Outstanding local Extension Educators who are
well connected to the community are one of the key benefits of
Extension. However, burnout and turnover are significant problems for
Extension. Turnover of local Extension educators often leads to a
loss of accumulated knowledge and experience; loss of valuable
relationships in the community; temporary voids in programming and
volunteer participation; and additional strain on the remaining
staff. Costs of refilling the positions and training new staff are a
financial and time drain that ripples throughout Extension (Ensle,
2005; Strong & Harder, 2009).
North Carolina Cooperative Extension has
recently seen a great deal of turnover at the local and state level.
To help county agents, especially new recruits, successful peers
identified strategies that improve efficiency, reduce job-related
stress, and increase professional success. Ninety-seven Extension
agents and directors from 100 North Carolina counties attended seven
regional workshops where they were asked to identify tips for being a
successful horticulture agent. Workshop results were summarized and
distributed to all horticulture agents, county directors, and
district directors in North Carolina with the request that they
review the list to identify the most important tips for the success
of county horticultural agents. Additional input was solicited and
follow-up interviews were conducted to clarify responses. The final
tips are summarized in Table 1.
Tips for Removing the Tension
|Invest in Yourself||
Protect important family dates.
Annually take a minimum of 7 vacations days
in a row.
Develop hobbies away from Extension.
Become flexible and creative. Find humor in
difficult circumstances. Focus on the good in yourself,
co-workers, staff, volunteers, clients, and the job.
|Invest in Your Career||
- Take responsibility
for your own destiny and for developing the skills you need.
- Seek out professional
- Find a mentor and
connect with them regularly.
- Get involved in
Extension committees and professional associations that provide
networking, professional development, resources, and awards.
|Focus Your Effort||
- Develop formal as
well as informal advisory groups.
- Select two or three
program areas in which you are interested and have valuable
skills. Focus on those and become an expert.
- Identify clear
program goals and objectives and stick to them. Be pro-active.
Block out time to achieve specific goals.
- Don't expect to solve
every problem for every client.
- Do not allow urgent
(but unimportant) things to swing your schedule.
- It is not possible to
continually pursue new projects without discontinuing existing
ones. Before you take on new responsibilities get your director
and advisory board's support for restructuring ongoing
- Surround yourself
with outstanding staff, volunteers, and partners. Define what
needs to be done, meet regularly, and appreciate their support.
- It is not possible to
know it all. If you wait for everything to be perfect you will
miss valuable opportunities.
- Use an effective time
management system. As soon as you finish an event, make notes,
contacts, and suggestions in your calendar for next year. Block
out times for planning and preparing programs. Leave open time to
deal with the unexpected.
- Keep up with your
mail, email, and phone messages on a daily basis.
- Keep a dated log of
recommendations made. This will provide an annual tally for
reporting and seasonal programming topics as well as a written
record should issues arise later.
- Establish a good
system for gathering data for your accountability reports and
compile information throughout the year.
- Keep track of images,
slides, and speaker notes. Develop programs and materials that
can be modified to serve a variety of audiences and purposes.
- Aggregate your
references. Check to be sure you are relying on the best possible
- Some saw a work cell
phone as essential, others felt it implied an artificial sense of
urgency and distracted them from driving or addressing the needs
of whomever they were with when the cell phone rang.
|Develop a Network||
- Identify who you need
to know within your county, district, state, and country to be
effective in your job. Build relationships to foster
partnerships. Learn where to find the resources, experts, and
answers. Ask for and allow them to help. Ask questions. Dedicate
time to lunch appointments, to visit other professionals in their
workplace, and tour related professional destinations.
- Join community
organizations (Jr. League, Kiwanis, Rotary, Toastmasters, Better
Business Bureau, etc.) Connect with organizations with shared
desired outcomes to pool money and resources.
- It's important for
people to know who you are and to care about you and your
success. To enhance your effectiveness exponentially, develop a
diverse network of supporters who can help open doors, make
introductions, and get you an invitation to the table where
critical decisions are being made. Be sure that key people know
what you are trying to accomplish and what you will need to
succeed so that you are on their radar when opportunities
|Shine as a Professional||
- Project a positive,
professional image in all you do. Share your success, apply for
awards, and seek out media attention for your programs.
|Develop Funding &
- Charge cost recovery
for programs and products.
- Identify and use
- Use technology to
streamline your efforts.
- Manage your schedule.
Plan out the entire year. Don't make appointments before 8:30
a.m. to allow time for email and phone calls first thing in the
morning. Deal with email briefly several times a day rather than
having it beep each time a message comes in. Over estimate how
long it will take to do things. Create built in time limits.
- Stop doing things
that don't work.
- Rely on expertise and
program materials of other agents and specialists. Explore
options for cross county programming.
on inspiring rather than inundating with details.
- Use relevant examples
and hands-on engaging exercises.
- Streamline training
to focus on the key points.
|Handle the Tough Stuff||
- Address problems
quickly and directly.
- In Person: Invite the
person who is upset into your office. Move your chair around and
sit next to them. LISTEN. Take notes. Write down everything, this
slows down the conversation and honors the importance of what
they are saying. Clarify the key issues to be resolved. Solicit
their input on a reasonable resolution. Clarify the key
components of the resolution (exactly who should take what steps
when). Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention and
agree to take their suggestions under advisement. Follow up to
let them know what steps you have taken and to determine if the
issue is resolved.
- On the Phone: Don't
try to handle significant issues over the phone, instead meet in
person. For minor issues, place the call after hours to honor
the importance you place on addressing the concern and your
commitment to prevent interruption. This may have a strong
positive impact on the attitude of the person who is lodging the
complaint. Follow procedures above.
- Email: Do NOT handle
problems via email. It is too easy for messages to be
To retain current county agents, and for new
county agents to be successful, Extension will need to find ways to
reduce the strain on these individuals. One way to do this is to
share strategies identified by successful agents. These strategies,
such as the ones identified in this article, can be incorporated into
professional development training for new agents and their mentors.
By encouraging the use of such strategies, Extension can improve the
success rate, reduce the stress level, reduce the burnout, and reduce
the turnover rate of county agents while ultimately saving Extension
money and improving stakeholder relationships (Ensle 2005; Strong &
Harder, 2009; Safrit & Owen, 2010; Saunders & Reese, 2011;
Sears, Urizar & Evans, 2011).
The authors wish to express our appreciation
to Erv Evans for helping to organize the workshops, to Jo Cook for
helping to synthesize the results, and to each of the agents, county
directors, and district directors who shared their wisdom and
Ensle, K. M. (2005). Burnout: How does
extension balance job and family? Journal of Extension [On-line],
43(3) Article 3FEA5. Available at:
Safrit, R. D., & Owen, M. B. (2010). A
conceptual model for retaining county Extension program
professionals. Journal of Extension [On-line], 48(2) Article
3TOT2. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2010april/a2.php
K. S., & Reese, D. (2011). Developing a roadmap
for excellence in Extension. Journal of Extension [On-line],
49(3) Article 3T02. Available at:
Sears, S. F., Jr., Urizar, G. G., Jr., &
Evans, G. D. (2000). Examining a stress-coping model of burnout and
depression in extension agents. Journal of Occupational Health
Psychology, 5(1), 56-62.
Strong, R., & Harder, A. (2009).
Implications of maintenance and motivation factors on extension agent
turnover. Journal of Extension [On-line], 47(1) Article 1FEA2.
Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2009february/a2.php