How Volunteer Burnout Works

A Young worker holding gloves and wiping his forehead with his arm
Are you sad, tired, stressed and overwhelmed by your commitments? You could be suffering from volunteer burnout.
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Do you feel sad, tired and stressed out? Are you overwhelmed by all the things you have to do?

No, this is not an advertisement for an antidepressant. These signs could indicate that you're suffering from a silent epidemic: volunteer burnout.


There is no end to the ways you can over-commit yourself and you're certainly not alone. Many adults have trouble using the word "No." So, you end up coaching your kids' soccer teams, helping out in their classrooms, designing the school yearbook, reading stories at the library and serving as a field trip chaperone. Or perhaps you counsel troubled youth, walk dogs at the animal shelter, run fundraisers for charitable organizations, organize political campaigns and serve on your condo board.

These are all good things, right? Of course they are. But like many good things -- such as exercise, chocolate, sleep and ice cream -- too much volunteering can sometimes be a bad thing. Moderation is key.

Saying no is difficult, especially if you think your answer is going to disappoint someone. But it's necessary since spreading yourself too thin can be a bad thing for you and the recipient(s) of your volunteer efforts. It's best to be sensible about your time so that you're able to maintain the energy and desire to honor the commitments you make.

No matter how many basketball jerseys need to be ordered or how many invitations need to be mailed for the fundraiser, there are ways to maintain balance. You need to ask yourself how much you can truly take on and whether it's something that can be delegated to somebody else. This will be your key to avoiding volunteer burnout.

Read on to find out if you've truly gotten yourself out of whack.


What is Volunteer Burnout?

Volunteer burnout is just like work-related burnout -- only you're not getting paid to barrel through it. You're tired, stressed, disengaged, resentful and at your wits end. Your volunteer work is no longer fulfilling and you may find yourself making excuses (often health-related) for not attending to your responsibilities.

For volunteers, signs that you are headed for burnout include losing enthusiasm for the mission of the organization and your tasks, worrying about your volunteer job when you're not there and feeling uninspired when you are. You may also notice yourself becoming cranky with other volunteers, clients and staff members because of your fatigue and resentment [source: Volunteer Today].


Bottom line: You dream of quitting. You doubt you're making a difference. You've lost the sense of satisfaction you used to have. Where's the fun in that?

For volunteer coordinators, the burnout signs to watch for among your volunteers are complaints that it's no longer fun to work there, a rise in the amount of worry expressed by a volunteer, chronic crankiness, combativeness with others and overreaction to minor problems [source: Volunteer Today]. You may also notice a volunteer's work performance slipping -- perhaps the volunteer is not completing assignments, is missing deadlines or just isn't showing up.

If you're able to identify the problem in its earliest stages, it's best to address it then. If it gets to the point where the volunteer is routinely not meeting his or her commitments, it will certainly feel like it's too late to fix things. At this point, the volunteer might have become so bitter, that he or she isn't readily willing to salvage the situation.

But all hope isn't lost. Read on to find out how volunteer coordinators and managers can make sure their volunteers are happy and learn what volunteers need to look for in the organizations to which they choose to donate their time.


Preventing Volunteer Burnout

The best volunteers are usually the ones most prone to burnout. That's because they're so dedicated, they often fail to take mental health breaks or ask for help. And because they're so dedicated, organizations often pile more and more responsibility on them.

Organizations that depend on volunteers have an inherent interest in making sure this doesn't happen. Good volunteers are hard to come by so it's important to make sure they take care of themselves -- even when they say they don't need to.


The first step in preventing burnout is to thank your volunteers regularly for their involvement and point out their contributions -- especially if they do a lot of administrative tasks. It can also help to set milestones for honoring volunteers, like sending a hand-written thank-you note or a small floral arrangement for service milestones (such as completing 100 work hours) or having a luncheon for volunteers who have completed a big project [source: Robbins].

The second thing to keep in mind is that many volunteers are dealing with heavy issues that can be emotionally draining. They may be answering calls on a suicide hotline, counseling battered women or helping the homeless. It's important to hold regular debriefing sessions or take volunteers aside after particularly difficult situations. They need help processing their feelings and getting support so strong emotions don't build up [source: Robbins].

It's also important to encourage volunteers to take time off. Just like regular paid employees, everybody needs a break. You can make it easier for your volunteers by instituting policies like requiring them to take a month off after every four-month commitment or setting concrete end dates to certain projects so they don't drag out indefinitely [source: Robbins].

Other things you can do include providing job descriptions with an estimated time commitment so volunteers know what they're getting into, delegating tasks so no one's plate gets too full and having contingency plans so volunteers don't have to worry if they miss some time because of an emergency or illness [source: Fundraiser IP].

Also, respect the fact that volunteers have other work and family commitments and keep the door open so they feel comfortable coming to you when there's a problem.

For more on volunteering, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Berger, Teresa. "Volunteer Burnout, Keep It from Plaguing You." Ezine Articles. (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Fundraiser IP. "Preventing Volunteer Burnout." (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Gorkin, Mark. "The Four Stages of Burnout." The Stress Doc. (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Robbins, James. "Five Steps for Preventing Volunteer Burnout." Fundsraiser Cyberzine. (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Volunteer "Volunteer Burnout." (Accessed 4/28/09)