Stories from the field

Day 2016-12-09

David Fox – Blog 3: The Complexities of Workplace Culture (GE)

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about what it means to be a worker, specifically in the context of the not-for-profit / non-government / civil society work sector. It’s no surprise to most that working in the sector long term is not for the faint of heart. From my perspective, those that are passionate about a certain cause (usually related to development in one area or another) put up with incredibly large obstacles in order to work towards a cause they believe in. Often with low pay, long hours, and sometimes no apparent career ladder, pursuing a long-term job in the not-for-profit / non-government sector is no simple task. But what is it that makes these careers so hard on employees? Doesn’t someone with an interest in advocating for better conditions deserve a job that doesn’t lead to burn out? Where does this problem stem from?

In my experience, there are two main factors that contribute to this phenomenon. These being: a lack of funds to cover overhead costs, and the informal workplace/management structure that is present in so many organizations. No doubt there are more issues involved, but these two factors have stood out to me the most as of late. First off, insufficient funding for overhead expenses in a non-profit organization is probably not a surprise, but I believe it has incredibly far reaching effects. This can often be traced back to unrealistic expectations that force organizations to invest solely in its activities and mandate. A lack of overhead funding means fewer staff working longer hours (often on a volunteer basis), a lack of vacation days, and limited health benefits. As employees are influenced to “volunteer” more hours to make sure projects are finished on time, stress levels rise, and interpersonal relationships between employees often deteriorate. In a workplace with minimal investment in its employees, the work culture suffers dramatically.

During past work experiences, I have been privy to the effects that an informal organizational structure can create. For instance, if the staff is expected to work longer hours to complete their work, how much flexibility does one have to turn down more work? Smaller organizations often do not have any type of human resources department in place, making it difficult or unclear on how an employee should go about filing a grievance. With an informal working structure, many employees are expected to do a little bit of everything, or to pick up the slack when it’s needed, even if the ask is (as I perceive it) unreasonable. At times, this structure makes it difficult for overworked employees to say “no”, and those that do complain can cause resentment among fellow workers. The work/life balance can become obsolete, as employees begin to devote all of their time to working for “the cause”. 

To add to this, according to the HR council of Canada for the non-profit sector’s report on Gender Mix in non-profits, “75% of those working in the sector are women”, and that “men occupy a disproportionate number of senior management positions, while women are overrepresented in administrative and support staff positions.” (HR Council, 1). With a majority of women in low level, non-management positions in the non-profit sector, perhaps the effects of a toxic workplace culture can take their toll on women more so than men.   

These issues make me question how we came to this conclusion that putting ourselves through stress, anxiety, and over exhaustion directly benefits those that the organization’s mandate aims to support. Development work and non-profit organizations are a necessity in our world, which goes without saying, but maybe there is a brighter future in store if we can invest in solving these work culture problems. A healthy work culture can be engaging and rewarding for employees, especially one that doesn’t leave those that are the most empathetic towards others without anything to show for their efforts.


HR Council for the Non-Profit Sector, Trends & Issues, Gender Mix in the Non-Profit Sector. Government of Canada. 

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