21 Jan

Volunteer burnout may surprise you too

Photo: Niklas Meltio

According to many researches (and our experiences), investing your time and energy into volunteering makes you happier and increases your wellbeing. However, sometimes it is necessary to say “no” or at least “not now” for volunteering. This post tells a true story how to prevent overloading yourself.

I would like to share my experience of a volunteer burnout. When I started volunteering for the humanitarian assistance in 2012, I was very excited about all the activities. In fact, I wanted to do everything and learn about everything. I started volunteering with the Finnish Red Cross group at the detention centre and soon after I participated in the activities of the International Youth Club, took part in fundraising and finally became a board member in two non-profit organisations.

Everything I did felt important and I suddenly made my volunteering a number one priority in life. All this volunteering had a purpose after all, and I was helping others. But soon as all the activities started to pile up, I realized I was seriously neglecting myself. I had to rethink my commitments and limit my volunteering. But I didn’t want to quit completely.

To get a professional point of view on my situation, I spoke with Ilkka Saarinen, who has volunteered for the Finnish Red Cross for around 20 years. He also leads courses on psychological support. Ilkka has also worked in several emergencies where it is especially important to take account of psychological wellbeing of the volunteers. I asked him what I and others facing the same problem should do to prevent a volunteer burnout in the future.

Start with small steps

“New volunteers get passionate about a cause and some of them immediately want to save the world. But that does not happen. First of all, they need to take care of themselves to be able to be good volunteers”, Ilkka tells me.

According to Ilkka, it is very common that new volunteers want to do a lot of things right away and tend to forget about their own wellbeing.

“When you want to start volunteering, take something small to begin with. You can become a friend of someone and spend time with this person for two hours per week. It might seem too little, but soon you will realize that it’s sufficient”, Ilkka explains.

Photo: Hanna Linnakko

Put your own oxygen mask first

As volunteers work with other people, it does not require much to find yourself in a situation that you feel emotionally connected to a person and his suffering. According to Ilkka, dealing with difficult situations of others is psychologically very demanding. However, these are exactly the situations when your wellbeing must go first.

Let’s take an example that Ilkka gave me. Do you remember the security instruction videos before an airplane takes off? When cabin pressure lowers, an oxygen masks drop. If a mother travels with a child, she first has to put the mask on herself so that she can be able and strong enough to assist her child. If she would pass out, she would no longer be there to help the child.

“New volunteers get passionate about a cause and some of them immediately want to save the world. But that does not happen.”

The same applies to volunteering. If you want to help and take care of others, you need to make sure that you are also taken care of. The role of the volunteer is to assist others in a specific situation, like after some traumatic experience. You are there for them in that moment only. But when it’s over, you have to return to your private life and strictly separate your volunteer role from your private person. “This is one thing which is often forgotten,” Ilkka says.

Ilkka also gives a personal experience when he spent a night without sleeping because he kept on thinking about a situation of one client.

“Then I realized that by thinking about the client and his situation is not going to help him anyway. He doesn’t even know that I’m worried about him and cannot sleep,” Ilkka says.

Know your own limits

Ilkka encourages all volunteers to establish their own “small rituals” to keep an eye on personal limits.

“I worked with my clients in one part of the city and I was going there by car. I decided to make a border at the place at which I would always have my car parked. When I finished with my clients, I allowed myself to be concerned about them only until I have reached my car. After then, I had to let it go,” Ilkka tells me.

Of course, volunteers should always have an opportunity to talk about their experience and feelings related to the volunteering. This is crucial especially when they need to preserve confidentiality.

Officially this is called defusing and it’s basically a discussion in a small group which should take place after each volunteering session. When these small discussions are led by a qualified worker then this is called debriefing. Volunteers that engage in mentally demanding work can also attend in a work counselling once a month.

One of the points that Ilkka mentioned and that I have also found helpful is that I should keep developing myself, go to educational courses and read books relevant to my volunteer activities. Having volunteer friends also helps – as bonding with other volunteers makes it easier to discuss related things.

Taking care of your own wellbeing is essential when helping others. Sometimes we go through difficult situations in our personal lives as well and feel overwhelmed by volunteer activities.

From my experience, I can say that the most important thing is to know your own limits and not to take too much on your shoulders.  I can only agree with what Ilkka said to me: “You cannot rescue the whole world. You can make your share.’’

Text: Jana Sassakova
Photos: Image Bank of The Finnish Red Cross

16 Jul

Greetings from the Solferino Academy!

Red Cross volunteers Markus and Laura participated last month in Solferino Academy in Italy. During the one week meeting, volunteers had the change to meet people from all over the world and discuss about humanitarian issues.

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. This well-known fact also applies to Solferino Academy.

Solferino Markus

Markus with the other participants.

The point of the whole Solferino Academy initiative is to bring people around the world together to come up with ways how to make this planet a better place to live in. This year special focus was put on fundamental principles. Academy consisted of five days Agents of Behavioral Change (ABC) training, half-day long Roundtable dialogue and finally, the traditional Fiaccolata march with torches. Sounds vague? Well, to tell you the truth, it is. It certainly is like a box of unknown chocolates.

ABC training was the reason why it seemed worth the effort to figure out what kind of sweets were hidden in this box. It is a peer educator training for ethical leadership that was developed a few years ago by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This training is aimed at giving participants the interpersonal skills and tools to be able to have a positive change in the mindsets of peers. The methodology of ABC training is experiential learning through the use of games and simulation exercises followed by discussions.

