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buck stops here photo:wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_passing

Crista is a volunteer coordinator for a local branch of a major charity. She covers several counties which means a great deal of travel during the week and the need to tightly organize her day. Now we all know how hard tightly organizaing is for a volunteer manager. “I’m exhausted,” she said recently, “literally exhausted. I’m not talking about being the kind of tired that makes you fall asleep at night, I’m talking about dead to the world sleep followed by a difficult waking and the desire to crawl under the covers by noon. Am I depressed? I mean I don’t do that much physical stuff, I carry boxes of manuals or help arrange tables at a fair, but nothing that would wear me out. I have time in the car to sit down, but at the end of the day, I just want to go home and vegetate. What’s wrong with me?”
I asked her what her day was like and she said, “you know, I arrive at work and the phone starts ringing. I’m checking emails and volunteers are coming into my office to ask for guidance. Sometimes their team leads aren’t there and sometimes they have a complaint about misdirections. I have to field all kinds of calls, personal visits, plan my day, check in with clients and set up recruiting and training. It’s pretty hectic I suppose.”

No doubt, Crista is volunteer manager busy. But I sensed more to her weariness. “How do you handle interruptions?”
She continued, “well, I really try to give everyone my full and undivided attention. I mean, there’s the client who is hurting or the volunteer that has a family emergency. I’m not able to get much done, at least not in my mind. It’s constant stopping and focusing on the person in front of me and their needs.”
She hesitated. “They deserve my full attention at the time they need it, not later during some appointment when the moment is lost. It can be difficult.”

Mmmm Hmmmm. Our conversation made me think of the times I was privileged to work with singers and actors on charity shows. It was amazing to see how they emotionally transformed themselves into their roles and to afterwards see, when the glow wore off, how exhausted they were. Getting into their character and experiencing the perceived emotions drained the life right out of them.

Being busy is one thing, but there is something called “emotional labor,” conceptualized by UC Berkley professor, Arlie Russell Hochschild. Emotional labor is often associated with service workers, such as the waitress who listens to a customer complain about the the too rare steak which she had no control over. She must hide her own stressful feelings and literally do some acting in order to understand and please the customer.

There is also something called compassion fatigue which is the burnout factor that results from so much emotional availability. Volunteer managers listen to clients and empathize. We listen to volunteers and genuinely care about them. We listen to administrators and search for ways to really make a difference. Then, we go home and look for solace, but, because we are so good at emotional connections, can we turn that off in our private lives? Probably not. There’s the call from Aunt Rheda who fell and broke her hip. The neighbor, Jack just lost his job and his wife, Karin has no idea how they are going to survive. The elderly woman in the aisle of the grocery store looks lost. Would we walk away? Not unless our hair was on fire.

It’s no wonder volunteer managers are exhausted. Emotionally we are “on” from the moment we wake up until we drop into bed. We’re on for our volunteers, for society and for our families and friends. It’s what we’ve come to expect of ourselves. Working with volunteers has taught us how to be focused and empathetic. It’s how we connect volunteers to the mission and to the clients. It is a great skill set, but it does take a huge amount of energy.

Do we experience compassion fatigue? Most likely. But do we also practice emotional labor? Are we acting? I’d say, most of the time, no, but there are instances in which circumstances out of our control go awry and we are the ones to smooth it over for our volunteers. That’s when we have to put aside the stress we feel from the giving of incomplete directions, or the event time change not being communicated. Although we might like to say, “yeah, it figures. That airhead Velma never told me that they changed the venue time! You know this is the third time she’s done something like this. Last month she asked for two volunteers to sit at a fair and she didn’t tell me that they had to bring their own chairs to sit on and that it would be outside! It was cold that day, the poor volunteers shivered and stood through the whole thing! You know, I’m just sick and tired of cleaning up after inconsiderate staff who waste your guys’ time! I don’t want you to quit, but heck, I wouldn’t blame you if you did, not that anyone here would realize why you quit, they’d probably blame me!” (did I just go on a wee bit too much there? Woo, I feel so much better!)

Instead, unlike my inappropriate rant, we assure the volunteer that their time is valuable, that they are valuable while taking in any problematic comments and finding ways to make situations better. We become the obsessive person who checks, double checks and triple checks details to keep these things from happening. But in spite of our efforts, when things do happen, we repress our own frustrations and absorb the volunteers’ feedback. We pass on the information in a professional manner, because the emotional buck stops with us.

So, like Crista, if you find yourself bone weary, exhausted, or death-gripping your covers in the morning, it could be signaling burn-out. Recognizing the emotional investment you make in your job, by your compassion, empathy and emotional labor is the first step to taking care of yourself. It is crucial that volunteer managers find ways to de-stress, wind down and practice self care. While we can’t control everything about our jobs, we can control our well being.
Be well out there.