7 Ways to avoid volunteer burnout

BY Rachael Rowe

30th Jan 2023 Wellbeing

7 Ways to avoid volunteer burnout

How to maintain a balance when taking on voluntary positions

Each year there are thousands of requests for volunteers, and the number of people taking on a role is increasing. Voluntary positions include anything from project support, counselling and acting in a supportive role in the public sector. People volunteer for many reasons and primarily to give back to the community, but there has to be a balance. When does volunteering become significantly more than an exciting way to spend a couple of hours a week and turn into an arduous chore?

Volunteer burnout is an increasing problem, especially when a well-intended project gets out of hand. When an event or project feels overwhelming, or you seem to be working full-time on what should take up a couple of hours a week, it’s time to pause and reconsider your role, particularly if you are beginning to resent the work. Burnout can lead to physical and emotional illness, so looking out for yourself and others is essential.

Should some roles be paid?

Although there is a belief that those working for a charity should be doing work for free, some roles take significant time to manage and complete correctly. Examples include complex project management, daily cleaning and maintenance of a sports facility and festival management. When people take on too much, it can lead to unrealistic expectations from themselves and others.

"Ask what support is available from other volunteers, and ensure roles are spread across several people"

Ask what support is available from other volunteers, and ensure roles are spread across several people. Consider getting a grant to pay someone for jobs requiring significant time and skills.

Create boundaries

When you volunteer for something, one way of managing your time is to create a few boundaries. For example, you can offer one morning a month which will leave you free to do other things and should be manageable. Or offer to do a specific task at the village fete.

How to avoid volunter burnout—A woman smiling wearing a volunteer tshirt alongside other volunteers outdoorsWorking alongside others makes volunteering less overwhelming and more enjoyable

You should not be responsible for doing everything. But, of course, if there’s an emergency, you’ll then have the capacity to help out.

Don’t be afraid to say no

When the call goes out for volunteers to do something, have you noticed how it’s usually the same people that come forward? If you are that person, try holding back to see whether anyone else will come forward. Silence is a powerful thing and will allow others to volunteer or consider other options.

Saying no is also important when it becomes clear that volunteers do not have the resources available to keep things running. For example, if you help run a community cafe and don’t have enough volunteers, closing for a day gives people a break, helps raise the issue with others and nudges people to consider volunteering time.

Communication is two way

Communication is essential for volunteers. Volunteers must understand their roles and what to do, so training and regular updates are essential. However, it is also crucial to listen to volunteers and to welcome feedback on how things can be improved or identify significant problems.

"It's crucial to listen to volunteers and to welcome feedback on how things can be improved"

Regular debriefing is another service that should be offered to people volunteering in areas where they are likely to encounter stressful situations, such as in food banks, and will help identify early signs of burnout and distress. Debriefing after an event helps learn lessons so improvements can be made for future projects.

Focus on volunteers you need

All volunteers are indeed welcome, but sometimes you need people with specific skills to get a job done. For example, if you need people who can lift and set up tables for an event or someone who is good at coding, ask for those skills and abilities.

A female volunteer talking to a woman with a young son at a shelterVolunteering in something which you have a specific skill in is a good idea

Otherwise, the work falls to the few, whereas asking for a specific skillset could get you volunteers best suited to the job required.

Give people a break

Everyone needs a break, and that includes volunteers. If you have an event, make sure people take breaks during the day, so they don’t get overwhelmed. And encourage your volunteers to take holidays or have weekends away by having a relief rota.

"If you have an event, make sure people take breaks during the day, so they don’t get overwhelmed"

If you struggle to keep services open, review the timings and close a shop or cafe so you can staff it adequately and give the team a well-deserved break.

Say thank you

It’s so important to show your appreciation for the volunteers and team members. When people give their time to achieve great things for a good cause, it is vital to acknowledge their work. People who feel appreciated will feel supported and part of the team.

A group of volunteers smiling and picking up litter in a parkAcknowledging the work of volunteers could be acknowledged with a social get-together

A regular social get-together for volunteers helps people integrate more and know people outside the volunteering world. They will also feel less isolated.

Finally, by creating a supportive environment for the people who give their time, you will retain good volunteers and even encourage more to join your team.

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