The Check Engine Light of Volunteer Stress

stressed-out-volunteersHow to Recognize and Respond to
Volunteer Stress Warning Signs

Stress has been called the disorder of the 21st century. In today’s economic climate companies are stretched thin and tensions are running high. Financial problems, personal relationships, children, and the daily hassles of just being too busy top the list of 21st century stressors.

If our volunteers are normal… they’re probably stressed. So ask yourself: does their experience volunteering with you add to that stress, or relieve it?

Counselors list volunteering or “giving back” as remedies for stress. That’s why many of our volunteers sign up. Are we delivering? Are we creating that kind of climate? (Are you getting stressed just thinking about this?)

How can we de-stress our volunteers? How can we create and manage a volunteer culture where volunteers can enjoy a break from their stress-filled lives?

The best way to proactively de-stress your volunteers is to keep your eyes open for the following ‘CHECK ENGINE’ lights of stress. Just like that annoying warning light on your dashboard that says, ‘CHECK ENGINE,’ it’s shortsighted to ignore these warnings in our organization.

Note: not all stress is bad. Controlled stress, called eustress, is what gets us out of bed in the morning to attack the day. We often label people who do not have enough stress in their lives as “lazy.” However, distress is a harmful type of stress that happens when life has become a combination of too many stressors. Volunteers don’t want to add additional stressors to their busy, anxious lives, so we need to take these warning signals seriously by getting to the bottom of the problem.

STRESS WARNING SIGNS—the “check engine light” of stressed-out volunteers:

  • The no-fun warning light:   The first indicator is the fun factor.  Many do not look at volunteering like work but see it as a way to relax. Let’s face it, it’s their free time so they want to have a good time while volunteering. Are people having fun?  Are people laughing and enjoying each other?  If not, this is a warning sign.
  • The cynical warning light:  When you begin to hear the “they” word– “They don’t know what they are doing”– it is an indication that volunteers have lost their confidence in leadership.  Passion without hope is cynicism.  When volunteers lose their hope and faith in an organization, all that passion morphs into cynicism.
  • The no-show warning light:  When people miss their volunteer roles more than once or twice in a row, this is a warning sign to check out.  It might be a family crisis, a medical condition, an emergency or fatigue. Passionate volunteers don’t miss their responsibility.
  • The giving-too-much warning light:  Some well meaning, faithful volunteers feel “If I don’t do it, no one else will.”   These volunteers seem to do all of the work, are at every event, and practically live to volunteer at the organization. Their motivation is right on, but they might be sacrificing too much.  Watch out for this sign because when volunteers sacrifice themselves too much, burnout can blindside them. They can become cynical as they feel that people just don’t care like they used to.
  • The “no” means “no” warning light:  Sometimes “no” really means “no.” Sue was the chairman of a committee, but she asked if someone else could be the chair the next year. All the committee members kept saying, “You are a great chair. Please chair again.” So Sue acquiesced. She really didn’t want to,  so the next year she found that it was easier to resign from the committee than refuse to chair. Sue’s “no” really meant “no.”
  • The outburst-of-anger warning light:  Anger can be an indicator the volunteer does not know how to handle the stressors anymore and overacts.  There are many causes of anger, but sometimes the outburst of anger is a signal crying, “I can’t handle it anymore!”

These are just a few of the most obvious warning signals.

So what’s the remedy?

I suggest a ‘CHECK ENGINE’ meeting to ask the volunteer about the very specific warning signal you have observed. Don’t call it this, of course. Just ask the volunteer to lunch or coffee. The meeting should be in a non-threatening place where you let the volunteer vent. Listen carefully for feelings of anger, boredom, fear, anxiety, or frustration. Sometimes all  volunteers need is someone to listen to them.

After listening, seek the volunteer’s help in working out a solution. If you value this volunteer, affirm his or her role and try to work out a mutual solution so that you don’t lose him or her. Some of the suggestions might be a short break, adding team members, or lightening the load. And keep watch for signs of burnout. Use our eight Burnout Busters to prevent your volunteers from fizzling out.

Your short investment of time, taking notice, and listening will go miles with your volunteers.

We Can Help
Looking for ways to inspire and equip your stressed out volunteer managers? Bring us to your city.

Tom-McKee-TeachI just returned traveling from the far west to the far east of the U.S.—Hawaii and Florida. it was so worth the long 20-hours of airplane rides to spend time with passionate volunteer leaders.  Over 100 leaders from “Hands On County of Maui” listened to Jonathan and me as we presented our New Breed Workshop.  Then I flew to Orlando to deliver the closing keynote to 300 leaders attending the national “Keep America Beautiful” conference. They recruit over 5.5 million volunteers each year. I was reminded again of just how much volunteers can do when they are in the hands of effective leadership.

If you are interested in having me, or Jonathan and me, help you develop your leadership, contact us at We’d love to bring “Mobilizing the Power and Passion of The New Breed Volunteer” to your leaders.


This entry was posted in Books, Keynote, Leadership, The New Breed of Volunteer, Uncategorized, Volunteer Engagement, volunteer management, Volunteer Retension, Workshops. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Check Engine Light of Volunteer Stress

  1. Kimberly Barr says:

    I am very interested attending a workshop in Calgary Alberta. Please let me know if there is one available in 2016.
    Thank you

  2. All your posts are very informative and very relevant to me. I love reading about how you help other people get motivated to help all voluntarily and unselfishly. You made me very impressed.

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  5. I lived in total stress, I think, the whole my life. And I was always interested, if there were times when stress wasn’t a disease? I doubt, really. But nowadays it’s really huge problem. I don’t know how people can earn money and don’t feel stress. I don’t feel it only when I’m at our village house.

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