If a Volunteer Placement Does Not Go Well, What Do You Do?

Thanks to Susan for sending us her question based blog post. Just as a preface to this, we would like to say that we recommend that all volunteers travel with health insurance to prevent situations such as this from arising.

What Would You Do?

We have been hosting Workaway volunteers now for over two years and have had in excess of 60 people come through our doors. It has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for us and we have encountered very few problems. Those we have come up against have been minor and easy to deal with.

However, we had a situation recently that really left us scratching our heads and wondering what to do and what the right course of action should have been.

Let me explain.

volunteers directions

Helpful Volunteers in Argentina

We had a traveler show up looking pale and unwell. Naturally we asked him if he was alright and he reported that he had been suffering with diarrhea for two weeks. Our first reaction was to offer to take him to a doctor, but he refused saying that he had already seen a doctor in his previous location and that the doctor had suggested tests be carried out which were going to cost money and take time to obtain the results. Our volunteer said he had neither of these commodities to spare.

We suggested he rest that day and try to get a good night sleep and we would see how he was in the morning. The next day he reported that he was not feeling any better and that he was weak, fatigued and unable to work. This was the case for the entire ten days he was booked to be with us. So in short, we upheld our side of the agreement by providing accommodation and food (yes, he still had an appetite) but got no help or work in exchange.

This was frustrating for many reasons and raised many questions.

A skeptic might jump to the conclusion that this poor guy was faking it and just wanted a free ride but we are not skeptics and he did look unwell. Further, he had good reviews from his previous Workaway placements, which led us to believe that he was having genuine difficulties. Despite this, we did find it hard not to feel a little resentment that we were not getting a fair deal, we are only human after all.

Our guest left, still feeling unwell ten days later and we felt bad and relieved at the same time, it was no longer our problem, but we were left wondering if we could or should have done more for him.


Questions… Photo by: Ciccio Pizzettaro

We are curious to know if other hosts have had similar experiences and how they handled it, or if they do in the future how they would act under similar circumstances.

Would it have been the right thing to do to insist he go to a doctor and pay for it ourselves if necessary?

Could we have asked for some money to cover at least the food he consumed?

Should we have insisted he get in touch with family or friends to send funds to cover medical expenses?

Those were just some of the questions we were left with.

We would also like to pose similar questions to Workaway volunteers. What would you have done under these conditions? Do you have a contingency in your travel budget to cover medical expenses? Would you feel comfortable staying and eating at a host location and not contributing towards your keep if you are unable to help out in any way?

Given that this has only happened once to us in over two years of hosting we accept that it is an unusual scenario and probably will never happen again. However it would be helpful to have other points of view and comments from the Workaway community for guidance if we ever face this situation again in the future.

22 replies
  1. Leo
    Leo says:

    That’s really tricky and unusual. I am a workawayer and never had been a host before. I believe you did aboslutely good. Since it’s unlikely he is faking it as you figured it out, it wouldn’t have been reasonable to kick him out. However, it would have been more than fair to ask him for some money to cover food and accommodation. It’s not your responsibility to force him to see a doctor or contact a family, though. I should also state that I find it very weird that he 1) didn’t leave after 4 days or so, when he made sure that he is not getting any better 2) didn’t offer to pay you money – or if he doesn’t own enough, at least offer to send it later. That’s the least he can do for your priceless kindness. That’s what I would have done if I was him.

    Fortunately, I’ve been with good hosts as you who don’t consider workaway as a contract in which each party should strictly fulfill his duties. However, they deal with it as a real friendship where both of us support each other happily. You are great hosts Suzan and what you did with that workawayer is more than perfect. I would always love to visit hosts like you 🙂

  2. Gino Corneillie
    Gino Corneillie says:

    Well Susan,
    We’ve had a few people who got ill too, most of them recovering quickly though! In Brasil common health care is for free, so we can easily convince volunteers to go to hospital.
    One girl was very ill to the point she even fainted! We both (host and volunteer) were a bit worried and I spent a whole Sunday afternoon and evening in hospital with her.
    As she left the next day, we were also at the same time feeling bad and relieved, just like you …
    Maybe in countries where health care in public hospitals isn’t for free, one should ask in advance wether the volunteer has a health Insurance? In the end, it’s up to a volunteer to make sure he/she travels in a responsable way.

