How to Recognize and Avoid Volunteer Burnout

Guest post by Kayla Matthews.

Volunteers are often the lifeblood for nonprofits, especially when those organizations are understaffed and overworked.

But what happens when those volunteers become disheartened and no longer enjoy the work they do? They might be suffering from burnout, and you need to take action before it’s too late.

Why Should Volunteer Coordinators Get Educated About Volunteer Burnout?

There are various reasons volunteer coordinators and other nonprofit professionals need to be aware of what volunteer burnout is and when it’s happening. To begin with, volunteer burnout can have a direct effect on your organization’s impact. If burned-out volunteers continue to show up for their shifts, their overall productivity will likely decrease. And their burnout will only get worse.

Volunteers are also representatives of the organizations they serve, especially if they’re in public-facing positions like those associated with fundraising or direct client services. If volunteers  are worn-out or unenthused about the work they’re doing, the individuals they’re working with might have second thoughts about supporting your organization.

Plus, as advocates for your organization, the information they share in their social circles will travel. Volunteers suffering from burnout may critique your organization or speak negatively about the work you do, ultimately discouraging their friends from getting involved. Word-of-mouth recruitment remains one of the most successful volunteer recruitment methods, so this can be detrimental to your goals.

In some instances, volunteer burnout may happen because of poor management at the organization, causing volunteers to resent their managers, fight back against policies or create a toxic culture and lowered morale throughout the organization.

The Warning Signs of Volunteer Burnout

Burnout is often defined as a state of chronic stress that may lead to exhaustion, cynicism and detachment. It’s also identified in individuals who have feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. The risk of burnout increases in volunteers over time, which is why it’s so important to identify and address these symptoms before they become damaging.

First, watch for any distinctive changes in a volunteer’s personality that could signify they’re in distress. For example, if a person regularly spoke about how they loved volunteering and got excited by their work starts complaining and acting grumpy, this could mean they’re feeling worn out by their role. Cynicism, anger, loss of enjoyment and increased irritability are all symptoms associated with burnout. You may also want to watch out for any volunteers who were once extremely forthcoming about their emotions and struggles but are now closed off — burnout could be to blame.

It’s also a bad sign if volunteers start confiding that they’re feeling overwhelmed by the work, especially if they previously found it manageable. This might mean they have too much on their plate or are having trouble dealing with the difficult emotions and situations that they’re encountering.

Keep an eye out for volunteers who don’t feel like their work has an impact. Many volunteers are motivated to get involved because they want to make a difference in the world. If they feel ineffective, they could become hopeless, cynical or increasingly pessimistic and, eventually, give up. That’s not what anyone wants to see happen.

Changes in reliability or productivity can come about due to volunteer burnout, too. When a person used to faithfully show up and dedicate themselves to every assigned task and now doesn’t report for shifts, shows up late or completes responsibilities carelessly, volunteer burnout may be affecting them.

Volunteer organizers should address any possible symptoms of volunteer burnout as soon as they appear. Otherwise, a volunteer may feel so exhausted, cynical or ineffective that they decide the organization is no longer worth supporting.

General Life Stresses Could Appear as Burnout

Of course, the symptoms above could also result from other stressful situations they’re dealing with that aren’t related to your volunteer program. Don’t immediately assume volunteer burnout has caused the changes you’re noticing. It’s best to have a private conversation with the respective individual and kindly ask them if they’re dealing with life changes or other things that could cause stress not directly related to burnout.

Volunteers could be dealing with stress at work or from starting a new job or losing one (in fact, studies estimate that one quarter of millennials will have worked as many as five different jobs by the time they’re 35). Other life stresses, like managing health problems or strain in their family life, could also put volunteers at risk for burnout. In these cases, volunteering isn’t the root cause, but they may still need to change their schedule, lighten their workload or even take a break from volunteering.

Managing a volunteer program requires high emotional intelligence, so use those skills if you start to see any of the signs mentioned above. Bring up your concerns in a private conversation with the individual and ask them how they’re doing, how they’re liking the work, etc. Let them know you’re willing to work with them to alleviate any stress and make sure they can still enjoy volunteering.

Strategies for Avoiding Volunteer Burnout

As mentioned earlier, volunteer organizers should be observant and watch for uncharacteristic behaviors in their volunteers. But, preventing volunteer burnout begins when volunteers and their managers have stable working relationships with open lines of communication.

This should start when volunteers first sign up to help out. Be honest about what the work entails. This is particularly important for organizations that deal with emotionally challenging work, but it’s also important if an individual’s expectations don’t fit the reality of the role (say, if they want to work with animals but won’t actually have the chance to interact with them).

Volunteers should go through appropriate training sessions and know what to expect. You can also ask prospective volunteers to think about what the volunteer opportunity entails for a week or so before accepting or turning it down, with no fear of judgment either way.

Another beneficial strategy for preventing burnout is to schedule regular check-ins with volunteers to ask how they’re feeling about the work. If you’ve noticed signs that they might be getting burned out due to always doing the same kinds of work during their shift, suggest they get trained to do something else in the organization. If they feel like they have too much on their plate, help them lighten their load. And if they’re exhausted or worn out, they may need to take a break from volunteering.

Be as flexible as possible regarding volunteer scheduling, too.  Remember, life can make it impossible to stick to commitments from time to time. Aim to come up with guidelines, such as what to do if volunteers need to miss a day or come late, to make it clear that you’re willing and able to work with them.

And finally, help volunteers understand their impact. Volunteers give so much time and energy because they want to effect change. But many of the issues they’re working on are large and systemic; change isn’t always obvious and can take a long time. It’s your responsibility to share the story of their work — what it means to your organization and the community, how it contributes to your organization’s mission, etc. Otherwise, they may start to feel like they’re just wasting their time.

Coping With Burned-Out Volunteers

Burnout can happen even when coordinators take preventive measures. When it does, volunteer organizers should remain sensitive to what a person is going through and do everything they can to keep them from feeling ashamed. In some cases, a volunteer may believe burnout is a sign of weakness and something that proves they’re not cut out for the work.

Assure them burnout can happen to anyone, and it does not reflect a lack of worthiness as a volunteer. Encourage volunteers to reflect and try to identify some of the factors that contributed to the burnout, if possible. The information they give could stop future adverse situations. For example, if a person says, “I was handling everything OK until I started directly engaging with the human trafficking victims,” that’s a sign that a change in the kind of work they perform could help.

Self-care strategies can also help a person recover from burnout. Activities like writing in a journal, meditating or long walks outdoors could help people come to terms with some of the things that caused the exhaustion and allow them to regain resiliency. If burnout is common at your organization, consider providing trainings and workshops on self care.

Additionally, if the person needs to temporarily take on a reduced workload or go on a leave of absence from the organization for recovery purposes, volunteer organizers should support them fully in these choices. It’s far better to give the volunteer the time they need to bounce back than to lose the support entirely.

Awareness Goes a Long Way in Stopping Burnout

Nonprofit environments can be extraordinarily busy, and in some settings, volunteers and their concerns get overlooked. Don’t let this happen. Remember, volunteers are a key component to your organization’s success. When they’re unhappy, your whole organization will feel the effects. Now that you know what volunteer burnout is and how to address it, you can help your volunteers (and your organization) thrive.

 

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