Michelle is having a bad day. It’s her third year as carnival committee chair for her PTO, and normally she thrives on the energy and excitement at planning meetings. But today Michelle is having trouble focusing. She can’t seem to find her usual enthusiasm, and she feels distant rather than engaged as discussion about raffle items seems to drag on. She even snapped at one of the other volunteers, something that is quite unusual given her normally bubbly and sunny personality. “What is wrong with me?” Michelle wonders.

She does not yet realize it, but Michelle is experiencing the early stages of burnout. She has given so much of herself to her volunteer duties that she has become depleted physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Burnout is often perceived as a form of stress, but there is a fundamental difference. While both can result from working too much, having too many responsibilities, and having overdemanding or unclear expectations, stress generally results from having too much work and too many responsibilities. Stress can lead to feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Stressed leaders may become hypersensitive and overreact, making mountains out of molehills. On the other hand, burnout more likely indicates “not enough”—a loss of interest or enthusiasm or a sense of fewer rewards. A person experiencing burnout will appear to have had their emotions blunted. They may seem uncharacteristically detached and uninterested, like Michelle.

Red Flags: Signs of Burnout

These are some common physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of burnout:

Physical Signs

  • Changes in appetite
  • Problems sleeping
  • Lack of energy or motivation
  • Frequent, unexplained headaches

Emotional Signs

  • Feelings of self-doubt
  • Disappointment in performance
  • Loss of focus and concentration
  • Increasingly cynical, negative attitude

Behavioral Signs

  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability
  • Procrastination
  • Reduction in amount or quality of work

Recognizing Potential Burnout

Burnout can cause problems for volunteer organizations when the enthusiasm of key leaders fades. If parent group leaders become burned out because they take on too much work and have too little help, they will be more likely to quit their positions and perhaps leave with bad feelings. Your group could get a reputation for demanding too much of volunteers, making it more difficult to replace the leadership and gain new members to share the load.

As a leader, be aware of situations that can contribute to burnout. Are too few people doing too much for your group? Do an enthusiastic few regularly take on leadership roles, becoming officers and committee chairs year after year because no one else seems to be willing to step up? If so, your group could be headed for trouble.

But burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable. By becoming aware of the stages of burnout, you can take steps to prevent their escalation in fellow group members. Mark Gorkin, a social worker and author specializing in stress, outlines four stages of burnout:

1. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Michelle had symptoms of all of these. She was low on energy and motivation. Her concentration and focus were impaired, and she had become irritable with and withdrawn from her fellow committee members. If only some of them had recognized the signs, they might have come to her aid, offering to lighten her load by taking over some of her responsibilities or contributing resources (information, contacts, or office supplies, for example) that would make her job easier.

2. Shame and doubt. Sometimes the “supervolunteer” in a group can inadvertently lead others to turn a blind eye to their own potential burnout. Like Michelle, Amy was always among the first to volunteer her services. At one time or another she had headed every major committee, and often she single-handedly tackled most major tasks. She gave the impression that she was so competent and so enthused about her duties that she did not need or desire much help from others. She had repeatedly turned down offers in the past, so now other members seldom asked whether she needed help. Even when Amy eventually dropped hints about how hard she was working, no one picked up the clues. Her physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion escalated, and as her fellow group members seemed not to care, Amy began to wonder whether perhaps she was not well-liked by her peers. She began to doubt her value to the group. Why did no one seem to want to help her?

3. Cynicism and callousness. As Amy became more burned out, she began to think about quitting her volunteer role. “If I’m not appreciated, then what am I doing here?” she thought to herself. “I don’t have to do this. I’ll just quit and let them do it alone. Then they’ll see how valuable I was and wish they had appreciated me more.”

4. Failure, helplessness, and crisis. At this point, if Amy’s distress is not noticed and addressed, it will be too late to help her and too late to help the group. If Amy leaves without speaking up about her disappointment, no one will recognize that her change in attitude from not wanting any help to feeling overworked and unappreciated came about because she was becoming burned out. Then it will be too late to offer the assistance and reassurance Amy needs. And the group’s next “supervolunteer” may be likely to go down the same path.

Preventing Volunteer Burnout

The good news is that by taking a few simple steps, you can reduce the chances of your group’s volunteers burning out. First, anticipate the potential for burnout. Be aware of the warning signs. Remember that anyone can become burned out and that the volunteers the group relies on most may be the most vulnerable.

Think about likely burnout scenarios. Does your group allow too few people to take on the majority of the responsibility? Consider how you can reevaluate or reorganize your leadership roles and committees to better share the load. For example, do you need to work more in teams and avoid having a single member solely responsible for important tasks?

Next, take steps to actively prevent burnout. Ask volunteers to give their ideas for making your PTO burnout-proof. These might include breaking up big jobs among more volunteers or working to develop new leaders. When more members share the load, the group will become more cohesive and more productive, and volunteers will feel both supportive and supported.

Make sure volunteers understand how their hard work has paid off. In addition to saying thank-you, tell them about the benefits students or the school will receive from the project. For example, a newsletter article about the carnival should detail the fun families had as well as the amount of money raised for the playground.

Money is a universal motivator, but volunteers provide work without this incentive, so they need to see evidence of other, nonmonetary rewards. Emphasize the benefits of PTO involvement, such as a sense of accomplishment, appreciation, camaraderie, and friendship as well as the opportunity to learn new skills and brush up on talents.

Finally, take the time to show members and volunteers how much they are appreciated. PTO members should never feel that they are taken for granted. A word of thanks, a formal thank-you note, a small gift, or a public acknowledgement are ways that leaders can make members aware that their contributions are valued. These inexpensive steps will pay back the group many times over by increasing member dedication. Members who feel valued are more likely to remain—and to remain active without getting burned out.


When You’re the One Who’s Burning Out

Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep and choose healthy foods instead of junk food. Exercise regularly, and make time each day to relax and unwind.

Reevaluate your goals. Are they realistic? Prioritize your top short- and long-term goals and make a feasible plan to achieve them. Be sure to celebrate your accomplishments.

Reconnect with friends. Call up some friends who are great listeners and tell them how you’re feeling. Chances are they’ve been through something like it, too.

Learn to say no. If you already have too much on your plate, don’t be afraid to turn down new requests.

Delegate tasks. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Ask for help, and when people volunteer, give them responsibility for completing certain tasks.