Make the Healthy Choice: Retain Volunteers Post COVID-19
Canadians who are volunteering to support our front-line workers are heroes of the pandemic. Retaining these volunteers post-COVID-19 is a unique opportunity for healthcare and social service organizations to help ensure high-quality care in the face of ever-increasing demands.
But how do you persuade temporary volunteers to become long-term ones? Some ways are self-evident, such as ensuring that volunteers feel valued and are performing tasks that suit their interests and abilities.
The most persuasive way lies within a very important fact. Did your volunteers know that volunteering has a wide range of positive impacts on emotional and physical health – including potentially lengthening a volunteer’s life (Rogers et. al 2016; Yeung et. al 2017)? Yeung and colleagues have stated that volunteering “should be promoted by public health, education and policy practitioners as a healthy lifestyle, especially for the social subgroups of elders, ethnic minorities, those with little education, single people, and unemployed people, who generally have poorer health.”
In other words, volunteering would not only strengthen Canada’s healthcare system, it could also reduce healthcare demand by improving the health of those groups most at risk of needing high levels of care. For example, one study found that volunteers over 50 years old are more likely to use preventative healthcare services than non-volunteers – they were 47% more likely to get cholesterol checks and 30% more likely to get flu shots (Kim and Honrath 2016).
Body and Mind: The Physical and Emotional Benefits
What follows is a summary of the main benefits we can expect to gain from volunteering.
- Lower blood pressure for those who volunteer regularly (Sneed and Cohen 2013). High blood pressure, often caused by stress, contributes to heart disease, stroke and premature death. Volunteering can reduce stress by widening a person’s support network and making them feel appreciated and valued.
- Improved heart health – even for adolescents. Researchers at the University of British Columbia divided 106 inner-city tenth graders into two groups – one that volunteered for one hour a week with elementary students and another group that did not (Spiegel 2013). After ten weeks, the students who volunteered had decreased cholesterol, body mass index, and levels of inflammation – indicators of heart health.
- Protection against depression through feeling connected with those a volunteer is helping, as well as with other volunteers (Musick and Wilson 2003).
- Increased brain functioning for older adults – a Johns Hopkins University study found that volunteering led to improvements in cognitive functioning in older adults (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health 2009).
- Well-being and life satisfaction, especially for older volunteers, as a result of doing what they want to do, and not what they have to do (Morrow-Howell et. al 2003).
- A sense of purpose from helping others and contributing to something larger than oneself (Solan 2017).
- Finally, the cumulative and ultimate benefit – a longer, heathier life. For example, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that volunteers have lower mortality rates than non-volunteers, even after taking factors such as age, gender and physical health into consideration (Rogers et. al 2016).
Getting the Word Out
Chances are that your COVID-19 volunteers were recruited quickly, with time for only minimal orientation. Now is the time to prepare a post-COVID-19 information package about the positive impacts of volunteering – both on the people receiving the aid and on the volunteers. Testimonials from a diverse range of volunteers will help bring home the message.
About the Author(s)
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 2009, December 15. For Older Adults, Participating in Social Service Activities Can Improve Brain Functions [news release]. Retrieved May 4, 2020. <https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2009/carlson-brain-scan.html>.
Kim, E. S. and S. H. Honrath. 2016, January. Volunteering is Prospectively Associated with Health Care Use Among Older Adults. Social Science & Medicine 149: 122–29. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.11.043.
Morrow-Howell N., J. Hinterlong J, P.A. Rozario and F. Tang. 2003, May. Effects of Volunteering on the Well-being of Older Adults. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 58(3):S137-45. doi: 10.1093/geronb/58.3.s137.
Musick, M. and J. Wilson. 2003. Volunteering and Depression: The Role of Psychological and Social Resources in Different Age Groups. Social science & Medicine 56(2): 259-69. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(02)00025-4.
Rogers N.T., P. Demakakos, M. S. Taylor, A. Steptoe, M. Hamer et al. 2016. Volunteering is Associated with Increased Survival in Able-Bodied Participants of The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. J Epidemiol Community Health (70)6: 583–88. Doi:10.1136/jech-2015-206305.
Sneed, S.R. and S. Cohen. 2013, June. A Prospective Study of Volunteerism and Hypertension Risk in Older Adults. Psychol Aging 28(2): 578–86. doi: 10.1037/a0032718.
Solan M. 2017, October 5. The Secret to Happiness? Here’s Some Advice from the Longest-Running Study On Happiness. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved May 4, 2020. <https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-secret-to-happiness-heres-some-advice-from-the-longest-running-study-on-happiness-2017100512543>.
Spiegel, B. 2013, February 25. Volunteering is Good for the Heart, Study Suggests. Everyday Health. Retrieved May 4, 2020. <https://www.everydayhealth.com/heart-health/volunteering-is-good-for-the-heart-study-suggests-3332.aspx>.
Yeung, J. W.K., Z. Zhang and T. Y. Kim. 2017, July 11. Volunteering and Health Benefits in General Adults: Cumulative Effects and Forms. BMC Public Health (18)8: doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4561-8.
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