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Careers and professional development, Work and occupational

Help yourself by helping others

Nishat Babu on volunteering, including through work.

12 May 2022

Latest findings from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations indicate that roughly 16.3 million people in the UK volunteered in 2020/2021, and that most people will have formally volunteered at some point in their lives. This volunteering, celebrated each year during June in Volunteers' Week, often takes place locally, and ranges from activities such as organising or taking part in sponsored events, to raising money for charity. Overall, the voluntary sector contributes around £20bn to the UK economy. 

Volunteering can have a significant positive impact on its intended beneficiaries. For example, in one study, patients who received volunteer support survived longer than those who did not, after controlling for baseline health status (Herbst-Damm & Kulik, 2005). However, there are also benefits for the volunteer that go beyond simply feeling good…


Research has consistently demonstrated the benefits of volunteering for the wellbeing of volunteers. In one study, volunteering enhanced happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, and physical health, while depression reduced (Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). In a study across 29 European countries, the health benefits for volunteers compared to non-volunteers approximated in size to the health gains of being five years younger (Detollenaere et al., 2017). Wellbeing can also be boosted through a common identity among volunteer groups, which develops a sense of belongingness (Gray & Stevenson, 2020). 

Retired people can have the time to volunteer, and may benefit from it in particular ways. In one study, volunteering in a Retired and Senior Volunteer Program improved physical and mental health and quality of life, gave volunteers a life purpose, increased the pleasure of daily activities, and enhanced general wellbeing (McDonald et al., 2013). These benefits were especially prominent for women, older seniors, and those who already volunteered. In much older individuals (75-94 years), volunteering was related to improved cognitive, emotional and social functioning, and lower mortality risk (Shmotkin et al., 2003). This was the case after controlling for other activities like walking, socialising and reading, suggesting that volunteering may have a unique protective effect.

Corporate social responsibility

Volunteering can also take place through one's organisation – so called 'corporate volunteering'. Corporate volunteering can be seen as a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) which refers to an organisation's efforts to contribute to social betterment, enabling them to be a force for the good of society (Henderson, 2018). This is especially relevant given that organisations have been highlighted as playing a key role not only in the formulation, but also the achievement of the United Nation's 2030 Agenda (Howard-Grenville et al., 2019). 

Many organisations have volunteer programs as part of their CSR agendas, encouraging their employees to volunteer for not-for-profit establishments during paid working hours. At Starbucks for example, April is their Global Month of Service where employees around the world can get involved in projects within their local communities, while Deloitte have their Impact Day where employees mentor young people and host skills development workshops. Likewise, Experian and Nationwide Building Society provide their employees with a quota of days each year for volunteering within their local communities during company time.

Employees who volunteer have an enhanced sense of belonging and accomplishment, greater job satisfaction and better wellbeing generally, compared to non-volunteers (Rodell et al., 2016). They also seem to perform better at work and engage in more citizenship behaviours like helping colleagues, and benefit from greater morale. In fact, volunteering can serve as a form of recovery from work-related demands, as well as reducing the employee's negative mood, and enhancing their positive mood the next day. In addition, volunteering is positively associated with mastery (such as developing new competencies), community experiences like developing close relationships (Mojza et al., 2010), and coping with on-the-job stressors (Mojza & Sonnentag, 2010). 

Employee volunteering can further contribute to enhancing the organisation's reputation (Rodell et al., 2016). Organisations that are more socially responsible and have volunteering programs tend to be more likely to attract talented individuals to join them. Employees identify more with such organisations, have greater pride in working there, are more engaged and committed, and are less likely to want to leave. 

Volunteering at work can also compensate for perceived shortcomings in a job. According to Adam Grant (2012), an American psychologist and professor at Wharton, a job lacking in task, social and/or knowledge characteristics can trigger employees to compensate through volunteering. Grant builds on the job-design characteristics model originally developed by Hackman and Oldham in 1976. As per the model, to foster feelings of responsibility, knowledge of results and meaningfulness at work, jobs should be enriched with various task characteristics. These include the extent to which the job allows employees to engage with a task from start to finish (task identity); has a significant impact on the lives of others (task significance); gives individuals the freedom to schedule their own work activities (autonomy); incorporates a variety of tasks (task variety); and gives feedback on performance (feedback).

Grant also considers the social characteristics of the job that allow employees to interact and connect with others, and the knowledge characteristics, which allow employees to solve problems and develop skills. When a role lacks any of these characteristics, employees seek volunteering opportunities to compensate – and because they are in the workplace, Grant suggests corporate volunteering is a natural avenue to explore. An employee may compensate for a lack of social characteristics by engaging in a volunteer role that allows them to connect with others and develop and maintain interpersonal relationships. Grant further suggests that when this volunteering helps address deficiencies in employees' role, they are more likely to continue with their volunteering efforts. On the other hand, employees may volunteer because they are grateful for their meaningful jobs and want to reciprocate through organisational-driven volunteering (Rodell, 2013). 

When employees return to their regular work, they are more likely to be engaged, suggesting a positive carryover effect from volunteering to the workplace. Volunteering can enhance job performance through upskilling in the volunteer role, with personal development being an important predictor of continued volunteering. Employees are particularly likely to develop their capabilities when working on projects they believe are truly meaningful and important for a not-for-profit organisation (Caligiuri et al., 2013). 

