Volunteering, Health and Wellbeing: what does the evidence tell us?

Year of publication
Matthew Linning and Gemma Jackson, Volunteer Scotland

A critical appraisal of the evidence, to better understand the contribution of volunteering to volunteers’ health and wellbeing.
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. 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.

Key findings include:
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.
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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