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Working in the voluntary sector
Working in the voluntary sector

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1.2 Causes of stress in the voluntary sector

Working in the voluntary sector can be very satisfying and at times exciting, but there are aspects of working in the sector that some people find very stressful. Some stress is necessary or we would never do anything at all, but sometimes stress can get out of hand and then it is counterproductive both to effective working and to your own health.

One thing that can make stress and conflict more difficult to manage in the voluntary sector can be the strong value commitments of the people who work in it. Both paid and unpaid staff often have a strong identification with their work, which can make challenging situations or individuals more difficult to address because a person’s whole identity may be bound up in what they do.

In addition, many organisations are under-resourced when compared with other sectors. This means that managers may find it difficult to make time or may lack the skills to diagnose and address both the sources and the symptoms of stress and conflict.

In some organisations there may not be formal methods for dealing with problems or, if these do exist, they may be difficult to put into practice. Making use of such methods may feel like stirring up trouble (rather than being a normal means of dealing with issues) because relationships in voluntary organisations are often more intense.

Large organisations often have formal processes for managing problems such as grievance and disciplinary procedures, but these can be difficult to implement in smaller organisations (even where they exist) because of the highly personalised nature of relationships. However, all organisations can be stressful at times, particularly when external expectations are high.

A third factor that can cause stress and anxiety is the often highly uncertain nature of funding arrangements, which can lead to worry about continuity of projects and job security. Even if this does not affect your own role in the organisation, the fact that others may be worried about their future and their job may make for tensions in the organisation.

Cost-cutting on the part of funders means that those running organisations often have to make do with inadequate resources so that there may not be money to pay for the infrastructure – such as record-keeping or secretarial support – that employees in other sectors expect as the norm. All of this can lead to workers in the voluntary sector feeling thinly stretched and stressed. This can also put pressure on the organisation, and at times this can cause conflicts and disagreements as well.

Conversely, the employees of an organisation experiencing a major funding success may also find it stressful. The organisation may grow rapidly, taking on more staff and responsibilities, and those who started the organisation, or have worked there for years, may struggle with the new commitments, particularly in managing many more staff and volunteers.

Finally, some staff (and sometimes unpaid coordinators) look after large numbers of volunteers. Sorting out rotas for volunteer help, arranging cover for absent volunteers, or dealing with volunteers’ own problems and stress can all be challenging at times. Who do volunteers turn to if they feel stressed?

There might be mechanisms in place for paid staff through HR departments, but volunteers often resign or go off sick for weeks. Many organisations may feel it is not their responsibility to help volunteers with stress unless it originates within the organisation. As you saw earlier, it is extremely difficult to know the exact source of stress – it may manifest as a work issue but the source may be a problem at home or even from the past.