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Volunteering: a pleasure or a burden?

After I joined the board of directors at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (TOAE), it didn’t take long for me to wonder how I’d balance my new obligations with the rest of my day-to-day life. I’d volunteered before, but only informally. Now I have regular responsibilities, mainly meetings and fundraising. I’ll probably invest 70 to 80 hours volunteering with the organization this year. It’s a worthy cause, but it’s also worthwhile to question the time commitment.

Thomas E. Ullyett, lawyer and vice-chair of the Legal Profession Assistance Conference (LPAC), points out that:

There are perils to too much volunteering. The volunteer work you have to do today, this week, this weekend or this month is just another drain on your energy and time and can be a significant stressor. Volunteer work is work—though often very enjoyable—and it has to be factored into the overall work-life balance equation that many lawyers struggle with. And it’s not just lawyers with young children that may find themselves stressed by the pressures of work, family commitments and volunteer activities. Even lawyers who don’t have children or whose children have grown up and left home may find the combination of work, family and volunteering too much at times.



Obviously, this extends beyond lawyers to all workers: if you’ve already got too much on your plate between work and home, you should probably think twice before adding a serving of volunteering.

I certainly don’t want to quash the desire to help. In fact, I imagine that for some people who lack balance, fulfilling volunteer activities might be just the thing to set the scales aright. (I think spending a day or two every month walking around Toronto’s High Park with the Volunteer Stewardship Program pulling up invasive species would be a refreshing experience, for example.) If a volunteer position offers some fulfillment that’s missing from a worker’s daily job, it might be just the counterbalance to workplace stresses. However, as Ullyett says, even fulfilling volunteer work is still work, and it can add up if not managed properly.

For the most part, employers have no obligation to worry about their employees’ work-life balance, but they’ll almost certainly be better off if they do. Lack of balance leads to stress and reduced morale, which lead to weakened health and low productivity. For lawyers, the LPAC offers a 24-hour help centre accessible by phone. For other workers, the employer might offer an employee assistance program (EAP) or some other type of counselling. Employees can benefit from any opportunity to let their bosses know, without fear of judgment, how they feel about their work—their stresses and work-life conflicts.

For myself, I’m managing so far, and enjoying working with TOAE, although I do feel like my weekends are never quite long enough. (If you find someone who doesn’t feel that way, let me know.) I want to offer my best to my employer and TOAE, and I’ve got plenty to do besides. But I know I can talk to my boss when things get out of hand.

See Not-for-Profit PolicyPro and Human Resources PolicyPro — Ontario Edition for advice and sample policies on volunteering and employee assistance programs. We’ll be sure to let you know when EAP policies come to the rest of the HRPP series.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Internal Controls, Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Editor at First Reference
Adam Gorley, B.A. (Phil.), is a researcher, content provider and editor. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks and Internal Control blogs, HRinfodesk and other First Reference publications. His areas of focus include broad human resources issues, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance and government policies, information technology and labour market trends.Read more
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2 thoughts on “Volunteering: a pleasure or a burden?
  • What a great post, Adam. I think this issue of maintaining a balance in the context of increased work deadlines and other demands outside of the workplace (volunteering or otherwise) is a very important issue these days, especially with today’s technology enabling employees to be more accessible at all times of the day.

    Employees are already feeling vulnerable during these tough economic times, and do not want to come across as complaining, but need to feel safe when expressing their concerns.

    I agree that the key is having a manager who can appreciate how difficult it is to bring up workload issues and resulting stress, and who can be non-judgmental and even supportive through increased flexibility.


  • sujata says:

    While it is good to have EAP assistance to achieve work-life balance, we should worry more about employees having second jobs and the ones partying all weekend and returning to work exhausted on Monday morning.