On the phenomenon of burnout in the NGO sector. How to take care of your well-being

“I will rest when it’s over” – was a frequent response from volunteers that I encountered during dozens of conversations I had while working on texts about NGO activities. The words were uttered in the context of events on the border with Belarus, where illegal pushbacks of refugees and migrants were taking place. Similar statements were also made later, on the occasion of providing assistance to Ukrainians forced to leave their homes by Russian aggression against their country. However, the work that the organisation’s volunteers and staff do every day has a second bottom. Sleepless nights, lack of time to rest after work but, above all, contact with the trauma of another human being can have a negative impact on the lives of those who help.

Pain out of place

Weronika, a volunteer of a group helping at the border with Belarus, does not want to reveal her name. She doesn’t care about the publicity, and is aware that through her aid activities she has violated “several preposterous laws that deliberately make it difficult to help refugees”. – Every time we had to leave these people in the forest, I couldn’t pull myself together. The feeling of guilt was immense, even though logically it is clear that I was not the one who contributed to the fate of these people. I chastised myself a lot for every sign of weakness. It seemed to me that I had no right to feel bad. When you see with your own eyes how terribly people who are practically condemned to die in the forest suffer, your pain, the psychological one, seems really out of place. I decided to go to therapy because of my insomnia problems and it was only there that I realised I needed a break. A long break. The therapist made me realise that you can’t relativise: it just doesn’t work like that. Our fears, our problems, our stress will not decrease if we keep repeating that others have it worse,” she says.

Burnout is often experienced by volunteers. In addition to fatigue and time pressure in the case of volunteer work, difficult conditions and a worsening of the material situation due to prolonged unpaid assistance can all lead to burnout.

Weronika points out that she could count on the support of the group she was working with at the border all the time. Despite this, she faced the problem of burnout alone, as it was difficult for her to admit her feelings in front of others. She did not want to “sow ferment in the morale of the team”.

A volunteer or committed employee often forgets about himself or herself. They focus on helping, and the gratitude of others and the euphoria associated with it can dull their vigilance for their own needs. Fatigue, stress, time pressure, deterioration in financial situation due to prolonged unpaid assistance – all these can lead to burnout. It is a phenomenon that can affect employees in any sector, but those working in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are particularly vulnerable due to their intensive work with people, often in crisis situations, and high social expectations. In order to effectively counteract professional burnout, it is important to adapt the approach to the specifics of the NGO sector.

When anger arises

Professional burnout is the result of chronic stress and overload. It can manifest as feelings of emotional disengagement, discouragement, decreased motivation, as well as health problems. A key cause is an imbalance between the effort put into work and the benefits gained.

“The biggest trap is when, by not taking care of ourselves, we start to feel angry at those we are helping. Let us take care of ourselves, get enough sleep, keep in touch with friends. Only then will what we do be easily absorbed by those we help,” says Marek Matkowski, a business psychologist, in an interview with Polish Radio.

The specialist compares providing assistance to driving a car. If we overuse the vehicle, the engine will quickly “wear out”. On the other hand, if we look after it, it will last a long time. This translates into volunteer work. The expert emphasises that if we lose ourselves in helping, forgetting about ourselves, we will quickly lose energy and burn out. That is why it is so necessary to be attentive to our own feelings. The body and mind let us know that they are overstressed. Noticing the signals they are sending is half the way to avoiding burnout. Then, as Matkowski advises: “We should stop for a while to build resilience and gain strength”.

Sleep problems, a feeling of tension in the muscles or muscle pain, lowered immunity, notorious fatigue, the impression of not getting enough sleep all the time – these are the first symptoms of burnout. It is advisable to hold off on your next helping trip if feelings of helplessness, irritability or self-esteem problems persist. Volunteers struggling with the crisis point out that burnout usually starts with a loss of enjoyment of working for others.

“You have the feeling that you have stopped liking what you were doing before,” Weronika specifies. “You are also plagued by thoughts about the situation of the beneficiaries of your actions. Such thoughts also come on days off or in the middle of the night. They recur in dreams. For me, this also manifested itself through disorganisation. I was always very focused, very well prepared for trips abroad, and in my worse period I would forget a lot of things I needed, I was disorganised. But probably the most tiring thing was this feeling of frustration and resentment towards others. I would see pictures of friends on exotic holidays and I wanted to scream. I thought: how can you be so indifferent! This is not the right way to go. Everyone has the right to make their own choices,” warns the volunteer, who stopped her outreach activities for six months after consulting a therapist. This antidote helped her to return to volunteering.

Methods to counteract NGO staff burnout

Professional burnout is a serious problem, but with the right approach and support, its consequences can be effectively countered. The key is to understand the specifics of working in an NGO, to take care of yourself and your team, and to build a culture of open communication and support.

In the context of NGOs, professional burnout has two main faces: one vulnerable group is volunteers and staff in direct contact with the beneficiary, and the other is the leaders and management of such organisations.

For a volunteer who is passionate about giving of their time, energy and skills, the feeling that their efforts are inadequate or unproductive can be overwhelming. The feeling of helplessness in the face of complex social problems can lead to burnout. People working with those in need require support, not only in terms of the tools needed for their work, but also emotionally.

For leaders, on the other hand, the pressures of managing the organisation, raising funds, overseeing projects and managing staff can be immense. Directors and management often feel that the fate of the organisation rests on their shoulders. This responsibility, combined with constant internal and external challenges, creates the perfect breeding ground for burnout.

