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

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