  3. Yana
    Yana says:

    I have not done “workaway-ing” before but I would like to share my opinion, if you do not mind. If I had been in his place, I would have discussed the problem with you the day following my arrival, and would have either offered you a fair payment for the food and shelter or asked for your help in finding a cheap alternative nearby. You have the right to be disappointed, sad, etc. After all, you spent a fortune feeding the sick man, didn’t you… In my opinion, the best approach in this situation would have been speaking frankly with the person in question. Saying that you were not okay with him staying for free and giving no help in exchange would have resolved the problem immediately. And this would not have been a lie, from what I’ve just read. Instead, you chose to bottle up your frustration. Best wishes. 🙂

  4. Ali
    Ali says:

    Hi Susan
    I’d agree with Yana that it would have been reasonable to bring up the issue of payment for food and accommodation after a couple of days – perhaps asking what his plan was given that he was ill and unable to work. I would not feel comfortable staying with a host if I was unable to contribute, without offering to pay for food at the least, and if I had no money available at the time, to make arrangements to send the money later. It was really kind of you to put him up for the whole 10 days, and I understand it is awkward to bring such a subject up with someone who’s unwell, but unless he really was very sick then I think he should have been more considerate of the situation. Perhaps he will reflect on this and get in touch with you in time.

  5. MBk
    MBk says:

    If he was able to eat he should have been able to contribute something. I am sure he was ill, but expecting someone to accommodate him is a bit odd. I would have been scared that he was contagious with something and everyone else would be ill. After a few days I probably would have asked for a contact phone number to call and ask that someone pick come and get him. Weird situation!

  6. Yatan
    Yatan says:

    We have been hosting volunteers for the last 2.5 years and have had about 75 so far. One of them arrived very unwell and we took him to a local hospital and had him treated. Helping someone ill seems to be the most obvious thing to do. Once our volunteer was better he made up for being unwell and contributed to work on our orchard as expected. Im guessing the volunteer should have stayed on after he was better and made up for lost time.

  7. Simona
    Simona says:

    To my opinion, to cook for one more person isnt such a big deal… I guess you are hosting a worker not really that you need a proper worker (in this case you should pay money for the people who do specific kinds of jobs), you are hosting a workawayer more for cultural exchange and company while, of course, having his help on doing something. If workaway would be a platform for labor market, then I would say – kick him out! but all the concept of workaway is not about that. If personally would help him/her. Imagine yourself in a foreign country with knowing nobody, and more likely, having no money for accommodation (partly thats why you are joining work away). Let’s be more sensitive to each other thinking globally.

  8. Martina
    Martina says:

    Interesting questions that have arisen from this. We once hosted someone who was doing Workaway for the first time, and it turned out he had long term repercussions as a result of a serious motorbike accident some years before. Consequently he was not able to do much of the work we had lined up for him as he was always in pain. We had to find things that were really ‘lightweight’ so that he did not suffer unduly.
    Now I try to remember to ask people before accepting to host them, if they are in good health or not, or if they have any impediment which will prevent them doing work.

  9. Olly
    Olly says:

    We are hosts and I have also helped/volunteered locally and internationally. I am a hard worked, conscientious, think of others and make real effort to understand people, and what they are trying to achieve to maximize what I can do for them (volunteers, friends, hosts, fellow humans). Even if I can not eat much when I’m sick I can help or work even if it’s not all day long. He should have talked to you about his circumstances, made an effort to do something to help, cook, clean, wash up.

    I believe it was unacceptable on his part to still come to volunteer under his circumstances (first sign). If he was a genuine volunteer why did he not contact his previous host?