Even the most committed employees can experience burnout – in NGOs, working for the benefit of others, its effects have a particular dimension.

The following is a scheme for countering burnout that has been developed through the experiences of my interviewees.

Volunteer/social worker’s perspective

a) Find a work-life balance:

  • Set boundaries. As a volunteer, you may feel obliged to help out at any time. However, it is important to set clear boundaries regarding your time and commitment.
  • Organise time for yourself. Find time to relax, meditate, read or do sport.
  • Take a break. If you feel you need it for mental balance, don’t be afraid to give up helping for a while.

b) Understand your emotions:

  • Talk. If you feel the emotional strain is too much, talk to your coordinator, mentor or other volunteers about it.
  • Educate. Benefit from training on stress management and emotional support.

c) Don’t be afraid to ask for help:

  • Build a support network. Perhaps the best solution is to start psychotherapy. If you feel that your emotional state has deteriorated as a result of your work with those in need, don’t be afraid to ask the heads of the organisation to help you arrange resources to meet with an expert. There are plenty of options – sometimes psychotherapists provide free services for people who have shown a good heart in helping others. Support groups can also be helpful.

Foundation leader/manager’s perspective

a) Knowledge of the team:

  • Gather feedback from the group. Hold regular meetings with the team to understand their needs and concerns.
  • Communicate openly. Create an atmosphere in which employees feel free to express their feelings and concerns. Although this slogan seems like a truism, it is really important! There are still some organisations in Poland that treat their activities in a businesslike manner. Its employees feel instrumental in achieving further financial goals.

b) Ensure team development:

  • Invest in training. Learn to manage stress and professional burnout.
  • Build the team. Organise team-buildings to increase team cohesion and improve the working atmosphere.
  • Reward and show gratitude. Take care of staff and volunteers, even if there are no resources. Try to reward their work with at least a kind word or a small gift. Try to remember a situation in which an employee or volunteer particularly deserved praise, and refer to it in conversation. If you are unable to attend every aid event, ask your coordinator to report back.

c) Take care of yourself:

  • Delegate responsibilities. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Delegate tasks and use the help of others. And if you think you will do everything better – sound the alarm – this is one of the basic management mistakes.
  • Find time for yourself. Just like volunteers and employees, leaders also need time to recuperate. Take care of your own health and work-life balance. There are days when you have to scramble for resources to keep the organisation running, but if you then sit at work longer, pick up the overtime. Follow the Buddhist saying: “If you don’t have time to meditate for half an hour during the day, you should meditate for an hour”.

Between empathy and compassion

A solution on how to deal with burnout is proposed by the authors of the book “Pathological Altruism”, O. Klimecki and T. Singer (2012). In a social worker’s or volunteer’s contact with those in need, they propose replacing empathy with compassion. What is the difference? When accompanying another person in a difficult experience, we most often do not remain indifferent, even if it is a complete stranger. We automatically act with empathy. Researchers show that empathy (understood as empathising with the supported person’s emotions) is not always good for our health.

Sometimes therapy is the best solution. If you feel that your emotional state has deteriorated as a result of working with those in need, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a professional.

Reducing empathy does not necessarily mean coldness or indifference. It turns out that it is much healthier to show compassion, understood as caring for another person and trying to reduce or remove their suffering. Importantly, it is not running away from suffering or avoiding distress. Compassion is possible when the helper accepts reality and allows the other person to realise that they are really suffering. They have kindness and positive feelings for them. These are different emotions from empathy alone and are the ones that can protect against professional burnout [1].

Volunteers and people doing human rights work often find it difficult to admit that they are burnt out. This is due to a certain taboo – the belief that helping others must bring satisfaction. Meanwhile, burnout has accompanied the leaders of major aid organisations. One of them is Kumi Naidoo, former Secretary General of Greenpeace. Naidoo spoke about the pressures and stresses of running a global environmental organisation. His strategy for dealing with burnout was based on meditation, regular breaks from work and surrounding himself with the support of family and friends. Another well-known figure who struggled with burnout is Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights in Liberia. Gbowee talked about how professional burnout affected her health and her relationship with her family. In order to recover, she decided to take a break from her activities and focus on taking care of herself and her family.

Polish NGOs, such as the Academy for the Development of Philanthropy in Poland, the CAL Local Activity Support Centre or the National Federation of NGOs OFOP, often organise trainings and workshops on caring for mental health and preventing burnout. These activities are aimed at both volunteers and employees or leaders of organisations.

It is worth remembering that volunteering is not necessarily associated with negative consequences. On the contrary: it is still pointed out as a form of coping with professional burnout when we work outside charities. For many of us, it is a driving force for action, but we also need to think about ourselves when giving help. After all, caring for others is made more difficult when we are clashing with health issues ourselves.

zdjęcie Wiktor Cyrny


Wiktor Cyrny – journalist, reporter, researcher and lecturer at the University of Warsaw, game writer. He has been working on the topic of migration since 2015. As a reporter he has worked in refugee camps in Africa, Asia and Europe. He has published in Newsweek, Krytyka Polityczna, Gazeta Wyborcza, Wprost, Holistic.news. Creator of documentaries for Canal+Disovery, Canal+Documentary, Travel Channel, Via Play. For his reportages he received the award of the Embassy of the United States (twice: in 2012 and 2013). He double majored at University of Warsaw in documentary filmmaking (MISH) and journalism. His three greatest passions are: reading, writing and travelling – best combined together.