The mental health benefits of volunteering
This week is Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June) and in light of recent events, lots of us have been thinking about what we can do to support our communities. But while volunteer work can impact on the people around us, it’s important to remember that it can have meaningful benefits for our own wellbeing, too. ‘Kindness and altruism, doing things for other people and making them feel good – the power of that shouldn’t be underestimated,’ says Dr Gail Kinman, visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. ‘If you’re at home, feeling a bit lonely, or are lacking a sense of purpose, doing something for others can make you feel better about yourself, help your confidence and give you new skills.’
But in order to make the most of volunteer work, Kinman believes that we should be savvy. ‘Use organisations that will match your skillset and interests to volunteer opportunities, then think about the time and energy that you’re able to commit,’ she says. Some volunteer sites let you fill in your preferences in order to find the best placements for you. Do It use an online preference form to match you with suitable local volunteering opportunities, while Furlonteer, a volunteer site designed specifically for workers on furlough leave, will match your professional expertise with vacancies at various charities.
Importantly, if you’re already feeling stressed, be realistic about the time and energy you’re willing to commit. ‘Starting small and making it manageable is important,’ says Kinman. ‘Often, people are tempted to overcommit – and then you can become overwhelmed. Ask the right questions and clarify mutual expectations before you start, so there’s no misinterpretation.’ Once you strike the right balance, volunteering could benefit your mental health in any of these meaningful ways:
1 Boosting social connection
For those on furlough leave, those who’ve recently retired, or those who are working from home and missing their colleagues, volunteering can offer much-needed social connection. ‘It’s very easy to get ourselves into our own little bubbles – especially in current conditions,’ says Kinman. ‘Volunteering is a great way of connecting with others. As well as the other volunteers, you might get to know the people you’re volunteering for. You’ll meet new people who are different from yourself and make new friends.’ It could also help those who have recently lost partners. A 2017 study found that widowed adults over 50 were much less lonely after committing to volunteer work for at least two hours a week.
2 Reducing anxiety
Whether or not you feel able to commit to a formal volunteering programme, research has indicated that performing acts of kindness might help anxiety sufferers to feel more positive. A study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, found anxiety sufferers who did altruistic deeds over a four week period – for instance, mowing a neighbour’s lawn – found their condition improved. Afterwards, they were more likely to view social interactions in a more positive light compared to before the experiment.
3 Improving life satisfaction
Being involved in a cause you care about can also help you feel happier about your life overall. A 2013 review found that volunteering tended to have a favourable impact on life satisfaction. A longitudinal study revealed that participants maintained higher levels of mental wellbeing a decade after their volunteer work ended. This effect was caused by participants’ strong sense they had done work that really mattered.
4 Offering a sense of purpose
Kinman believes that for furloughed employees, volunteering could help fill the hole left by work. ‘Having too much time to think, worry and ruminate can be bad for our mental health,’ she says. ‘Volunteering offers a sense of purpose, something to structure your day, and a tangible sense of achievement.’ The same sense of fulfilment could benefit empty-nesters, too. ‘When your children go away and go off to university – for women in particular – that can be a time of depression, and there’s a sense of loss. Getting involved with volunteering can help.’ A longitudinal study found that the social networks established in volunteer work were particularly powerful for providing purpose in older adults.
5 Decreasing risk of depression
Research has found that volunteering can lead to a lower risk of depression, especially in older adults. One study found that older adults who volunteered were less likely to suffer from depression than non-volunteers, even when accounting for factors such as low self-esteem and low levels of social interaction previously. However, feeling that you are needed might be an important qualifier. One study showed that volunteers who felt appreciated showed a greater decrease in feelings of depression than those who did not, so try to find an opportunity where your skills will shine, as Kinman advised.