Volunteering could be just what the doctor ordered

5 December 2018

On International Volunteer Day our research has found that Volunteering is central not just to the health and wellbeing of volunteers, but also to the fostering of healthy and resilient communities


While there is a widely held perception that volunteering is a ‘good thing’ Volunteer Scotland is aware that this evidence can be contradictory, resulting in considerable uncertainty around what we mean by wellbeing, the nature of the benefits, who benefits and the possibility of losers as well as gainers.

Volunteer Scotland undertook a literature review during 2018, focused on the health and wellbeing impacts for volunteers.

We found that volunteering...

  • Improves mental health – the strongest evidence related to the contribution of volunteering to enhanced mental health, including the alleviation of depression, reduced anxiety and stress and other more serious mental health conditions.
  • Reduces social isolation and loneliness – volunteering is particularly important for those who are retired, are marginalised in society such as asylum seekers and those who have low wellbeing and mental health.
  • Enhances physical health – volunteering can improve individual’s self-rated health through the adoption of healthy behaviours such as exercise; and helping people cope with personal illness and dependency in older age.

However, the 'health kick' is felt disproportionately...

  • Those excluded gain most – there is clear-cut evidence that those subject to exclusion and disadvantage in society have the most to gain from volunteering in terms of their health and wellbeing.
  • Impacts depend on the nature of your volunteering  – there are a number of ‘facilitators’ which support the attainment of health and wellbeing impacts:
    - ‘Dose-response effect’– regular rather than episodic volunteering
    - Motivations– volunteers who are driven by altruism rather than self-interest
    - Recognition– giving thanks and appreciation for what volunteers do
  • Age matters – there is a large body of evidence focused on the health and wellbeing benefits of volunteering for older people. Further research on the impact of volunteering on younger people would be helpful, given the well-publicised problems of mental health and loneliness.
  • Some may feel less healthy – there are several possible adverse impacts on volunteers’ health and wellbeing due to role strain, ‘burnout’, and emotionally challenging and demanding roles. In such circumstances it is quite possible that individuals’ health & wellbeing could improve if they stopped volunteering.

Matthew Linning, Strategic Development Manager who led the research, said

"This research shows how important volunteering is for individuals’ health and wellbeing, particularly for those subject to disadvantage and exclusion in society. However, it also highlights how Government policy and volunteering practice can help maximise such benefits – for both volunteers and the communities in which they live. This is timely given the First Minister’s focus on national wellbeing at the launch of the National Performance Framework 2018."


Communities Secretary, Aileen Campbell said:

"Volunteers across Scotland make a vital contribution to their local communities and on International Volunteers Day, I would like to say thank you to each and every one of them for their dedication and commitment.

We know how important volunteering is for beneficiaries but this research demonstrates how good it is for the volunteer too. Volunteering is all about new experiences, feeling good and making a difference. There are many benefits of volunteering, in terms of skills development, community empowerment and strengthening public services and I would encourage more people to consider volunteering in their local communities."


The research findings are based on a literature review by Volunteer Scotland, which involved a detailed examination of 24 core papers and a further 40 supplementary papers. The focus of our research was on the health and wellbeing of volunteers and, to a more limited extent, community wellbeing; it did not address the wellbeing of beneficiaries. It also focused exclusively on formal volunteering.

Click to view Full Report

Click to view Summary Report