Managing Volunteer Burnout and Stress

Volunteer burnout is something that both volunteers and volunteer managers dread. For volunteers, it can be a feeling of overwhelming stress that causes resentment about volunteering. For managers, it can turn the most productive volunteer into an irritable and ineffective member of the team. It is important for the volunteer and organisations to understand, identify and help volunteers cope with the stress to prevent volunteer burnout.

Volunteering can be a stressful activity, with 35% of people in Australia’s not for profit sector experiencing stress (1). What makes volunteering stressful is not just the work itself, such as witnessing trauma or experiencing intense workloads, but how the workload adds to the day to day stresses of life. In rural Western Australia, two-thirds of people volunteering additionally have a business to run, farms to work or young families (2). Burnout can happen to anyone, so it is important for volunteers and managers to know the signs and what to do.

Burnout can be defined as a state of chronic stress. Stress is a natural response to the challenges we face (3). When stressed, our alertness, energy and productivity increases along with our heart rate, metabolism and breathing rate (3). Stress is helpful during short-term challenges however when experienced long term, it can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness.

Signs of Burnout

Physical/emotional exhaustion Cynicism and detachment Feeling ineffective
• Chronic fatigue
• Insomnia
• Forgetfulness
• Increased illnesses
• Loss of appetite
• Anxiety
• Anger • Loss of enjoyment
• Pessimism
• Isolation • Lack of productivity
• Feeling of apathy
• Feeling of hopelessness
• Increased irritability
Table 1: Sufferers may experience any number of these symptoms over a period of time and should seek advice for diagnosis. Modified from source 4.

These symptoms can easily be confused with depression. From a psychological perspective, there is no clear definition of what burnout is and psychologists are likely to diagnose sufferers with something else such as depression or anxiety (5). This makes it difficult to collect data on the prevalence of burnout in society (5).

Although burnout is still an area of dispute in psychology, the fact that volunteers are vulnerable to it is not. Volunteers in rural communities where the social fabrics’ of the community are made of the volunteer groups can be particularly susceptible to burnout (2). They are essential to the communities’ social, education, sporting, cultural and environmental groups and activities (2). They can also be critical to the running of essential services. In small towns like Ongerup in Western Australia, the only health service is a volunteer run local ambulance (6). Without the volunteer ambulance service in the town, it would take an hour for an ambulance from the nearest town to come (6). Being the only health service in a town is a huge responsibility, especially for a volunteer.

Being in a stressful volunteer role can be just one source of stress for volunteers but others could include poor management, conflict with other volunteers, competing demands such as work and family as well as role overload and even pressure from friends and family to volunteer (7). Role overload can also result from poor communication, unrealistic expectations of volunteers, failure to match volunteers’ skills to positions, ineffective role definitions and lack of boundaries. (7).

Role overload is one of the most quoted sources of stress. Role overload can be taking on too much responsibility or too many hours (7). It can be caused as said above, by poor management, but also by volunteers deliberately going beyond the role description or volunteers not telling management they cannot meet the role’s demands (7). Role ambiguity can further lead to role overload as volunteers are unclear what their role is.
Competing demands can also be a significant cause of stress. This stress is similar to role overload however the source of the increased work and stress comes external to the role (7). An example would be family illness, financial stress, or work commitments affect a person’s ability and availability to volunteer.

There are many ways to combat burnout and some of the best methods are organisational factors that volunteer managers can implement (7). One of the best ways to prevent burnout is early recognition and intervention (7). It is important that volunteer managers have time, as well as policy and procedures in place to monitor their volunteers and implement changes (7). Monitoring volunteers can include having a time sheet so it is known how many hours they contribute; this information can be used to observe volunteering milestones that they can be thanked for (8). Letting volunteers vary their hours, take time off or have ‘annual leave’ is also a great way to help volunteers’ recharge and cope with stress (8).

A prevention strategy that volunteer managers can utilise is providing adequate volunteer training and providing mentors for newer volunteers to reduce the stress experienced as a new volunteer (7). This strategy additionally ensures good succussion planning and can relieve excess workload in the role. It is not just essential that volunteer managers are able to see the early signs of burnout, take action but also fosters the organisational culture of open communication with volunteers to talk about stress in and outside of the role (7).

Knowing how to implement the theory of how to manage and prevent burnout can be a steep learning curve for volunteer managers but volunteer managers’ have great capacity to manage burnout when they have knowledge and strategies. Networking with other Volunteer Managers provides a great opportunity to both learn and share with others in similar situations. Check out where you can find details of networking and training events for volunteer managers.