Giving your time makes you feel better and keeps the doctor away! These are the results of a vast Belgian study on the benefits of volunteering led by researchers from the UCLouvain Psychological Sciences Research Institute.
What do a scoutmaster, docent and political activist have in common? They’re all volunteers: people who give their time to a group or an organisation, without financial compensation. According to the King Baudouin Foundation, almost 1.2 million Belgians volunteer, on average four hours per week1.
From participant to volunteer
Is there a link between involvement in community life and health? And, if so, to what extent? These research questions were posed in a study carried out by the UCLouvain Faculty of Psychology and the Mutualité chrétienne (MC) health insurance fund and its partners.
More than 7,000 MC affiliates from all over Belgium and all walks of life answered an online questionnaire and authorised researchers to link their responses to analyses of their health data.
Respondents were divided into four categories:
- MC partner volunteers. Examples: senior sport activity organiser, patient association treasurer, etc.
- Association or organisation ‘active participants’, whether or not they were aware that what they were doing was voluntary.2 Examples: festival bartender, scoutmaster, etc.
- ‘Passive participants’ in an organisation’s activities, uninvolved in its operation. Examples: football supporter, scout, etc.
- Individuals who participate in nothing.
Feeling or being healthier?
‘In terms of health, we analysed two types of parameters’, explains Jessica S. Morton, a UCLouvain teaching assistant and PhD student in health psychology. ‘On the one hand, subjective health, which is what the participants said about their state of health. On the other hand, objective health, which can be assessed according to the number of doctor visits, prescription medications or days of hospitalisation.’
Active and passive participants (categories 2 and 3) declared themselves to be in the same state of health as the average. Volunteers (category 1), on the other hand, clearly feel healthier. Individuals who participate in nothing (category 4) reported poorer subjective health.
Do these results correspond to the reality of objective health? ‘Obviously, volunteering makes one neither vulnerable nor invulnerable to cancer or cardiovascular disease!’ Ms Morton replied. ‘That said, the healthier you feel, the less healthcare you use. Conversely, people who don’t participate in community life go to the doctor more, are hospitalised more often and/or longer and consume more reimbursed medicines.’ Especially psychotropic drugs: antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, etc. People who don’t participate in community life are therefore generally in poor mental health.
Other parameters evaluated in the study: the impact of participation in community life on psychosocial processes (self-esteem, fulfilment, sense of meaning, etc.) which contribute to well-being. Some of the assessed psychosocial processes were:
- Loneliness: not surprisingly, the more you’re involved in community life, the less alone you feel.
- Perceived social support (in the event of a trauma, for example) depends on degree of involvement; volunteers feel more supported than participants.
- Social cohesion describes the feeling of belonging to a collective identity; a volunteer is thus more likely to think in terms of ‘we’ than ‘I’.
Individualism vs. engagement
‘We live in a very individualistic society,’ Ms Morton says. ‘The comfort zone of individuals tends to shrink. We fall back on ourselves. However, isolation has been shown to have a deleterious impact on health. Our study confirms this. Our results also highlighted the gradual aspect of the phenomenon. The more a person is involved in community life, the better they feel, physically and psychically. It’s also the first time that all psychosocial processes have been explored. The researchers are also assessing each process against health care consumption.’ The results are expected this year.
‘We also observed the protective effect of a structured organisation’, she added. ‘Indeed, there’s a clear difference between formal volunteers and informal volunteers such as informal caregivers. The former can benefit from the resources, support, advice or even expertise of the structure in which they’re involved. Caregivers, on the other hand, are isolated. This exposes them more to burnout, for example.’ Opening up to others and to collective structures is therefore beneficial for everyone: volunteers, beneficiaries, organisations, associations and, ultimately, society. So don’t wait: get involved!
Notes (1) M. Marée et al., « Le volontariat en Belgique : Chiffres clés ». Rapport de la Fondation Roi Baudouin. Brusels, 2015. (2) Some people don’t necessarily see their activity as volunteering ... even if it is!
A glance at Jessica Morton's bio
Jessica S. Morton is a teaching assistant in the UCLouvain Faculty of Psychology. She holds a master's degree in clinical psychology (2016) and a joint advanced master's degree in psychotherapeutic practice (2017) from UCLouvain. She also obtained a university certificate in psychotherapeutic intervention in psychological assessment in 2019. Since 2016, she has been pursuing a PhD in health psychology at the Psychological Sciences Research Institute.