Volunteer fatigue


Worker burn out is common current experience. Teachers, nurses, doctors, people working in businesses and organizations feel burdened by stresses and pressures. A general malaise results. Many leave positions and the workforce. Others “work to rule” — doing the absolute minimum. Pandemic complicates the problem as more people become accustomed to working from home and resist regular office hours and restrictions. Such burnout often results more from lack of meaning and purpose than from overwork and external pressures.

Volunteer fatigue and burnout are less visible and rarely publicized. Nevertheless, volunteer fatigue is a significant social problem. Fewer people volunteer to assist our agencies and organization that provide the social capital to improve social health in our communities.

Our current ethos emphasizes individualism, anonymity and identity groups. The emphasis on individualism is commonly identified and described in the media. As everything moves faster, long-term commitments become rare. Many individuals and families distance themselves from worksites to nearby cities for many reasons, one of which is freedom from unappreciated intrusions in their personal affairs, which leads to greater social isolation — what Harvey Cox described as attractive in the ‘secular city.’ Identity groups support activities that benefit the ingroup and only incidentally benefit the entire community.

Economic changes and heightened expectations regarding finances and status result in smaller families with both parents working full time. Fifty years ago, one parent’s labor could provide a ‘living’, so that it was dire poverty that demanded both parents have jobs. Also, women faced difficulties finding professional positions. Extracurricular activities of children have increased dramatically creating burdens on ragged parents. No wonder less time exists for them to engage in volunteer activities.

Generational differences exist regarding volunteering and charitable contributions.

Data from the Lake Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University confirm that older people donate more and volunteer as long as they are able in larger numbers than younger and middle-aged adults. The elderly faithfully volunteered in the past, but fewer able-bodied peers support them even as needs increase. It is easier to burn out and give up. Thus, unless more younger people are inspired to contribute and volunteer, the future of many of our helping organizations is bleak as financial and social capital gradually fades away.

Unfortunately, individualism results in fewer people joining social organizations that sponsor needed social services in our community. Churches that in the past have inspired and organized people to volunteer local non-profit organizations are declining in membership, especially of younger generations. These organizations rely on volunteers to provide services directly to the members as well as to help others. We face a deficit of inspiration. The focus of some has changed from local challenges to national and global foci. Fortunately, many elderly are relatively secure financially and continue to fund local organizations they previously served as volunteers. Such financial support enables the organizations to hire paid staff to do work previously donated by volunteers. One hopes that economic downturns and decline of pension income will not reduce that to a trickle.

No easy solution exists for volunteer fatigue and the decline of charitable contributions and volunteer service. Two avenues to improve prospects for the future are: (1) Volunteer for some service to the community. Everyone, including recently retired persons, can find additional meaning, satisfaction, friendship and joy in helping others in the community. (2) Support those organizations that sponsor volunteer activities, and especially support those that provide inspiration for charitable contributions and volunteer service. Thereby, perhaps we can reduce the dangers of volunteer fatigue in Montgomery County.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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