., 2020).

  • Promoting community partnerships to share burdens sustainably rather than overload a few (Love & O'Hearn, 2019).

  • Modeling self-care as a valued organizational practice like professional development (Grant, 2012).

With prudent boundaries in place, nonprofit staffers preserve stamina for important missions through longevity in their positions.


Acts of generosity stem from noble intentions but require discipline to avoid burnout consequences. While helping behaviors feel virtuous briefly, long-term exhaustion ultimately undermines individuals and their capacity to sustainably serve organizations. This paper explored how generosity deficits actually mask deeper personal issues and discussed research substantiating burnout's negative impacts. Through setting prudent boundaries, prioritizing judiciously, delegating adequately, scheduling rest, and surrounding oneself with boundary-respecting peers, individuals can share time and expertise responsibly over the long haul. Leaders must also cultivate cultures valuing balance alongside productivity metrics. With cooperation across factors, professionals can avoid burnout while optimizing contributions to the greater good of students, clients, missions and other stakeholders.


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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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