Preventing Compassion Fatigue in your Volunteers

compassion fatigue

Wood is supposed to float. It’s supposed to be buoyant, and dance on top of the water. Why, then, are these logs sunk to the bottom of the river?

Waterlogging happens when water penetrates into all the cells of a piece of wood, so that the air in it is displaced, causing the wood to sink.

It’s a good analogy for compassion fatigue.

Our volunteers come in enthusiastic and eager to help, but over time, as they deal with one distressing situation after another, that enthusiasm is replaced with apathy or, even worse, with depression or resentment.

This is especially true with those volunteers who deal regularly with clients who are undergoing or escaping traumatic events. Those working in sexual abuse shelters or suicide hotlines are a good example.

“Mary” was a volunteer in a shelter for women escaping abusive relationships.

She was empathetic and caring, and the clients loved her. During her twice-weekly, six hour shifts, she would listen to them talk, provide support and do what she could to help them recover.

Over time, a change came over Mary. Instead of arriving early and diving into her tasks with a big welcoming smile on her face, she started arriving late, cancelling shifts, and seemed to resent having to hear the clients’ stories.

The break came when a woman and her toddler were admitted to the shelter. The child had been so brutally abused that his face was swollen to the size of a pumpkin, and both arms were in casts.

Mary ran from the front desk and was found curled up in the storeroom sobbing and shaking. She was “waterlogged”. All the pain and suffering that she saw shift after shift had displaced her natural stores of optimism and compassion.

Compassion fatigue is more common than people realize.

Mary is not unique, or even uncommon. Compassion fatigue happens a lot, and good volunteer leaders watch for it carefully.

Symptoms can include withdrawal, irritability, apathy, feelings of helplessness, depression and lack of concentration.

If you have a volunteer who was initially great and they start to show these signs, it’s time to have a talk with them. Before they break!

Have a conversation to find out what’s going on. Give them some time away – either give them a complete holiday or assign them to less stressful tasks. Lower the number of shifts that they fill, or reduce the hours. Allow them to recover.

Most of all, show them you care. Show you understand what they’re going through, tell them they’re not alone, and that you are willing to work with them to make it better.

The sooner that the situation is identified and dealt with, the less impact it will have on the volunteer and on your organization.

Mary’s supervisors didn’t recognize the signs until too late. After a few months of counselling, she started volunteering again. But not at the shelter.

Waterlogged wood can be made to float again, if it’s taken from the water and given time to dry out.

If you want to prevent compassion fatigue, when you see any of your volunteers “sinking”, try giving them some time off to help them recover their buoyancy. They (and your clients!) will thank you!

Would you would like to talk more about this issue, or have another issue you’re dealing with in your nonprofit?  Book a call with me and we can work it out together.

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