How to prevent burnout in youth workers

Many youth workers are volunteers seeking to lift up the young women around them. This is what we mean when we say that “it takes a village” — but so often this is a village of women, each of whom has to support herself and her family members before she can dedicate herself to her wider community.

Since 2019, Project GROW has enabled female youth workers in Africa to collaborate and share experiences on how they lead activities to empower young women and girls in their communities. Whilst we have heard many inspiring stories, we have also heard tales of exhaustion and disillusionment. This is not surprising, considering the deep challenges that women and girls in Africa face, many of which are shared by women globally.  

Why do youth workers experience burnout?

Youth workers told us that the need they see is so great, and often so urgent, that they ignore their own needs in order to meet those of others. Equally, the needs of vulnerable girls can seem so significant that it is easy to dismiss the needs and trials of fellow youth workers, whether staff or volunteers, as they seem insignificant in comparison. As youth workers, we can silence our own needs, and each other.  This stoicism can lead to burnout, which does not serve our communities long term. Good youth workers will always be hard to find, and we need to ensure that the mental and physical health of these essential workers.  Burnout makes a sustained approach to youth projects much more difficult. Yet even more significantly, it gives the girls we work with the idea that as women, our needs are not important. This creates a detrimental effect, as rather than learning the value of their worth though youth project, girls may internalize the idea that burnout is normal and struggle to advocate for their needs and rights in their families, communities and workplaces. As youth workers, we need to lead by example. 

How do you know if you are experiencing burnout?

Burnout can happen to all of us — and the more we care, the more we can set ourselves up to be unable to care any more. This is especially so if we are working with young women and girls who are living in distressing conditions, or who tell us about traumas they have suffered. From hearing about others’ experiences, or witnessing bad things happening to others, we can become traumatised ourselves. Vicarious and secondary trauma are real, and don’t simply happen to us because we are ‘weak’ or ‘oversensitive’. Additionally, listening to many stories over time can lead to ‘empathy fatigue’. We can become de-sensitised. 

Here are some things that you can do to make sure you don’t burnout and lose the joy of your youth work: 

  • Take regular breaks between work sessions, including to eat full meals and gain eight hours of sleep
  • Set a regular schedule for yourself, and block out times when you will be available for calls, emails or meetings, and when you will not be available. Share these times with others you work with, so they are less likely to disturb you when you’re not working
  • Be mindful of your own history of trauma, if you have one, and how this may impact you when listening to traumatic stories from youth you support
  • Cultivate your own interests, hobbies and activities outside of youth work, even if it’s as simple as meeting a friend, taking a walk, or learning to cook a new meal
  • Seek counselling if you feel you need it 

What are the symptoms of burnout in youth workers?

Here are some of the symptoms of burnout for you to watch out for:

  • Physical stress e.g. feeling tense, palpitations, stomach problems, headaches
  • Emotional stress e.g. nightmares, flashbacks or anxiety, anger, racing thoughts, feeling jumpy or easily startled
  • Exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, under pressure or powerless
  • Needing sick days, feeling unable to rest or recharge
  • Needing more time alone, away from others
  • Feel disconnected from friends and family
  • Losing a sense of self
  • Loss of pleasure in daily activities
  • Losing sense of purpose 

View more symptoms of burnout here.

How your youth organisation can prevent others from experiencing burnout 


Good youth organisations will ensure that their workforce, staff or volunteers, are protected and able to contribute long term. Here are just a few things for youth work leaders to consider, to ensure that you are looking after other youth workers, and protecting your organisation’s long-term ability to serve your communities:

  • Tell youth workers that there is no shame in being exhausted, and that they should speak up if they are, as part of their induction
  • Regularly encourage youth workers to speak up if they are exhausted or experiencing ‘burnout’ symptoms
  • Let youth workers know who they can talk to if they feel burnout symptoms
  • As leaders,  regularly reflect on how we value our youthworkers and how we are supporting them
  • Encourage rest and self-care: this isn’t self-indulgence, but essential for human flourishing
  • Encourage counselling in those who need it – lead by example and break the stigma
  • Allow youth workers to take breaks if they need them – even if this means they need weeks to recharge their batteriesDirect people to useful resources

Help us learn from your experience!

We would love to hear your stories of how you have prevented burnout in your organisations! Get in touch at
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