From passion to pressure: Understanding burnout in the charity sector


Alyona Tsybulska


In the last couple of years the media has been abuzz about burnout. The curiosity spread across countries and professional communities, with some seemingly more affected than others. At a time when workload rose significantly and the outside factors have become overwhelming, we wanted to look at the charity sector in Ukraine and how it has been dealing with professional burnout.

Zagoriy Foundation together with the research agency Socio Inform and with the financial support of Global Giving performed a study of professional burnout among charity sector employees in Ukraine. We identified its main causes, determined the current psycho-emotional state of employees and looked at measures of prevention and counteraction.

The research has two-parts: quantitative (400 respondents) and qualitative (20 respondents). We spoke to representatives of charity organizations in various fields, working both locally and nationwide. The study was based on Professor Viktor Boyko’s methodology for diagnosing the level of emotional burnout.

To start at the beginning, what is burnout?

Employees of COs/CFs describe professional burnout as a loss of desire to work and interest in work, accompanied by severe exhaustion and emotional disturbances. Some of the common symptoms are: prolonged fatigue; deep apathy; loss of satisfaction from work; loss of interest in socializing and activities outside of work; irritation; manifestations of aggression; depressive states; muted emotions and physical ailments: headache, stomach pain, leg pain, disturbed sleep.

Despite the fact that people who work in the charity sector are often regarded as altruistic and are usually highly motivated to do the work they do for reasons beyond financial and career-related, they are still susceptible to burnout. In fact, most of the participants in the study are convinced that professional burnout is more widespread in the field of charity than in other areas.

Our findings show that more than a third (36%) of charity sector employees have professional burnout. Another third (35%) are at the stage of its formation and only slightly less than a third of respondents (29%) do not show signs of professional burnout.

Whether for better or worse, but not everyone in the sector is at the same level of risk for burnout. The most vulnerable groups seem to be:

  • Women
  • Residents of small towns (as opposed to residents of regional centers)
  • Employees of small and localized charities or NGOs
  • Employees of organizations that have changed the direction or type of activity
  • Those who work part-time working week (as opposed to those who work full-time or volunteer)
  • Those who are paid only for individual projects (as opposed to those who receive a salary or volunteer)
  • Those who work online
  • Senior managers and those employees who perform managerial or coordination duties
  • Those who have been working in the charity sector for more than a year.

The pressing question is – why does burnout happen in the first place? Among the many factors, a big one is demotivation, often caused by the following:

  • The need to refuse help/over-scrutinize those you help
  • Beneficiary ingratitude, aggression and accusations
  • Toxic management: devaluation of work by the management, lack of support or clear instructions, incorrect tasking, excessive workload, total control.
  • Corruption and abuse (both within the CO/CF and by beneficiaries)
  • Lack of results (fruitless work).

The factor that does not influence charity sectors everywhere, but is largely a contributor in Ukraine is the full-scale war. The war brought new challenges to the charity sector employees along with new potential causes for burnout: being forced to adapt to new circumstances and requirements, changes in the volume, pace and nature of work, changes in the composition of the teams, working under conditions of uncertainty and lack of strategic planning, working under severe stress and fear for loved ones, working in dangerous conditions, etc. Half of the respondents noted that due to the recent events they felt more fatigue, stress, emotional instability, deterioration of health and cognitive abilities.

Naturally comes the question – can anything be done?

Thankfully, yes! Both preventing and healing burnout are possible. However, for them to be truly effective, diagnosing, preventing and combating burnout should take place at both individual and organizational levels.

At the individual level, timely diagnosis of burnout depends on staff awareness of the symptoms of burnout and the ability to self-reflect. Employees of those COs/CFs where training on psychological burnout are held or a psychologist is employed are better able to detect burnout.

Sports, hobbies, time alone, wellness procedures (massages, etc.) and travel have been reported as effective in both prevention and tackling burnout on a personal level.

At the organizational level, the most effective measures to combat burnout are: motivational incentives (practical and moral), support groups, psychological trainings, and access to individual therapy.

The activities that are regarded as helpful on organizational level are:

  • Recreational and entertainment events
  • Inspirational events with performance information: summaries, success stories of beneficiaries, presentation of employee achievements, etc
  • Communication between the manager and employees to discuss current challenges, as well as reflection on the work process
  • Creative events: workshops, theater, etc
  • Organization of personal meetings with team members
  • Outdoor trips: to the mountains, forest, seaside trips
  • Traveling abroad
  • Mentoring on personal development.

Most organizations do not have a clearly defined mechanism for dealing with burnout. However, there is an algorithm we could call desirable for such a situation.

It can look something like this:

  1. Managers care about the psycho-emotional state of employees and establish an atmosphere of trust. The staff is aware of the symptoms of burnout and has the opportunity to seek help
  2. The manager, either alone or together with a psychologist, has a conversation with the employee to determine the cause of the decline in productivity and emotional exhaustion. Expresses support and informs about the opportunities available in the organization to combat burnout
  3. If the burnout syndrome is confirmed, the employee receives psychological support and additional days off. If the condition is critical, the employee takes a longer vacation
  4. The organization’s management reviews the distribution of work responsibilities, analyzes communication within the team (whether there is respect, mutual understanding and support)
  5. If possible, offer the employee to change the type of activity within the organization/project to a more attractive one
  6. The management takes preventive measures aimed at the entire team.

75% of the management of organizations reported taking measures to counteract/prevent burnout syndrome. Half of them are aimed directly at overcoming the disease, the rest contribute to its prevention indirectly. However, despite being seemingly aware of the symptoms and effects of burnout, most respondents were unable to self-diagnose the disease or its onset.

It is our hope that soon prevention will be as prevalent as healing and both will be available to all.

Alyona Tsybulska, is Head of Program Department at Zagoriy Foundation

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2023, Alliance magazine has made the March 2022 special feature on ‘Mental Health Philanthropy’ available to download for free until 21 May 2023.

Download the issue for free here 

Comments (0)

suika game

I agree that 75% of the management of organizations reported taking measures to counteract/prevent burnout syndrome

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *