Cinnamon Bite

How to avoid Volunteer Burn-out

Ruth Rice from Renew Wellbeing and Joy Wright from Emerge Advocacy share some insight into how to develop healthy boundaries that ensure your volunteers don’t get burnt out. 

Q: Why should churches running social action projects set boundaries for beneficiaries and volunteers?

Volunteers need to know where they stand and what being involved in a social action project will mean. If boundaries are not in place, then the demand on them can become too much.

We need to set a culture of honouring our team, valuing their time and wellbeing, not presuming to ask more of them. Good boundaries are essential for that. 

Boundaries also help our beneficiaries because they too know where they stand, what we can and can’t provide. Most people don’t set out to become dependent, it happens over time when things are not clear.

Communicating clearly from the start about what the project is for, what it can and can’t provide will help beneficiaries to manage their expectations from the outset. 

Q: How do you set up a project that is flexible enough to respond to the needs of individuals, but also has clear boundaries?

I think it’s about getting to know people and responding to them as individuals, not having a one size fits all or production line model, but being clear where the edges are, so that people can feel confident to make the most of what’s on offer within the boundaries.

In a way it’s like how having a fence around a garden helps people feel secure and they can relax in a way they wouldn’t in a wide open space with undefined areas they think can’t go in.

It’s helpful to think as much beforehand as possible about what would and wouldn’t be okay. Think about:

  • Where are the pressure points?
  • How will you deal with those things when they happen?
  • Are you willing to make exceptions?
  • Who makes the final decision?

It’s important to be up-front with beneficiaries about what you can and can’t offer. You can also connect with others services you can signpost them to.

For example, Emerge Advocacy don’t do crisis support over the phone, we tell young people that they can call Samaritans or Childline who are specialists in providing this type of support.

What happens if you sense someone is becoming too dependent?

Remind them of the boundaries. Help beneficiaries develop good relationship with a number of team members to spread the contact. Be wise about not always responding straight away to messages or requests for help. 

If subtle strategies aren’t heeded, consider having a more structured meeting with the person, explaining what isn’t working so well and what the plan needs to be going forward. 

Remember that the welfare of the team is more important than any individual beneficiary. If you team get burnt out, you won’t be able to help anyone.

It’s also useful to see yourselves as connectors, who help people access more support from a range of specialists rather than meeting all those needs yourself.

And know that there is no ‘us and them’ when beneficiaries claim that other professionals are hopeless, or not doing their job. We are all one team, all working for the good of the beneficiary. 

How do you deal with volunteers who aren’t guarding their boundaries?

It starts with a good recruitment process, through to regular team training and supervision. This helps reinforce the boundaries and gives you a point to refer to if you need to have a specific conversation about an issue.

Also, teaching the team about how our identity comes from our relationship with God, not our role our ability to help someone. Train them in the drama triangle and think through specifics of how those dynamics might come into play in your setting and how to flip into the empowerment triangle

If necessary, sit down with the volunteer and talk about it, and do this sooner rather than later. Many people don’t like confrontation and allow things to get out of hand but simply talking and reminding a team member of their training doesn’t have to be a big deal.