Over the last few days, a common theme emerged from several seemingly disparate conversations. A virtual coffee with a colleague this morning. Listening to a book on leadership while I was walking outdoors yesterday. And, yes, even a call with my mother a few days ago.

What was the theme? Fatigue.

  • From my colleague, “Do you have any suggestions for how to sustain engagement and communication with volunteers when they are really tired of Zoom meetings?”
  • From my mother, “I am tired, and, of course, it’s kind of crazy because I am doing so much less than before this pandemic.”
  • From the book, a story about a team researching companies whose staffs report high levels of exhaustion.

Fatigue. Weariness. Exhaustion. Does it sound just a big familiar to you?

To start, “Zoom fatigue” is real. Meeting over teleconference is more draining physically and mentally than traditional in-person conversations.

We also have many other reasons to be feeling a bit tired – a global pandemic, concerns over the economy, the uncertainties of school for those of us with children or partners who are teachers – all of these can cause some level of stress, anxiety, or just low-grade uncertainty that fuels fatigue. Sprinkle in a touch of boredom (Netflix overload, anyone?), and there certainly is a recipe for some emotional exhaustion.

Yet, I was quite intrigued by the findings of that research team and couldn’t get it out of mind. According to the book (Dare to Lead by Brene’ Brown), “What they found was that while these employees were in fact exhausted, it wasn’t just because of the ops tempo. They were actually exhausted because people were lonely. Their workforces were lonely, and that loneliness was manifesting itself in a feeling of exhaustion.”[1]

Fatigue as a manifestation of loneliness.

While there are many logical reasons to be tired right now, loneliness certainly may play into the exhaustion that many of us and the volunteers we support may be experiencing. Let’s be real, for many volunteers, being part of a community of like-minded individuals is as strong a motivator as is the chance to make a difference in their community. Of course, for many organizations, the pandemic-related restrictions have not only diminished or changed the ways that volunteers can have an impact but also have dramatically curtailed the interpersonal interactions. So, volunteers may also be experiencing loneliness.

This got me thinking: How can we balance the desire to sustain some level of engagement, play an appropriate role in helping volunteers sustain connections (and battle loneliness), while also honoring the fact that Zoom meetings can be tiring rather than energizing in a way that in-person meetings[2] can be?

Here are a few suggested tactics:

  • Leverage a Buddy System: Facilitate smaller connections between volunteers through buddy pairs or mentorships between volunteers. Don’t be limited by the idea of mentorships alone (in some cases, pairing experienced volunteer with new volunteers may be a very logical approach, but it isn’t the only option). Pair volunteers based on geography, interest, program, or role. Encourage pairs to check in regularly – whether by phone, text, or videoconference should be up to the pair.
  • Make virtual social events optional: No volunteer should be required to attend a social event. If they seek connection in that way, offering such events certainly can be a benefit, but volunteers are juggling a whole new schedule and reality and they should have the power to opt out.
  • Use traditional phone calls: Don’t rely only on teleconferences. Sometimes, a good old phone call may suffice and could even nurture more meaningful dialogue when volunteers don’t have the distraction of video.
  • Measure and communicate impact: Volunteer impact has traditionally been tracked by such metrics as hours served, financial value of those hours, client contacts, meals delivered, etc. What metrics are meaningful now? That might include volunteers trained on virtual technology, clients visited virtually, letters sent to legislators if advocacy is part of your mission, meals delivered, care packages packed and distributed, and more. New services and new practices demand new metrics. Reflect on this question and establish new meaningful metrics and share results with the volunteers so they understand that they are still part of a truly impactful effort.
  • Celebrate community successes – big and small: As noted by Seppala and King in this HBR article, “The happiness arising from a happy hour is short-lived. But celebrating collective successes helps create a sense of belonging and attachment in organizations.” Establish rituals to celebrate these little successes along the way – celebrate the 100th virtual client visit, the completion of the first-ever fully online training program, welcoming 10 new volunteers to the volunteer pool, or any other milestone that is meaningful – and celebration-worthy.

This list of suggestions is not exhaustive (nor exhausting, we hope!). Our peers are developing new methods and approaches, so we hope this is part of a larger, ongoing conversation. Share your ideas in the comments.

Oh, and don’t forget to call your mother!

[1] For more on this research, see this Harvard Business Review article.

[2] Yes, there are introverts for whom in-person socializing can also be draining – and that is a great topic to explore, but outside the scope of this post.