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Taking Extra Care to Support Volunteers

The recent spate of natural disasters has cast a light on incredible volunteers across the globe helping people in need.

Although not always news worthy, volunteers daily walk towards a crisis instead of running away. In organizations everywhere, volunteers are doing the hard work, the emotional work. Because they feel so deeply, they are affected by the tragedies they witness such as in this story:  Volunteer shares harrowing account of how Hurricane Irma ripped toddler from woman’s arms

In our training programs, we encourage our volunteers to have empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) so they can better serve our clients. But can empathy take a toll?

I remember a new volunteer, Jenna and the first time she was present with a patient who died. Jenna had hours of volunteer training. She and I had talked at length about her strengths and capabilities. She was prepared… on paper.

Minutes after she left the room, allowing family members to gather, she sought me out. I was in the middle of some urgent matter that I have long forgotten. I looked up and saw Jenna’s face and I knew. You can’t mistake a face that has been profoundly affected by what was just witnessed. It’s there in the tiny muscles that make up the eyes and mouth. It’s there, deep in the irises that reflect a life altering experience. It’s there in the reverent voice asking for “a moment of your time.”

We found a private spot and sat for several long and quiet minutes while Jenna gathered her thoughts. It was difficult for her to put into words how she felt. She only knew that she felt changed, different, profoundly transformed somehow.

And if you think about it, how does each volunteer cope with the things they witness? Does training and on-boarding take care of the emotional investment our volunteers make when accepting roles placing them in life’s most profound situations?

Volunteers have an amazing resilience and ability to cope when faced with deeply personal scenarios. But what if a situation becomes more personal? In what situations can this happen to a volunteer, even if they have received excellent training?

  • a volunteer works with a person who reminds them of a family member (child, partner, parent, sibling)
  • a volunteer witnesses tragedy over and over and it accumulates
  • a volunteer is dealing with a crisis in their own lives
  • a volunteer is in a situation in which they perceive their help makes little difference (in outward appearance)
  • a volunteer gets caught up in the narrative of the situation
  • a volunteer feels the frustration of the client

We can’t prepare our volunteers for every situation, story and person they will encounter. So, how can we provide extra support for volunteers in order to prevent burnout? A few of the things we can do are:

  • ask clinical staff to be on the lookout for signs a volunteer needs support
  • ask clinical staff to be available to speak with volunteers who may be overwhelmed
  • enlist experienced volunteers to routinely call the volunteers who are working with clients. Experienced volunteers are the perfect candidates to do these check-ins because volunteers are comfortable speaking to other volunteers. (This is a great assignment for volunteers who physically can no longer do the job-instead of “retiring” them, elevate them to mentoring status)
  • create a monthly coffee klatch or tea time and encourage volunteers to share tips, stories and feelings
  • use newsletters to offer tips on self care
  • incorporate stories of volunteers who experienced emotional challenges into training and emphasize that this is not a sign of failure
  • designate a portion of each volunteer meeting to discuss “what’s going on with you”
  • intervene when noticing a volunteer experiencing emotional challenges (this can be personal, professional etc.)

If we make it clear that we are serious about supporting our volunteers, we will help them remain emotionally healthy and keep them from burning out.

This is the irony of non-profit work: We want our volunteers to share in our clients’ pain (Empathy) in order to better support the clients. But that empathy can lead to our volunteers experiencing their own emotional pain. Let’s make sure we support them so it doesn’t get out of hand.