How volunteering can improve the health and performance of your employees Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

The purpose of volunteering is to help other people, but those who are being helped aren’t the only ones benefiting from those efforts. Recent research shows that employees who regularly volunteer improve both their physical health and their mental state of well being.

“Through the work performed and the social ties built by volunteering, employees can positively impact their health and the health of the community,” says Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems.

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about the benefits of volunteering and how encouraging employees to get involved can help improve their health.

Why should employees consider volunteering to improve their health?

According to Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University, ‘Civic engagement and volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century that’s free to join.’ Social capital research shows it miraculously improves both your health and that of the community through the work performed and the social ties built. New research from the Mayo Clinic shows that people who volunteer have lower rates of heart disease and live longer. Employees who regularly volunteer, especially through work, report that volunteering made them feel physically healthier and improved their sense of well being.

In what ways does volunteering benefit your health?

A Duke University study found that individuals who volunteered after experiencing heart attacks reported reductions in despair and depression — two factors that have been linked to mortality in post-coronary artery disease patients.

The benefits of volunteering include:

  • Creating a positive attitude toward employer and coworkers
  • Improving cardiovascular health
  • Lowering risk of death
  • Encouraging higher levels of engagement
  • Providing a deeper sense of pride and purpose
  • Keeping one physically active
  • Helping maintain a strong social network

Researchers say that to reap the health benefits, strive to volunteer 40 to 100 hours a year, which breaks down to just a few hours a week.

How can employers benefit from encouraging their employees to volunteer?

Studies report that employees who are encouraged to volunteer feel better about their employer because of their involvement in their volunteer activities. Employers can reap the same benefits as employees when their work force is stronger, healthier and less stressed.

Employers who encourage volunteerism among their employees recognize that contributing to the community creates goodwill and develops a person both personally and professionally. A workplace volunteer program is one way to earn that employee loyalty.

Not only can promoting volunteerism affect the health of employees, it can have a significant effect on the organization’s reputation, as the employees who volunteer become ambassadors for the company. Employees want to feel as though their company is making a real difference in the world. The impact of that goes well beyond profits.

What types of volunteering should employees consider?

It’s not as if people have to look for a voluntary association. It starts with a shift in thinking, from, ‘I am the center of the world,’ to a willingness to act toward others in helpful ways.

A few tips to start:

  • Be open-minded. It’s important to do something you love.
  • Make realistic commitments.
  • Consider volunteering time to something that the employer or employees are passionate about.

What can employers do to encourage their employees to volunteer?

Employers interested in promoting volunteerism can start by encouraging the company’s leadership to get involved. Leadership throughout the organization is necessary to really create the environment of volunteerism as a corporate value.

Some effective practices include:

  • Setting up an employee volunteering Web site, where employees can post stories and pictures, and comment on others’ volunteer work
  • Customizing messages for middle managers that show support for volunteerism and explain its benefits to the company and its employees
  • Getting HR to advocate for volunteerism. Volunteer projects can be used for employees looking to develop project management or related skills
  • Considering an all-company, single-day volunteer event to motivate employees to become more involved. OfficeMax, for example, shuts down nearly its entire company one day every October to give back to local schools in more than 1,000 cities nationwide
  • Establishing a systemized process where employees can search volunteer requests from nonprofit organizations
  • Offering skill-based volunteering
  • Running a campaign to help build a spirit of volunteerism in the workplace culture
  • Creating special events where employees can volunteer together

The workplace is an excellent place to promote volunteerism and recruit volunteers. Whether large or small, local or national, any business can be a source of volunteer power in the community. And volunteer programs in the workplace are most successful when they are based on integrating the priorities of the company, the interests of the employees and the needs of the community.

Sally Stephens is president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or