Why employer-supported volunteering can boost mental health, motivation at work and leadership skills
For almost a decade Michael Blondé has volunteered between 20 to 100 hours a year through work, helping with everything from event logistics to sponsorship raising for Motionball, a not-for-profit organization raising funds and awareness for Special Olympics Canada through social and sporting events.
“Knowing you’re making a difference and positive impact on someone’s life is what volunteering is all about,” said the director of strategic customers at social media management platform Hootsuite, adding that volunteering leads to a greater sense of empathy, connection to your community and civic duty. “This has led to huge improvements in my own mental health over the years,” he added.
Many companies have struck up volunteer initiatives in the workplace over the years. Through employer-supported volunteering staff are offered a designated number of days per year to volunteer, with some companies allowing workers to decide where they would like to volunteer, while others may organize for teams to volunteer with a designated charity or partner organization. In a NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organizations) survey, 77% of volunteers reported that volunteering improved their mental health and well-being.
The same report highlighted how important volunteering was for mental health through the pandemic, which saw many people start volunteering and helping out in their communities.
“A lot of people were on furlough and getting paid to do nothing so some channeled their creativity and started volunteering, for example shopping for those isolating or helping the NHS [U.K. National Health Service],” said Hansa Pankhania, owner of workplace well-being consultancy AUM Consultancy and a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy accredited therapist. “Volunteering can give you a purpose in life.”
Pankhania believes volunteering can increase happiness and well-being levels. “It gives a sense of belonging and increases self-esteem. I recommend it to a lot of clients.”
Ashlee Williams, vp of maritime and trade at S&P Global Market Intelligence, first started volunteering with Sal’s Shoes in 2015 after a colleague told her about the charity which accepts donations of children’s shoes. She volunteers 21 hours a year through work but increased her commitment to Thursdays and school holidays as a result of the pandemic.
Williams, who helps sort through the donations and packages the shoes for distribution, says helping out during the pandemic proved beneficial for her.
“The prolonged and relentless nature of the situation did affect me and I knew I needed to do something about it,” she said. “Sal’s Shoes was — and is — one of my support systems, helping to reduce anxiety and stress, whilst protecting against depression in a challenging time. It always improves my overall mood.”
Volunteering can go far beyond creating that soft fuzzy feeling inside. It can bolster your relationship to work too. In a survey of employees volunteering in schools, 79% reported improvements to their sense of mission at work while 68% recorded greater motivation at work, according to charity Educations and Employers.
Beyond her mental health, Williams says it has helped strengthen her skills at work. “Working with people that have different backgrounds and abilities enables you to build on critical leadership qualities such as compassion. I’ve cultivated a much greater presence in my leadership role as a result,” she said.
Borja de las Llanderas, senior business analyst at Deloitte, uses the company’s flexible working policy to volunteer as a school governor at Barry Primary School in Milton Keynes, England.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in education,” said de las Llanderas. “Problem-solving and making things even better is what I do in my job at Deloitte, and I’m glad that I now have an opportunity to have a positive impact in the wider community.”
Jarina Choudhury, strategic volunteering lead at NCVO, says the best way to encourage volunteering in the workplace is to set up a structured approach.
“Regular communication internally and celebrating the difference volunteers can make, helps boost the profile of volunteering within organizations. Ensuring it is joined up to other parts of the organization — including its processes, structures and strategies — may help to ensure it has a ‘place’ and purpose in the organization.”
Another benefit of volunteering through work schemes is that it can widen your circle at work. “You develop a kinship when volunteering with colleagues and a special connection that goes beyond just the corporate environment,” said Blondé, who is based in Vancouver.
As volunteering can be a very individual and personal choice, instead of holding team volunteering days, Christina Matisons, project and change management professional in Calgary in Canada, recommends managers discover what kind of volunteer opportunities their staff would be interested in and for the organization to be flexible in their support.
“Employers should empower managers to understand their employees motivations and goals in volunteerism and aim to support their team in volunteer activities that are meaningful and personal. This personal approach will help increase engagement, competencies, skills and happiness at work. It’s important to understand the motivations behind volunteerism or it can feel superficial,” she said.
Emily Hackin, people advisor at digital marketing agency iCrossing in Brighton, England, has volunteered as a Brownie [Girl Scouts] leader through work since December 2019, helping run a series of ‘skills-builders’ to help the girls work towards earning badges. She takes advantage of the five days the company offers annually to volunteer.
“I couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for corporate volunteer days,” said Hackin. “It’s helped me to come out of my shell and feel more confident in the workplace as well as speak my mind. I’ve managed to let this creep into my professional life too and it’s seen me grow in confidence as well as develop my leadership skills. It’s also helped me with having difficult conversations by developing listening skills, empathy and being objective.”
However, there’s room for improvement for more companies to get on board. Only 38% of employees said that their company provides access to company-sponsored or coordinated volunteer programs, according to a Deloitte 2017 Volunteerism Survey. More than two thirds (69%) said they are not volunteering as much as they would like to and of those, 62% said they can’t dedicate time during the day to volunteering.
For employees considering volunteering through work, Choudhury advises considering what interests or excites you.
“Think about what time or skills you can offer. Get researching by searching the internet, talking to friends about what they do.”