    Would it have been the right thing to do to insist he go to a doctor ……?
    Yes, as a host I would have talked to him everyday and each day I would be evaluating his circumstance, and would have insisted he see a doctor, leave or contribute to his keep. He obviously did not want to respond to your efforts.

    …..and pay for it ourselves if necessary?
    No, I would never give money to a volunteer who turns up on my doorstep expecting to give nothing, but on the other hand I am happy to give hard up volunteers, that really have helped us out and become friends, assistance after they have been with us for sometime and even maybe a surprise financial gift for their continued travels.

    Could we have asked for some money to cover at least the food he consumed?
    Yes, after a few days. It’s only fair.

    Should we have insisted he get in touch with family or friends to send funds to cover medical expenses? No, If you have to insist there is obviously something wrong there too.

    We have had lazy complicated volunteers, but luckily, I have met exceptional ones and have made very good friends with so many.

  10. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’d like to know, are there any rules for Workawayers having days off? I took a placement thinking I would have at least one day free but it’s been 11 days now and I’m too afraid to bring it up! Thanks 🙂

    • Workaway
      Workaway says:

      Hi Rachel,
      We recommend that hosts request no more than 5 hours a day, 5 days a week from volunteers. We usually advise volunteers to clarify this before agreeing a stay so that there are no misunderstandings.
      We would advise you to ask about days off, gently reminding the host that Workaway is a cultural exchange, so it’s important that volunteers have time to see the local area and integrate socially.

  11. Karelia
    Karelia says:

    On the thread of volunteer difficulties. I am a host. So far have had visits from 5 workawayers. Three are absolutely excellent, could not wish for better. Two of my workawayers have stayed here for a very long time.

    One workaway however, had a drinking problem, and the other had a moaning problem. The moaning problem was morning noon and night, nothing was good enough for her. She eventually left of her own accord. I write this to see if other hosts have experienced similar problems with the hope that you would contribute questions to ask a workawayer before they arrive

  12. Peri
    Peri says:

    I am an older traveler. I am very healthy but when I get a cold it turns into bronchitis. I got a cold at the last place and took myself to the doctor when the bronchitis was mild to get antibiotics to take before it turned into serious bronchitis. I wanted to make sure I could continue working for my host. If you travel you need to be mature enough to take care of yourself and plan for the cost of a doctor or better yet, carry insurance.

    If I was a host and that kid came sick to me, I would insist on calling his family so they could send him money to go to a doctor. He could of had something serious. Ten days is a long time to be sick. I would also be concerned that my family or other volunteers could catch what he had if it was a communicable disease.

  13. Sandy Freckle
    Sandy Freckle says:

    I have been a host for a long time with Workaway(and the others)…, I host in a popular volunteer location in SW Australia. I have learn’t that it’s important to be very precise when communicating with people of a different primary language. On arrival, ‘we’, meaning both host and helper make an agreement based on ‘what is’ in that moment. It’s kind of a verbal contract. But, sometimes(rarely) it happens that the situation for that visitor/helper changes during their stay.., this can be any one of number of things. If a visitor/helper becomes ill and it’s beyond my capabilities to heal or help them to wellness again.., I make my point politely and assist then to the local hospital where treatment is both professional and free. I do not carry the required insurance for dealing all the eventualities of unwell travellers at my remote property. Sometimes a helper backslides on their commitments(also rare)…, that’s a different thing…, theres no need to unpack that here.