The ABC training was everything that it promised to be and even more! The group of 14 participants was as diverse as it can get in all aspects; geographically, professionally, age, Red Cross experience… This diversity, combined with the way the training was run (by challenging the participants to think, to be active and to try out the tools themselves), ignited many moments of reflection, some of which turned out to be paradigm shifting!

Solferino elvytys

This, I bet, is the point of the whole training. If one wants to see a true behavioral change on someone, it has to start from an inner change in the person. And in order to understand such an inner change, it is beneficial to know yourself how it feels.

It would be perfect if all the participants would use the skills to create projects that have positive change in the society. But even if not, these lessons gave great personal value. I would imagine all the participants learned something about themselves during this course. Therefore a positive change was already made in the lives of the participants.

Solferino Laura

Laura with Mr. Elhadj As Sy, the Secretary General of the IFRC.

After five days though, this training came to an end. There would have been enough material to use for several weeks on learning and practicing this material, but we were about to move on to the Roundtable discussion.

In the Roundtable discussion a lot of effort had been used to bring important key note speakers, for example Mr. Elhadj As Sy, the Secretary General of the IFRC. It was great to hear these excellent speeches from inspirational speakers but the “think-tank” part of the Roundtable wasn’t as good as I was hoping for.

The week ended in the annual Fiaccolata. Fiaccolata is a 10 kilometres walk from Solferino to Castiglione delle Stiviere; the same walk that was taken by people helping the wounded in the battle of Solferino. This walk takes place in the night and everyone have torched with them. It is a magical walk and a befitting ending for Solferino Academy. A real cherry on the cake. Or on the box of chocolate.

Markus Neuvonen, photos Laura Musta

09 Jul

Living the dream of Henry

World Village Festival

Siaka (the second from the left) participating in the World Village Festival.

Siaka Dippa moved to Finland a few years ago. New country and culture didn’t feel that strange after he joined the Finnish Red Cross. As a former volunteer of The Gambia Red Cross, he has been happy to see that there are many similarities between different Red Cross societies.

I was a volunteer in The Gambia Red Cross Society. It started as a branch of the British Red Cross Society in 1948, and became an independent national society in 1966.

Unlike the Finnish Red Cross, more than 80% of the volunteers are young people aged between 15 and 30, and this cohort of people are the backbone of The Gambia Red Cross. Like other members of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, The Gambia Red Cross places great emphasis on supporting activities relevant to young people as they are 60% of The Gambia’s population.

Many people in The Gambia become Red Cross volunteer when they start primary school, usually at the age of six or seven. However, my case was different as my journey to the Red Cross started late. It was in my eleventh grade when I got invited to join one of the most active Red Cross links in The Gambia-Bundung Home Link with over 100 other very active and dedicated volunteers.  A home link in The Gambia is what is referred to as a branch in the Finnish Red Cross. I remember the first activity I took part in was a National Youth Drama competition organised by Youth In Development and Change (YIDAC) and guess what, we won!

Gambia RC Training

This marks the beginning of a journey serving humanity through the Red Cross and I cherished every single moment, from an international youth camp commonly known as Bantaba to the polio vaccination and Malaria campaigns, reproductive health, disaster preparedness and response, leadership training and first aid camps among others.

I joined the Red Cross because I wanted to serve humanity. I felt that there is someone out there who might be vulnerable or might need help and by volunteering in the Red Cross, I could change the person’s life. In addition I want to live the dream of Henry Dunant who called for the creation of an aid organisation, not only for the wounded in war, but to aid in all manner of disasters needing an organised response.

For many like me, Gambia Red Cross serves as another home, where skills and hidden talents are developed. They made us to believe in ourselves.

Jukka Louma

Photo Jukka Louma

Moving to a new country. I had no idea about its people, culture, weather or work. I had mix feelings. I was happy because I was going to study but leaving behind family, friends, work and all the different voluntary activities was the saddest and the most difficult moment.

The confusion didn’t last long after arriving in Finland as I found a new home and a new family, the Finnish Red Cross. Just with a simple click of a computer I got an information package of all the activities within Helsinki and Uusimaa district, especially those that are conducted in English.  As if that is insufficient, I was invited to an introductory course about the Finnish Red Cross. I never hesitated to sign up because I was hungry to know all the bits and pieces of the national society and how I could get involved.

One of the clubs that I was interested to join right after the introductory course was Betania International Club which is open for everyone and provides a meeting place for people from various backgrounds. I started to go to Betania and was lucky to meet different people. With some of them I’m still in contact.

Five months after my arrival, an application to the Youth delegate training course was announced and I applied, luckily I was selected. This course prepared me to work as youth delegate for the International Red Cross Movement through the Finnish Red Cross. Shortly after our training together with other participants, we established an international youth club (FRC International Youth Club), a group for young people between 15 and 28. I continue to volunteer in different activities including visits to schools, campaigns and festivals among them Hunger Day Campaign, World Village Festival and Lupa Välittää.

Siaka received the Youth Volunteer of the Year award from the Helsinki and Uusimaa district this May. Photo Tuula Korhonen

If you ask me today, I will say Finnish Red Cross solved the puzzle! I haven’t done much because of the language barrier, but I am happy I could serve humanity. I am even happier of the fact that my humble efforts can be linked to those countless others who make a difference to the world.

Having experience both national societies, I have come to realise that each national society design their activities based on the need of the people. Therefore I would say there are a lot more similarities than differences as all Red Cross societies in the world work in accordance with the seven principles of the movement.

No one is too poor to volunteer and you don’t have to wait until you retire. The experiences you gain while volunteering can never be learned anywhere else. There is a lot more to be done.

Siaka K. Dibba