Volunteering, Health & Wellbeing

To understand the contribution of volunteering to volunteers’ health and wellbeing we have undertaken a critical appraisal of the evidence.H&W

Rationale

There is a widely held perception that volunteering is a ‘good thing’ and that this confers benefits to both the beneficiaries and to the volunteers themselves. This includes a considerable amount of emerging evidence on the potential health and wellbeing benefits from volunteering.

However, Volunteer Scotland is aware that this evidence can be contradictory, and this has resulted in considerable uncertainty around what we mean by wellbeing, the nature of the benefits, who benefits, the possibility of losers as well as gainers and the invidious causality problem.

To help answer these questions Volunteer Scotland undertook a literature review during 2018, focused on the health and wellbeing impacts of formal volunteering on volunteers.

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Findings

  • Improved 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.
  • Reduced 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.
  • Enhanced 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.
  • 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.
  • Targeting the excluded – 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.
  • Understand the facilitators – volunteer managers should be aware that 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
  • Beware of adverse impacts – volunteering is not a universal panacea for society’s problems. Indeed, 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.

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So What?

These findings raise important questions for policy and practice. Improved mental and physical health and reduced social isolation and loneliness are top of the Government’s policy agenda. Our research has highlighted the important role which volunteering can play in helping to address these policy areas for the benefit of people across Scotland.

Volunteering can also contribute to enhanced community wellbeing through improved social integration and cohesion. Finally, there are important lessons for volunteering practice in terms of understanding possible impacts of volunteering on volunteers’ health and wellbeing – both positive and negative.