In Handy 13:10 21 Dec 2022

Doing your best: how to prevent burnout in volunteering and help properly

On airplanes, we are told that first, you need to put on the oxygen mask on yourself and then on the child. The same should apply to volunteers. Together with the We're Volunteers, we explain how those who help others should care for themselves and what their loved ones can do to support them.

What is the problem?

Volunteers' illusory reward

Kyiv resident Oleksii works in IT, but since the first days of the war, he has united friends and volunteers to bring victory closer, buys fodder for animals, helps people stay warm with hot food, and sometimes attracts people to large gatherings. 

"I have many acquaintances who are currently at the front. From the very beginning, we started delivering food and gloves to the territorial defense, and even then, we met old friends from childhood. Then these guys began to be sent to flashpoints, and we already knew their friends. When they write to us with a request, we help them," the guy says.

The friends' volunteer company is not a public or volunteer organization, so they do not have days off, special rewards, or salaries for good deeds. Oleksii admits that there are exhausting days:

"We lose heart when we collect humanitarian aid from funds, spend gasoline, drive for several hours to people in a settlement, they look at what you offer them and ask: 'What is this? Is there no feed for neutered cats? And are there only canned goods like that?' That is, people don't have anything at all, but they still pick on. It's not very pleasant," the volunteer shares. 

Long-term work without days off and a decent reward is a story familiar to many active volunteers. Unfortunately, such work can lead to burnout. We decided to find out with psychotherapist Dasha Nepochatova what it is, how to deal with it, and help ourselves.

What is the solution?

What keeps our volunteers "afloat"

Sometimes for volunteers, their activity is already a reward. Remember how nice it was for the entire country when we donated to Serhii Prytula's Fund for a satellite; everyone felt their involvement in a great cause. Oleksii noticed the same effect: 

емоційне вигорання у волонтерів

"I can't say there is burnout, but there is a conscience. And it is very nice when you help in any way, even a little. And when you hear comments that a bulletproof vest or a helmet saved someone's life, it's amazing! It's cool," says the guy. 

For him, results and feedback are the most important reward. 

But this is not the case with everyone. Emotional health is a delicate matter that needs to be handled very carefully. So let's talk about other self-care rules.

Checking ourselves for "burnout"

In the definition of "emotional burnout," we will rely on the World Health Organization (WHO) term proposed in 2019. It is a syndrome resulting from chronic, unmanageable workplace stress. Signs of this condition: 

  • constant fatigue or exhaustion; 
  • feeling detached from professional duties, negative emotions;
  • decrease in labor productivity, etc.

Psychotherapist Dasha Nepochatova explains: "Emotional burnout is primarily associated with professional activity, which leads to problems at work, significantly reducing the work efficiency of both individuals and the entire work team, especially when it comes to small teams."

If you notice such symptoms, it is better to contact a psychologist (further, we will give contacts of the ones ready to help). But first of all, Dasha Nepochatova advises you to organize an emotional rest: "It is important to feel the body, to be grounded. Regular massages, walks, and exercises in the gym can help," the expert advises. 

It is better to start the conversation cautiously with loved ones if they also help others and are tired. No one will tell you what to do better than them, so the question of how to help a loved one is better to ask them. Dasha Nepochatova advises the following method: "It is best to say: 'Do you remember how they always say on the plane that first you need to put the mask on yourself, and then on the child? How can I help you with this?'" 

Everyone can have their recipe for self-care, but below are the fundamental and universal methods and rules that volunteers should follow. 

Arranging a day off

If you look at the foreign experience of volunteering, every organization that involves volunteers signs a volunteer contract with them, specifying working hours, prescribes specific duties, and provides for a volunteer vacation. That is, the organization assumes a significant part of the responsibility for the organization of volunteer activities, including for the emotional state of its volunteers. In Ukraine, this practice is more of an exception than a rule. That is why the psychotherapist advises: 

"Volunteers should take responsibility for their psychological health, so to speak, take care of themselves. First, you need to adjust your volunteer schedule, organize your weekend, send yourself on vacation, and build boundaries regarding participation in correspondence in work chats (put chats on silent mode after certain working hours, for example). These are basic things, and they are from the category of hygiene. When implemented daily, you can add a little reward for the good things you do as a volunteer. It can be a walk in the fresh air, creative dates for yourself (theaters, museums, a good book, an aromatic bath, etc.)," ​​psychotherapist Dasha Nepochatova explains. 

You need to talk

The weekend for a volunteer is only part of it. In addition to physical fatigue, emotional fatigue may also occur. For example, when volunteers meet other people and listen to their stories. Our hero Oleksii and his friend Ihor hear such stories all the time and decided to start their project, Eyes, where they talk about people's lives after de-occupation. The volunteers see and hear the fear, traumas, and emotions of people who have faced the worst. 


Dasha Nepochatova said that talking is essential after seeing and hearing harrowing stories. Here's how it works:

"Healing the psyche (soul) with words is the basis of psychotherapy. People who have seen the worst tell their stories to volunteers and heal themselves by freeing their psychological container, pouring emotions and feelings into another person's container, and filling and often overflowing the volunteer's emotional container. Accordingly, volunteers must empty their overflowing containers. It's helpful to use psychological assistance services. Freehand writing also helps when you just pour out everything that worries you on paper and then burn it," says the doctor.

Where can a volunteer find psychological support?

There are government and volunteer psychological help hotlines in Ukraine where you can turn to and "talk." Here's where they'll help you:

  • The hotline at 0-800-100-102 is open every day from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Calls from Ukraine are free. Professional psychologists provide consultations with years of experience who have previously undergone special training to handle complex crises.
  • The hotline for suicide prevention and mental health prevention, Lifeline Ukraine, with a simple number of 7333, works 24 hours a day.
  • Caritas Ukraine Hotline. There are branches in Zaporizhzhia (050 476 2860) and Sievierodonetsk (066 044 8104). People in difficult life circumstances can call from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
  • The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy psychosocial rehabilitation center in Pokrovsk. People in difficult life circumstances, women, medical workers, and elderly single people can call from 08:00 to 20:00 by phone at 066 825 1999; 0800-300-101. 
  • Helpline 15-50 in Khmelnytskyi is available 24 hours a day. You can also call 067 133-15-50.
  • NGO Regional Psychological Crisis Center by phone: 097 505 1699. You can call from 09:00 to 23:00. 
  • The hotline of the Kyiv City Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Assistance in Mental Crisis, at (044) 456 17 02 (044) 456 17 25, is open round the clock.
  • UA Mental Help, you can contact via Facebook, Telegram, and Instagram. You will receive an answer from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

So what is the solution?

We sort it out

So if you are actively engaged in volunteering, remember the main rules: 

  • Regulate the schedule, and do not be afraid to take weekends and vacations from volunteering because it is also a job;
  • During the weekend, try to do other things that please you and rest, but it is better to set work chats to mute mode;
  • Add a little reward for yourself: a walk, treats, or a trip to the cinema. Do something nice for yourself. Reward yourself at least once a week.

Carefully monitor your condition. Here are the main symptoms of burnout:

  • bad sleep;
  • constant fatigue and lack of energy;
  • anxious thoughts;
  • reluctance to leave the house;
  • tension in communication with people. 

If you notice similar symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, be sure to seek specialized help. You will also be helped by:

  • Physical exercises, sports;
  • Walks;
  • Massage or any other practices that help to feel the body. 

Look for more tips in the VOLUNTEER'S GUIDE. It contains valuable resources and tools for effective volunteering, legal aspects, practical advice, life hacks, and much more.


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