Volunteer Burnout: Prevention Is the Answer

[This is a follow up to my August 7 article, Volunteers: How To Recruit And Keep.]

We love volunteers[1] .  We need volunteers.  We need more volunteers.  We need happy volunteers, so it is especially frustrating when one of our volunteers becomes burned out.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a psychological term often used to describe long term exhaustion and increased apathy.  While there are many reasons for burnout, I think there are three common sources:  lack of mission-meaningfulness, guilt feelings, and resentment.  I’d like to focus on these because they represent areas we might be able to address by changing our work habits or behaviors.   

Prevention Is Always Better

It occurred to me that we could do more to prevent volunteer burnout.  In health care we have learned of the value of prevention.  Nip it in the bud, prevent it.  It’s more effective and easier (and less costly) to prevent burnout than it is to cure it.  What’s the old adage?  “An ounce of prevention is worth…”

Who Is Responsible?

Your organization’s leadership team should take first responsibility for preventing volunteer burnout.  For most volunteer-dependent organizations, the responsibility for managing volunteers rests with the board or council and committee chairpersons[2] .        

Consider these three management tips your leadership team might consider to prevent burnout.

A Few Tips To Prevent Volunteer Burnout   

  •  Tip #1:  Spread the word – “Your work is helping us accomplish our mission!”  Volunteers love to hear that their work matters.  Tell them, over and over.  Tell them that their effort helps the organization reach its mission.  Volunteer burnout might be prevented if an organization’s leadership team continuously tells volunteers their work contributes to the mission in a meaningful way.  You can read more about this mission-to-flesh connection in my June 29, 2009 article, Transformational Leadership: From Mission To Flesh.
  •  Tip #2:  Manage your volunteer’s unrealistic workload.  Some volunteers are so energetic and enthusiastic they take on more work than they can realistically handle.  Stop this madness!  Your leadership team is responsible for limiting a volunteer’s work load.  One source of burnout is a volunteer’s guilt feelings for not doing what they said they would do (or what they wanted to do).  A manager looking to prevent burnout will help a volunteer identify the most important tasks, and then prioritize those tasks so the really important stuff gets done first.  This will increase the volunteer’s sense of satisfaction and reduce guilt.
  • Tip #3:  Manage the organization’s unrealistic expectations.  This is the flip side of Tip #2.  Some organizations place unrealistic expectations on volunteers, especially if that volunteer seems to be energetic and enthusiastic.  An unrealistic expectation is one that has not been communicated clearly, and one the volunteer has not agreed to.  Unrealistic expectations lead to another source of volunteer  burnout — resentment.  A manager looking to prevent volunteer burnout will protect a volunteer from unrealistic (unclear, unfair) workload expectations.

It seems to me, in general, that volunteer burnout is reduced when volunteer satisfaction is high.  Here’s what I think:  Volunteers are more satisfied when their work is meaningful (“You help accomplish the mission!”).  Volunteers are more satisfied when they do not feel guilty about work not yet accomplished.  Volunteers are more satisfied when they do feel resentment about work they never agreed to do.

Remember, we love our volunteers!  Love them enough to prevent their burnout.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, Ph.D (2009).

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  1. I am aware that there is some discomfort among Church folks about calling our members “volunteers”.  Perhaps a more spiritual label is called for, such as body parts or disciples.  Regardless of your spiritual inclinations, a volunteer is someone who chooses voluntarily to particpate as part of our body.
  2. I know, even the board or council members and committee chairs are volunteers, but their level of responsibility is higher.  To be fair, I suppose we need also to consider how to prevent burnout among these higher level volunteers.  Perhaps the tips and principles I outline here apply to all volunteers, but responsibility for managing higher level volunteers extends to board or council chairpersons and staff persons if present.

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