Voluntary action has a high profile in contemporary Britain and the post-2010 Governments have strongly encouraged it. By volunteering we mean any activity in which time is given freely to benefit another person, group or organisation.
Many of us have volunteered at some point in our lives with people from all ages and walks of life engaging in voluntary activities. But who does it benefit the most?
A Third Sector Research Centre project has explored the direct and latent benefits of volunteering. As well as direct impacts (services delivered, support given to individuals) latent benefits include impacts on subjective wellbeing and health. The evidence isn’t unambiguously supportive: a systematic review concluded that volunteering couldn’t be a reliable public health intervention, while a European overview concluded that we should not expect miracles from it.
One weakness of previous studies is a focus on particular age groups. Our study, in contrast, investigated mental well-being through tracking individuals over time, at different stages of their lifecourse, using the British Household Panel Study (BHPS). However our hypothesis was that the benefits of volunteering were not linear across the lifecourse, but varied depending on the stage of an individual’s life.
Between 1996 and 2008 the BHPS included a wide range of questions on leisure activities, which covered the frequency of “doing unpaid voluntary work”. It also included a validated proxy for mental health/emotional wellbeing known as the GHQ-12. We gathered 63,433 responses for 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
Around one in five respondents (21%) said they had volunteered. These proportions are lower than in some surveys of volunteering because the question is posed in a more restrictive way in the BHPS. Women tended to volunteer more than men, and while almost a quarter of those aged 60 to 74 said they volunteered, this proportion dropped to 17% among the youngest age group.
GHQ-12 scores were better (lower) among those who volunteered than among those who had never done so—10.7 vs 11.4—across the entire sample, irrespective of age. The average GHQ score was the best (lowest) among those who were frequent volunteers and worst (highest) among those who never volunteered. When age was factored in, the positive association between volunteering and good mental health/emotional wellbeing became apparent at around the age of 40 and continued up into old age (80+). Those who had never volunteered had lower levels of emotional wellbeing, starting at midlife and continuing into old age, compared with those who did volunteer.
The findings held true even after taking account of a range of potentially influential factors, including marital status, educational attainment, and social class. It is important to control for these because previous research has suggested that people who volunteer are likely to have more resources, a larger social network, and more power and prestige, all of which are associated with better health.
The study shows that volunteering may be more meaningful and potentially beneficial at certain points across the life course, and that although volunteering rates in middle-aged and elderly groups are already relatively high, there is an argument for more efforts to involve middle aged to older people in volunteering related activities.
Particularly at a time of concerns about social isolation, voluntary action might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have some protective effects on health status. Volunteering may also provide a sense of purpose, because regular volunteering helps contribute to the maintenance of social networks, and this is especially the case for older people who often live in isolation.
Precisely how opportunities for engagement in volunteering can be provided and sustained is a considerable challenge at the present time, because of the pressures of austerity, while the distribution of voluntary organisations means that opportunities to participate are not always available everywhere. But this study does suggest that we should pay attention to the diversity of experience of people across their lifecourse, and not just uncritically assume that volunteering has benefits for everyone, everywhere.