  14. Alison
    Alison says:

    We are hosts for 4 years now on a remote farm in a poor country. Although we explicitly ask about each volunteers’ health before accepting them, we have had quite a few volunteers arrive on our farm in sick conditions and have had bad consequences. If a volunteer becomes seriously ill, has convulsions or their appendix burst (all of this has happened to us), we are very limited in the help we can give them. We are over an hour away from primary medical care and two hours away from a good hospital, and we don’t always have a vehicle available to send them to the hospital any time of the day or night. Because of this, we have a policy which is written on a poster in the cafeteria and is mentioned in our application form: If a volunteer is sick and unable to work, we allow them to stay bedridden for two days. If they aren’t able to work by the third day, we require them to return to the city and stay at a hostel where they will be closer to medical help.
    This has helped ‘push’ the seriously sick volunteers to see a doctor. , and has helped the ‘not- so- sick-, but -would -rather -sleep’ volunteers to man up and work.
    I wish I could nurse everyone and be there for them when they are sick and in a foreign land, but it comes at too high of a cost for me to practically do that. Nursing the sick, making special food for them, then rushing them to the hospital in the middle of the night, being too tired the next day to do my work and organize the other volunteers and then finally repeating this all over as the other volunteers catch the same sickness…. it’s not fair to the host.

  15. Vinnie
    Vinnie says:

    I recently had a very unusual experience with a volunteer. He was a 30 yo male who clearly had some mental issues. Anxiety being the most important but also obsessive thoughts and a complete lack of awareness of the needs and feelings of people surrounding him. I have to stress that he was not a jerk, quite the opposite of anything, he just had a lot of issues. I found it very difficult to have him around also because it was extra work for me instead of help, plus he created a number of dangerous situations and damage. How would you have managed such a situation? Would you have left a review?

  16. Marion
    Marion says:

    Personally, if he was that sick, he’s sick. I’d find some light cleaning for him to do or something. If he was only staying a week and a half anyway, I wouldn’t make him pay for food or anything. I know you’re not running a free hotel and it does suck, but it’s not like he was deliberately taking advantage and these things happen. If he was planning on staying a really long time, like more than a month, and there was no sign of him getting any better after a fortnight, I would ask him to start making arrangements to either go home or go to hospital as we needed the space back, and if he needed help to let us know.

  17. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    Thank you for all your great insight and suggestions. This is the 3rd time I have had a Workawayer sick in the past year. The first 2 I question just how sick they actually were – cold coming on, sore throat head ache for 5 days. The most recent was here for 3 days and then fell visibly ill ~ I truly felt bad for her. This is her 6th day in bed and as i am not working this has become a financial burden to me. The room where she is sleeping is comfortable enough but with her being ill and having chills the electric heat has been turned up and on for 5 days now. I am on a special diet, so am making 6 meals a day, delivering them to her room, making hot lemon and ginger tea, etc etc. i realize it is not her fault and she is quite lovely and worked very well the first 3 days. But, on the other hand, after so many days off, it is difficult to make up for lost time, and there is no guarantee someone won’t get well and leave. I feel that once they have been here a week or more and have 2 days to recover, that is okay. But…when they have been here less than a week’s worth of work, and the illness continues, then I feel they should at least pay the local hostel rate and perhaps contribute towards food. This is an expense they would have anyhow but staying in a home with room service is much preferred, I am sure. I am unable to take on another workawayer while she is here sick, and I also take in BnB guests which cannot happen as she is in the guest room. My lesson here is that in my initial Welcome and guideline letter, I should make this very clear that if they are unable to work they may choose to move along or, pay a fair and reasonable room and board fee. As far as them going to the doctor I think it is essential when you don’t know what they have as they are putting your health at risk as well. After all, they are world travellers. I also should have a contact information form for them to fill out in case anything serious happen along with known illnesses, and allergies. I am now getting sick so all in all, I am much further behind in my work, as well as financially. Pretty hard for me to ask for a financial food contribution when it was not discussed initially. Lesson learned!

  18. Grace Ester
    Grace Ester says:

    Does anyone have any advice/recommendations/blog posts about what to do, as a volunteer, if the placement does not go well (miscommunication, unclear expectations, changing things without informing the volunteer, etc)? I understand of course if safety is at stake then a volunteer should immediately leave, but how to have the difficult conversations of “this isn’t what I expected, and this isn’t what you told me.”

    Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.