In Britain nowadays we're all voluntary workers in the making. The government has branded us a Big Society, where voluntary schemes take on traditional state activities, strengthening community and making us feel useful. Research from Germany suggests another reason to run the jumble sale: it can increase well-being in our paid place of work.
Eva Mojza and colleagues from the University of Konstanz identified a number of features of voluntary work they propose could give psychological benefits. By immersing us in non-employment activities, it helps us to switch off from the grind, a valuable recovery process called psychological detachment. It's freely chosen, makes us feel useful, and often involves additional social contact, satisfying core needs of having autonomy over what we do, feeling competent, and connecting to others. And it provides mastery experiences: opportunities to learn and take on challenges.
To test these hypotheses, the research used a survey technique where people recorded their activities and states on a daily basis. The sample was composed of 105 German people who between them surveyed 476 days; participants were all in at least half-time employment and volunteered for at least a day a week. The bulk of the survey was completed at bedtime, when participants recorded how much of their day they spent on voluntary work or other activities such as exercise or childcare, and provided ratings on the psychological variables of detachment, needs satisfaction and mastery experiences.
Usefully, the participants also filled out a one-off survey to look at overall 'trait' levels of the same psychological variables. This allowed the researchers to determine whether volunteering work had any distinct effect on needs satisfaction, once overall need satisfaction and any effects due to activities like exercising were factored in. Just such an effect was found, meaning people felt more connected to others, competent, and in control of their lives after volunteering. Equivalent effects were found for psychological detachment and mastery experiences: volunteering helped to shrug off workplace concerns and gave opportunities to meet challenges.
Did this influence how participants were at work the following day? To answer this, the survey included a section that was completed immediately after work, with participants rating adjectives such as “enthusiastic” or “tense” to report positive and negative mood across the day, and rating how much they actively listened to their colleagues. These reflected aspects of wellbeing the researchers were interested in.
The authors looked for relationships between these and volunteering time and the psychological variables from the previous day. They found that active listening was influenced by yesterday's levels of psychological detachment from work and need satisfaction. Moreover, volunteering reduced negative mood at work the following day, operating through the benefit volunteering has for need satisfaction.
Positive mood wasn't directly influenced by any variable, suggesting that yesterday's volunteering can cushion against today's unhappiness but is less able to provoke happiness (maybe that's down to having cake in the office). As all participants were existing volunteers, we don't know if the observed benefits extend to someone less inclined to volunteering. And these benefits could vanish should voluntary work become mandatory, as some have suggested, or otherwise stripped of its valued features.
Nevertheless, this research suggests that volunteering gives back in many ways. Far-sighted organisations would do well to encourage and support volunteering within their workforce, as it gives back to them, too.
Mojza, E., Sonnentag, S., & Bornemann, C. (2011). Volunteer work as a valuable leisure-time activity: A day-level study on volunteer work, non-work experiences, and well-being at work Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84 (1), 123-152 DOI: 10.1348/096317910X485737