Health Benefits of Volunteering for the Employee Volunteer

There are many well-documented business benefits that spring from employee volunteering programs (EVPs). The CSR industry is becoming increasingly familiar with the value of EVPs, but there is another growing body of literature emerging about the benefits of EVPs for employees. As EVPs continue to evolve, companies need to start thinking harder about the WIIFM (“What’s iifor me) for the employee. You certainly can’t run an EVP without the “E.”

When a company asks employees to volunteer, there is a tendency to lean heavily on community impact as a benefit. Impact is certainly a benefit to the community, and a desired result. Yet, when it comes to the WIIFM, there are plenty of benefits to the individual that CSR practitioners can leverage to engage employees more effectively in volunteerism. One of the most significant benefits is the effect volunteering has on personal health and well-being.

A 2017 study by United Healthcare and Volunteer Match confirmed many findings over the last decade that demonstrate the mental, emotional and physical benefits of volunteering. The study found that, of respondents that volunteered in the last 12 months, 76% felt healthier, 94% felt it improved their moods, and 78% reported lowered stress levels. But let’s dig a little deeper into this – health and well-being come in many forms. We’ve plumbed the depths of our resources to give you a high-quality selection of the most relevant articles and information on the health benefits of volunteering. We hope you’ll share them with your employees!

I. Mental and Emotional Health

  • Happiness. A study from the London School of Economics found that the more you volunteer, the happier you are. Interestingly, researchers compared the difference in happiness levels of non-volunteers and weekly volunteers to that of those with a $20,000 annual salary compared to $75,000-100,000 annually, respectively. Impressive!
  • Decreased stress and anxiety. Meaningful connections to the beneficiary and other members of a volunteer community can reduce stress and anxiety. As discussed in Chris Jarvis’ Empathy in Motion, social contact and helping others can lead to the “Helper’s High,” working not only to decrease stress and anxiety, but increase happiness levels as well.
  • Individual fulfillment. If done correctly, volunteering is shown to increase a person’s self-confidence and sense of purpose. In turn, happiness levels and the ability to fight depression will increase. A boost in self-confidence becomes a ripple effect in a person’s ability to expand their social network and take on more leadership responsibility, which has shown to contribute to individual career development.
  • Career advancement. Expanding a volunteer’s social network and the development of new “on-the-job” skills can contribute to their career development. The 2016 Deloitte Impact Survey found that 80% of hiring influencers believed that employees who volunteer move into leadership roles more easily, and 82% of hiring influencers are more likely to choose a candidate with volunteer experience. Assumedly, career advancement will have a positive effect on a person’s economic health, translating to better mental health up to a certain point.
  • Decreased risk of depression. The ability to combat depression with volunteering can be attributed to many of the benefits already listed. In addition to increased happiness levels and decreased stress and anxiety, a sense of purpose and a strong social support system are effective tools for fighting depression. The simple act of getting out of the house or office for physical activity is linked to fighting depression as well.

II. Physical and Physiological Health

  • Longevity. Volunteering can help you live longer, according to both a University of Exeter study and a CNCS study. This is largely due to many of the aforementioned mental and emotional benefits by way of decreasing stress, anxiety, depression and the associated physiological effects. Increased longevity is also due to the following physical benefits.
  • Decreased risk of hypertension. A 2013 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that volunteering can lower the risk of high blood pressure, specifically in volunteers over the age of 50. This age demographic remains a critical part of today’s workforce, and instilling healthy volunteering habits in millennials and generations in between will promote their heart health long-term, thereby decreasing the risk of developing heart disease.
  • Decreased back pain and obesity. Especially for employees whose work environment involves hours of sedentary desk-sitting, volunteering can get employees out of the house and office and promote physical activity. As a result, acute problems like back pain can be relieved, and obesity levels lowered.
  • Decreased risk of disease. The onset of diseased related to a sedentary lifestyle can be delayed or avoided through the exposure of physical activity and social interaction of volunteering. Studies have shown that diseases such as colon cancer, breast cancer and diabetes are more likely in people with sedentary lifestyles. Further, socially active lifestyles can result in the slowed progression of mental deteriorations, such as Alzheimer’s. The latter is due to the increased brain elasticity that can be achieved through regular social interaction and acts of service.
  • Increased use of preventative health care. According to a 2016 study in the Social Science & Medicine Journal, active volunteers are more likely to use preventative health care services including flu shots and cancer or disease screening. Harvard Health suggests that this

III. Leverage a Transformative Volunteering approach to maximize employee health benefits

A study from the University of Exeter found that although it is perceived that people tend to volunteer for altruistic reasons, if they do not feel they are getting something in return, then the positive health outcomes on volunteers are limited.

A Transformative Volunteering approach puts employees at the center of EVPs to ensure its benefits, such as health outcomes, are realized. Of course, the basic benefits of EVPs such as increased physical activity or the introduction to a social network will stand true for most EVPs.

However, there are elements of Transformative Volunteering that will allow volunteers to realize some of the more significant health benefits. For example, tactics used in Transformative Volunteering, such as including a disorienting dilemma during the brief and self-reflection in the debrief, provides the opportunity for volunteers to identify with a stronger sense of purpose. As the research shows, this is linked to higher levels of happiness and help fight depression.

Further, meeting volunteers at their highest level of contribution, whether that be as a Tourist, Traveler or Guide, will allow volunteers to continue developing skills that may translate to their workplace and aid in career advancement.

These are just a few examples of how Transformative Volunteering can strengthen the significant health benefits associated with traditional volunteering.

IV. Food for Thought

Positive health outcomes start with the employee volunteer—but don’t end there.

Employee volunteering, if done correctly, can kickstart a powerful cycle that promotes the health of not only the beneficiary and the employee volunteer, but also the employer and community at large—a whole other topic in itself.

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. – Ralph Waldo Emerson [ Source]

Realized Worth offers consulting on employee volunteering and giving programs. We are a global agency that specializes in program design, employee volunteer training, and employee engagement. Contact us to learn more!

Jessica Jenkins, Project Manager at Realized Worth

Reprinted with permission.