Can volunteering days and CSR initiatives have a positive impact on employee wellbeing?

Need to know:

  • Employers have recognised they need to be responding to the enhanced sense of community engagement that has come out of the pandemic, and so interest in implementing volunteering policies and supporting volunteering has been increasing.
  • The mass shift to home working last year, however, meant many conventional face-to-face or team-based volunteering programmes had to come to a halt.
  • Although the easing of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) restrictions may enable some of this to restart, the rise of app-based ‘micro volunteering’ means employers may need to rethink how they reward and incentivise volunteering activities in the future.

Whether it’s been clapping for carers, donating to a local foodbank, running errands for a vulnerable neighbour, or even volunteering to become an NHS Covid-19 (Coronavirus) vaccine ‘jabber’, the past 18 months of pandemic have, for many of us, heightened our sense of community and being ‘in it together’.

Yet at the same time the fact many employees have spent the pandemic working remotely has meant a lot of conventional workplace or corporate volunteering activities – getting the team together to clear a canal or park, say, or sending employees into schools – have had to grind to a halt.

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So, with Coronavirus restrictions having eased in England at least, but with many still working from home, what is employer corporate and social responsibility (CSR) and volunteering now going to look like? Just as importantly, given the impact the pandemic has had for many on mental health, how can volunteering and CSR initiatives have a positive effect on employee wellbeing?

Community engagement

Employers have recognised they need to be responding to the enhanced sense of community engagement that has come out of the pandemic, highlights Steve Butterworth, chief executive of community investment and engagement platform Neighbourly.

“The dial has turned up in terms of the expectation that a good employer will enable staff to go out and do volunteering that is not necessarily in their own time. And there have been more businesses embracing it as part of their core strategy,” he points out. “Throughout Covid, we’ve had quite a lot of conversations with businesses that are introducing more formal volunteering policies for the first time.”

When it comes to the links between volunteering and wellbeing, Butterworth points to research published in May 2021 by the London School of Economics, where an analysis of the NHS Volunteer Responders programme concluded that the positive effects of volunteering on personal wellbeing lasted up to three months and equated to a monetary value of £1,800 per volunteer.

This was echoed in a report in April by volunteering app onHand in conjunction with the National Innovation Centre for Ageing and Newcastle Building Society. The impact report found nearly half (47%) of employee volunteers felt providing help had combatted feelings of isolation or loneliness during the pandemic, with 80% saying volunteering had had a positive or very positive impact on their life.

The links between volunteering and enhanced wellbeing are well recognised but have been amplified by the pandemic, agrees Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection.

“Often, if you do something for someone else, it makes you feel so much better than if you did something for yourself. Volunteering brings that side of wellbeing to the fore, which is why people tend to feel so good having done it,” she points out. “It can also give that sense of being part of a community, which is another sense of wellbeing; you are all in a tribe and all have the same purpose,” she adds.

Employer opportunities

The pandemic has encouraged employers to think about how what they’re offering in terms of CSR and volunteering fits into wider conversations around diversity and inclusion and environmental sustainability, argues Yves Duhaldeborde, senior director at Willis Towers Watson.

“Instead of offering two days of volunteering, for example, it has gone up to three or four days. Matching grants have proved popular as well. The Covid crisis has accelerated things but also crystalised thinking. To succeed in the future, we need to think about how we are treating our employees, how representative we are of the communities where we operate, whether we are supporting communities and what we are doing for the environment,” he says.

The fact employers have largely been unable to undertake conventional face-to-face or team-based volunteering activities has led to a rise in ‘micro volunteering’ through apps such as onHand, argues its chief executive Sanjay Lobo. “Micro volunteering is not a full day or half a day out of the office, it is doing someone’s shopping while doing your own or a befriending call that takes you half an hour or walking someone’s dog as they can’t walk it themselves, which can give you immense pleasure,” he explains.

However, this transition may mean employers will now need to rethink, or at the very least revisit, how they reward and incentivise volunteering activities, Lobo suggests. “Most organisations that are into corporate volunteering have a policy of giving one or two days a year where you can go and volunteer. But the way micro volunteering works, that doesn’t quite fit. For example, we have plenty of volunteers doing befriending calls on a Sunday, so it is in their own time.

“There is, I think, a bit of a flux therefore going on in how traditional corporate volunteering works compared to the new way of volunteering, which is actually much more engaging. I definitely think that’s the future, but where there also needs to be a conversation,” he adds.