Tips for Helping Volunteers Manage Stress in Tough Times

Volunteers dedicate themselves to associations, but are associations keeping them in mind when times are hard? A mental health expert offers her insights on including volunteers in mental health outreach—and openly recognizing their struggles.

Volunteers are the life force that power associations. They contribute their time, brainpower, and hard work to help make associations more effective and successful. They come through in the clutch, but are associations doing enough for them when the chips are down?

It’s been a rough 18 months—and it’s not getting much better, either. One year into the pandemic, nearly one-third of participants in a recent study by The Lancet Regional Health-Americas expressed having symptoms of depression. And one of the central drivers of that depression was the many stressors caused by the crisis.

Organizations have helped staff members cope with mental health challenges—and volunteers need to be a part of that outreach too. “It’s really crucial to remember that even though they are in a volunteer role, it is still work. It is something that they are passionate about and dedicating their time to, and they are experiencing total upheaval of their lives like everybody else is,” said Melissa Doman, MA, organizational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist, and author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work … Here’s Why (And How to Do It Really Well).

For starters, if your association is hosting an event, webinar, or program about mental health at work, volunteers need to be invited to participate. It’s also important to keep in mind that acknowledging someone might be under stress is not taboo.

“Every human being on the planet, no matter what they do, will encounter all different forms of stress,” Doman said. Just because you are including volunteers in the conversation doesn’t mean you’re implying they have problems. It is acknowledging that managing stress is an important issue.

Doman recommends these other strategies for opening up the conversation and helping volunteers navigate a fundamentally altered landscape.

  • Readjust expectations. People’s capabilities are not the same. No one is the same person they were before the pandemic started. What “good” looks like, what “productive” looks like, and what “feeling OK” looks like are all different now.
  • Show you care. Volunteers might be feeling personal feelings of failure or concern they are reluctant to share with an organization because they don’t want to seem like they are neglecting their responsibilities. Let them know their wellbeing is important and give them a safe space to talk about it.
  • Intentional language. Being clear about where you’re coming from prevents people from becoming defensive or fearful. If you’ve noticed a few missed deadlines, check in to make sure the volunteer is all right. It’s about seeking to understand what’s behind the scenes that led to the missed deadline and coming from a place of genuine care.

Almost everyone in the world has experienced “a form of trauma,” Doman said. And many people are mourning the loss of the way life used to be. A recent Gallup poll, which surveyed people from 116 countries, found that 2020 was the most stressful year on record in the past 15 years.

“As humans, we are organisms under a massive state of distress,” Doman said. That’s why including volunteers and offering them support is crucial. “Each person is going through their own journey,” she said. “We’re all swimming in a sea of triggers, trying to find a boat.”

(Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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