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Volunteering as a mental health panacea

15 November 2021 | 5 - 8 min read


Have you ever commended someone who regularly volunteers for charitable causes, only to be met with a suspiciously humble response such as, “Oh no, I get far more out of it than the cause I support!” The implication is that their actions – while perceived by others as selfless – are, in fact, self-motivated.

In short, they’re admitting that doing good, feels good.

But dig a little deeper, and you will find that there is truth to this, and that the psychological benefits that volunteerism offers is far more tangible than simply a warm and fuzzy feeling in our bone marrow.

It would be amiss to start any conversation about the merits of volunteerism without superimposing the vastly different context in which we find ourselves since Covid-19 became part of our lives; a new normal has evolved not over the course of several years, but seemingly overnight.

A survey conducted last year by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) to gauge the pandemic’s impact on the mental wellbeing of South Africans, revealed that 55% of respondents cited ‘anxiety and depression’ as a key challenge that they had personally experienced during the country’s lockdown period, while a further 12% admitted to experiencing suicidal thoughts. The United Nations (UN) summed the matter up in its policy brief that spoke to the dire need for mental health intervention, stating that, "Although the COVID-19 crisis is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well if action is not taken.”

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on our collective mental health. Yet, even as we grapple to overcome the long-haul emotional side-effects of the coronavirus, one thing appears to be clear: the desire for connection and purpose, in both our professional as well as our personal lives, runs deep.

The link between connection and kindness

Momentum Corporate’s 2021 Insights report, which aimed to reveal the formula for business resilience and longevity, showed that 70% of the employees surveyed felt connected to their organisation, based on the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and that 98% of those who felt this connection were also very clear on their company’s purpose.

So, if we want employees to feel connected to their company’s purpose, where does volunteerism come into play? And furthermore, how does this benefit the individual from a psychological standpoint?

I believe that now, more than ever, we need to feel connected in kindness. Corporate volunteer programmes create an opportunity to increase employees’ connection to the business and to each other, while promoting their personal wellbeing. These programmes allow employees to feel that the work that they do doesn’t just contribute to company profit, but that it is making a difference.

People want to work for companies that value them, but also that enable them to contribute to the things that they value. They expect their organisation to have a clear vision for creating societal value. Employees who feel welcomed, seen and valued – because they are able to contribute to their communities as official representatives of their company – are also employees who are engaged.

Established in 2016, the Lesedi Awards was created as a vehicle to recognise Momentum Metropolitan employees who, in their personal capacity, undertook volunteer work to make a positive contribution to improving communities. As one of the largest employer-driven volunteer recognition programmes in the country, this platform provides an opportunity for us to champion all of our employees who find a way to volunteer their time, skills and resources to the causes that matter to them.

Why do we do this? Simple: because we have seen, firsthand, the connection this contribution fosters in employees, and the benefits it has on their wellbeing.

We versus Me

In a previous Lesedi Round Table, clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou explained that psychiatric illness typically causes one to turn inwards, and that psychosomatic conditions, such as depression, are all about the ‘me’ rather than the ‘we’. The sufferer finds themselves overwhelmed with negative thoughts about themselves and their lives.

When you volunteer, you enter into a new realm of ‘we’. Volunteering typically brings you into contact with those in need, which puts your own life into perspective, fostering both a sense of service and of community. According to Kleovoulou, research shows that we are, in fact, neurologically hardwired to do good deeds, as these actions trigger the pleasure centres of the brain, spiking dopamine and serotonin.

A state of flourishing

This was echoed in the Journal of Happiness Studies – research that was conducted among 70 000 participants in the United Kingdom – which found that those who volunteered were happier, and also rated their overall health as better, when compared to those who didn’t. The study also highlighted the importance of continuity: those who volunteered on a monthly basis cited better mental health than those who volunteered infrequently or not at all.

It would appear that serving others is more than just simple altruism – it is one of the foundational pillars of self-fulfilment. University of California Riverside professor of psychology and author Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has conducted decades of research into the mechanics of happiness, has identified three key components that she has found to be integral to what she calls a ‘state of flourishing’. These are personal growth, connecting with others and contributing to community.

One of my favourite proverbs sums it up: “The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself.”

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