How volunteering can help improve mental health and wellbeing - a study

Many recent studies conducted on volunteer work show a strong correlation between volunteering and improved mental health and well-being for those who engage in it. But what does the evidence show?

We wanted to explore different factors associated with volunteering, such as the age of volunteers, the type of volunteering and the volume of hours spent volunteering.

The impact of volunteering on mental health in the elderly

Using nationally representative panel data, a study in 2000 showed that volunteers aged 60 and older experienced more significant increases in life satisfaction and health improvements as a result of time spent volunteering, compared to younger volunteers.

Similarly, a study in 2006 compared individuals aged 40-59 with those aged 60 and older and found a positive relationship between volunteering and changes in mental health.

More recently, a UK-based study using data collected during the British Household Panel Survey found that volunteering was associated with increased mental well-being, especially in adults aged between 40 and 70.

The study concluded that the association between volunteering and well-being did not emerge during early adulthood to mid-adulthood, instead it became apparent in those aged 40 and older.

BHPS survey 2016

You may be wondering why it affects the elderly more positively than any other age group. It has been noted that post-paid employment and/or post-raising children contribute to this. An engagement in volunteering may be important in providing a routine, or an opportunity to remain engaged in social activities and still have a valued role within society.

Backing this up further, it was suggested that volunteering is important in helping people manage the transition from paid work into retirement. For example, volunteers aged 65 or older compared with those aged 55-64 were more likely to say that volunteering is important because it helps them meet people, gives a sense of personal achievement and gives them a position in the community.

The impact of volunteering on mental health in young adults

In 2018, the National Council For Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) revealed that there is an increase in young people taking action to resolve this loneliness by volunteering. NCVO conducted a national study in 2019 and found that young people aged 18–24 (77%) and 25–34 (76%) were the age groups most likely to say their volunteering helped them feel less isolated. 

Research completed by Lancaster University in 2018 showed that volunteers with a history of mental health problems that were most likely to report benefits. They reported that their placements had a positive impact on their leadership skills.

Referring back to the British Household Panel Survey in 2016, it was reported previously that middle-age people who are less depressed are more likely to volunteer and thereby enjoy the benefits of being volunteers.

However, in the same survey there is evidence which show that volunteering does not improve mental health in young adults. One explanation for this was that volunteering may be seen as “yet another obligatory task to fulfil in order to be a good student, parent, and worker.”

What is it about volunteering that improves mental health?

So we now know that there is a positive correlation between volunteering and mental health across a range of age groups. But why is this?

According to the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR), volunteering brings people together in the community which helps build social capital. This has been apparent across many studies. For example, a survey conducted in 2012 concluded that people who volunteer are also more likely to have higher social “connectedness” than non-volunteers.

Similarly, a study by Royal Voluntary Service in 2012, based on the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), showed that volunteers who felt appreciated reported a greater improvement in life satisfaction, quality of life, and a greater decrease in feelings of depression than those who do not volunteer.

An article by HelpGuide, a non-profit mental health and awareness website, stated that volunteering on a regular basis can give you a sense of purpose, fulfilment and accomplishment – linking back to improved mental health.

However, in the same study conducted by Royal Voluntary Service, it was concluded that volunteering on a voluntary basis is what leads to the feeling of social connectedness. They analysed that feeling obliged to volunteer does not appear to affect the relationship between volunteering and well-being.

How much volunteering is too much or too little?

There has been a lot of research into the volume of volunteering on physical health. For example, one famous study in 2014 found that 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure, whilst other studies have found health benefits from as little as 100 hours of volunteering annually.

Despite this, there is little to no research in the UK about the optimum amount of volunteering on mental health. Moreover, the research that does exist is conflicting, giving us no clear answer to the optimum amount of volunteering.

For example, in Australia, a study on adults aged 64-68 suggested that people need to volunteer for at least 100 hours a year to feel benefits to their well-being. After this, if people volunteer for over 800 hours a year, the benefits start to drop off.

Likewise, research spoken about by HelpGuide shows that just two to three hours per week, or about 100 hours a year, can confer the most benefits.

However, a few studies conducted between 2003 and 2008 suggested that the benefits to well-being drop off beyond 100 hours a year, rather than start to take effect after 100 hours a year.

Volunteering doesn't always have a positive effect

Some research points to possible negative effects of volunteering on mental health.

For example, external factors such as the economy and the welfare system can have an impact on volunteers. This is evident in a 2017 study based around unemployed people in 29 European countries. It was suggested that, while volunteering can help improve volunteers’ sense of fulfilment, it can also damage mental health in countries with less generous unemployment benefits.

Another factor which can cause negative effects on mental health is lack of training. Celia Richardson, who worked for Mental Health Foundation at the time, told BBC News Online: “If people are feeling over-stretched or are witnessing depressing and difficult situations they aren’t trained to deal with – and if they aren’t offered appropriate protection or counselling – then it is not difficult to imagine they could feel there are negative health consequences attached to volunteering.”

As well as this, Volunteer Scotland suggests that there are several possible adverse impacts on volunteers’ health and well-being caused by ‘burnout’ and emotionally challenging and demanding volunteer roles.

What types of volunteering role are the best for improved mental health?

There is lots of generic research into the positive correlation of ‘volunteering’ and ‘mental health’, but what type of roles are best? Unfortunately, there is little research to discuss whether certain types of volunteering roles improve your mental health more than others.

This may be because there are so many different types of volunteering roles in existence, it would be difficult to generalise a role within a study and each role would offer unique findings.

From the limited research we did find, it was stated by HelpGuide that the ‘social contact’ aspect of working with others can have a significant impact on your overall well-being. They mention that ‘nothing relieves stress better than a meaningful connection to another person’.

Moreover, they mention that working with pets and other animals has also been shown to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety. In many studies, interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone), leading to reduced feelings of loneliness.

There are some limitations to the research

A noticeable limitation of the studies discussed in this article is that we cannot prove cause and effect, or tell the direction of the relationship. As stated by the NHS, people who volunteer may have better mental health scores because those who feel healthy, active and in a good state of wellbeing are more likely to go out and volunteer than those who feel in poor health.

What do you think?

Do you agree with these findings? Have you come across evidence which back up these claims or goes against them? Please email us at hello@bhibcharities.co.uk to let us know your thoughts.

About BHIB Charities Insurance

BHIB Charities Insurance specialise in providing tailored cover for community groups, clubs, societies, voluntary organisations and hobby or special interest groups. We offer more than just insurance and we are passionate about supporting local communities.

To find out how we can help your charity or not-for-profit organisation, email us on hello@bhibcharities.co.uk or call 0330 013 0036 to speak to our friendly, expert team.

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