Given the extensive benefits of volunteering for employees and their work, organisations and their leaders should ensure there are opportunities for employees to volunteer. This could be during company time or leisure time. A short working day, flexible work schedules, and a provided quota of volunteering days could all help. 


The outlook on workplace volunteering is not completely rosy. For instance, an employee might be stigmatised at work if their colleagues feel they are volunteering as an impression management exercise. However, when it is perceived to be for intrinsic reasons, colleagues are more likely to help the employee at work, and their manager is more likely to provide additional resources (Rodell & Lynch, 2016). 

In some cases volunteering may later lead to deviant behaviours in the workplace, such as stealing and calling in sick without reason. This process is termed 'moral licensing' – employees who feel they have engaged in morally praiseworthy behaviour might subsequently feel they have a psychological licence to engage in morally undesirable behaviour. One study showed that engaging in volunteering led employees to feel more psychologically entitled, which led to these deviant workplace behaviours (Loi et al., 2020). 

There is a solution to these concerns. High perceptions of organisational justice can counteract these negative effects (Loi et al., 2020). Managers can therefore encourage volunteering whilst enhancing employee perceptions of organisational justice, for example by treating employees fairly. Aside from this, given that moral licensing is seemingly a conscious process, managers could make employees aware of the negative effects of the moral licensing thought process, in an attempt to reduce it.

Supporting volunteers

Volunteers, both within and outside of the workplace, need to be suitably supported in their efforts. For instance, research shows that volunteering may only buffer the detrimental effects of stressful life events on health in those who have a positive view of others and believe them to be kind and helpful (Poulin, 2014). In terms of personality, individuals who are sociable and outgoing (high on extraversion) and less prone to stress and anxiety (low on neuroticism) may gain the most from volunteering (Bakker et al., 2006). Therefore, those who train and develop potential volunteers should pay special attention to individuals who may not have these traits. A focus on improving their coping skills, equipping them with tools to deal with stressful situations and manage negative emotional responses could help such individuals.

Volunteer organisations can also retain and support volunteers through fostering pride and respect (Boezeman & Ellemers, 2007) – through showing volunteers the importance of the work they do for those they serve, providing feedback (e.g., money raised), and arranging opportunities for beneficiaries to share what the volunteers' work has personally meant for them. Job satisfaction and intention to remain as a volunteer are linked to autonomy (the freedom of the volunteer to choose their own actions) and relatedness (the feeling of connectedness with others) (Boezeman & Ellemers, 2009). 

In the workplace, organisations can develop respect by creating a supportive environment, communicating regularly, inquiring about support volunteers may need, providing training and development, and giving task-focused support. Organisations should also work to foster peer support, which can be an important resource when dealing with the challenges of volunteer work (Gray & Stevenson, 2020).

Managers of volunteers may also need support. Research indicates that volunteers who are affectively committed to their roles and have strong views on how things should be done within the organisation can resist management initatives to make changes and become hostile, leaving managers paralysed to take action (Ward & Greene, 2018). This is especially exacerbated because a volunteer role does not entail a formal contract like with paid employment, thus providing a greater sense of power to volunteers to speak their mind. Initiatives here to provide managers with training on how to deal with emotional challenges when working with volunteers can be useful (Ward & Greene, 2018). 


Not everyone has equitable levels of access to and experience of volunteering. If you are a working class single parent, working shifts during the day and night in order to make ends meet, you are less likely to have resources to devote to volunteering. Indeed, research suggests that volunteers are more likely to be White, middle class and in paid employment, usually because of their greater access to time and resources compared to working-class communities (Sundeen et al., 2007). This ties in with entrenched perceptions of volunteering as an activity performed by the more privileged in order to help 'needy others', possibly treating the encounter as a top-down handout, which could construct and reinforce power inequities, leading the beneficiaries to ultimately resent the volunteers (Ganesh & McAllum, 2009). Indeed, volunteers themselves may consider volunteering from a consumer perspective, as an activity to consume in order to feel good about themselves and what they are doing, as opposed to being genuinely altruistic (Glasrud, 2007).

While volunteering may lead to economic benefits (e.g. higher earnings), this may only be for those in professional and managerial occupations as opposed to lower-wage blue collar workers, yet again highlighting the role of social class in volunteering (Wilson et al., 2020). It is unclear why this is the case, but it may well be that higher earners are more likely to have the resources to enter into volunteering, in comparison to low earners. There also seems to be a class difference in the volunteer work done, with professionals engaging in more prestigious and higher-level work (e.g. advisory services) as opposed to more 'hands on' volunteering work performed by those in low-wage positions (e.g. serving food). 

Additionally, other marginalised groups such as women and senior citizens could be exploited as they are considered to be 'easily manageable' (Ganesh & McAllum, 2009). Disability could also influence whether one is considered worthy enough to be a volunteer, with disabled individuals often perceived as passive recipients rather than active participants of volunteering. There is also the risk that any volunteering on their part may be considered more inferior by others (Balandin et al., 2006). 

A vehicle for good

Volunteering can have myriad benefits, although it may lack equal access and experience for different stratum of society. Organisations benefit through the furthering of their CSR agendas, and developing engaged and skilled employees who are more committed to the organisation. Volunteers benefit through enhanced wellbeing, belongingness, upskilling, greater meaningfulness, and by being able to compensate for deficient and poorly designed jobs. Ultimately, and most importantly, volunteering can be a vehicle for social good, both through and outside of work. 

Dr Nishat Babu is a Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and Lecturer at Loughborough University. [email protected]

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