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Avoiding Burnout Condo Board Members Need Education and Support to Avoid Exhaustion

With only so many hours in the day, balancing the demands of work, family and outside obligations can become a struggle for anyone, and community association board members are no different. They volunteer countless hours guiding their associations, working together to juggle complex issues that affect our lives, our homes and our pocketbooks — all for no money and not much thanks. It’s a tough job and it can, from time to time, lead to burnout, stress and anxiety.

On average, most board members spend anywhere from a couple of hours to five or six hours a week on association business. This commitment increases if the condo complex is self-managed or if the board is overseeing a significant capital project or other activity that requires extra attention and discussion. In general, though, “if a trustee is putting in more than two to four hours a week” it might be too much, says Scott Wolf, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, president of Greater Boston Properties in Boston, Massachusetts. “From a manager’s perspective, I like to see them putting in six to eight hours a month.”

Signs of Trouble

Board members spending more than a few hours a week on the job can be a sign of trouble, as can other changes in habit. These changes can signal that the board member is having difficulty managing either individual problems or larger issues that might be affecting leadership as a whole. Knowing what can cause these troubles and knowing how to stop them before they start are keys to maintaining the well-being of the men and women who lead the community as a whole.

What are some signs of trouble? A change in communication patterns can signal the onset of burnout. Has a previously open and responsive board member suddenly become reclusive? Board members facing burnout “tend to not respond to requests for info or votes or they become hard to schedule meetings with,” says Paul Carruccio, CMCA, AMS, of TOW Management in Manchester Center, Vermont.

“Their frustration levels rise,” says John Watanabe, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, of Winterplace COA in Manchester Center, Vermont. “They may become less responsive and stop answering the phone or their e-mail.”

If a board member seems to be “spending too much time on the day-to-day stuff and taking things too personally,” that could also be a sign of unrest, Wolf says. “If they’re not keeping true perspective on what their duties are. When trustees are taking phone calls (from residents) at home and management is not being asked to assist, that’s trouble.”

Agree to Disagree

The stresses causing these problems are varied. Sometimes, as can happen whenever a group of people work together, the issues arise from personal conflicts. “Board members need to agree to disagree,” says Wolf. “They’re not always going to get their way. If it’s a five person board and they lose a vote three to two, they need to support the final decision.” And not expend too much energy on thinking what could have been.

Those personality conflicts can trickle down from leadership as well. Board members can burn out if they feel that “the board president is overbearing or runs the board like a dictatorship, intimidating everyone else to get what they want,” Wolf says.

Adds Watanabe, “Board members should not come in with agendas. Agenda-driven board members ultimately create problems for everyone.“

Board members also can find themselves fraying when they take on too much responsibility. Whether it is letting neighbors personally lodge complaints with them or trying to solve problems on their own or trying to save money by doing the things their management firms should be doing, sometimes people simply shoulder too much of a burden.

This can be exacerbated when significant projects such as new construction or economic problems have arisen, demanding not only more time but serious discussion and possibly significant guilt if maintenance fees have to be raised or an assessment levied. It can be difficult to feel the irritation of a neighbor angry at having to pay more each month and casting his or her blame at the board members they see in the hallway.

Learning to Let Go

As with any stress related problem, making it go away often involves learning to let it go. “Board members need to take their roles very seriously,” Wolf says. “They’re running what I feel is a corporation. They’re in charge of an asset that is very valuable. That one unit can be a person’s entire life savings.” But, “you have to realize this is not your full-time job.” In short, board members cannot afford to be thin-skinned.

One way to avoid these issues is to create strong lines of communication between the board and the complex’s residents. Knowledge is not only power, it can be palliative, allowing people to understand situations before rushing to judgment – and blame. “The board works in a bubble and then suddenly there’s a fee increase and suddenly people are upset,” Wolf says. “The board feels like they were trying to do the right thing, but they may not have communicated what’s been going on.”

Without that communication, a fee increase or assessment is going to be a shock and shocked people, without question, tend to get upset. “All this canbe resolved through better communication,” Wolf says. “That doesn’t mean involving residents in decisions, but allowing them a forum in which they can provide feedback” can be extremely beneficial, allowing people to feel a part of what is happening in their homes and in their community.

Let Management Do Its Job

Working with the condo complex’s management also is imperative to maintaining a healthy balance for board members. “We try very hard to do as much for board members as possible,” Carruccio says. “We do preliminary budgeting, schedule meetings and more ahead of time. We try to substitute their time for our expertise. Sometimes board members think they can substitute their time for our efforts, but we can do it more efficiently, quickly and correctly.”

Wolf agrees. “Utilize your management team the way you should,” he says. “If someone doesn’t pay their fees for two months, it’s not a problem for me to send them a letter, but it is for you if you’re their neighbor. The board should be making decisions and management should be implementing them. A board is only as efficient as their management company.”

Boards also should ask for help from residents, Wolf says. “Boards need to realize that they can’t do everything themselves. The use of committees is a great way to get owners involved.” The board, for example, doesn’t have to spend hours discussing landscaping. They could find an owner who loves landscaping and has knowledge to share. Boards who hand this duty over to a volunteer committee could help reduce their workload. “Saying ‘I can’t do something’ is not shirking your duties,” Wolf says. “It’s being a responsible adult.”

Watanabe agrees. “My advice is to have faith and trust in your management,” he says. “You’ve hired them. They are professionals. Unless otherwise proven wrong, management should be the first line of defense.”

Helping board members understand their roles and what is expected of them can help mitigate stresses as well. Education can solve problems before they start. “When board members get elected, we try to educate them on what their duties will be,” Wolf says. “A well-educated board is an efficient and well-operating board.”

Staying in the Loop

While initial education is important, management also must keep board members informed whenever new issues arise. “We try to keep them as informed as possible on current events via e-mail, telephone conferences and other means,” Watanabe says. “We keep them apprised and we keep them in the loop.” Especially when high-pressure situations are keeping board members up at night, it helps reduce stress “to inform the entire board – not just leadership – when emergency actions take place,” Watanabe says. “It gives all board members the opportunity to know what’s going on and not have to wonder or worry.”

Wolf agrees. Board members can sometimes feel ambushed if a neighbor approaches them about a rumor or a new decision and they have not yet been informed that the action has taken place. It puts them in awkward positions and raises tensions.

Speaking of those neighbors, spending a few minutes educating new residents on protocol and procedure can go a long way toward reducing stress. New residents should be informed of who complaints should be directed to, who can help them with heating and cooling issues, who they can e-mail when they have questions at 6 in the morning. “If owners are calling trusteesat home, then either management is doing something terribly wrong or they were never told what the proper procedures were,” says Wolf.

Perhaps the best way to avoid board member burnout is for everyone involved to try their best to understand that the men and women running a community association have undertaken a big job. Most board members can balance their various life responsibilities, juggling family, work and volunteer duties. These are adults, Watanabe says. Many are business people who are used to stresses. It is difficult to dictate to them just what they should and should not be doing. “I’ve got a couple of retirees who can afford to spend more time on their board duties while working parents with families might have less time. They themselves know how they can balance, though,” Watanabe says.

But when times get tough and things go awry, the stresses can be enormous. “These people don’t get paid,” Wolf says. “They’re doing all this on a voluntary basis. It’s like charity work without the positive feedback.”

Board members have to remember that as much as they want to help, they simply cannot do everything. Letting other residents and their own management firm shoulder some of the burden can help ease the stress and strain that can cause burnout. And conserving the emotional and intellectual energies of the board can only be a good thing both for the individual and each and every family within the community.

Liz Lent is a freelance writer with New England Condominium magazine.

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