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As rates of volunteering fall sharply across Ireland, let’s remind ourselves why volunteering is so good for us

The most recent World Giving Index from the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) has revealed that rates of volunteering have fallen sharply in Ireland, along with our overall generosity. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the UK Government’s recent Community Life Survey has shown a decrease in the proportion of people in the UK formally volunteering.

In the Government-commissioned Survey, published in July, 17 per cent of respondents reported formally volunteering at least once a month, the lowest recorded participation rate since data collection in the Community Life Survey which started in 2013.  It reported that 62 per cent of adults in England volunteered their time at least once in the past year.

With a significant decrease in volunteering, The National Council for Voluntary Organisations says Covid-19 has led to “the most rapid changes in volunteering patterns since the survey began in 2013”. It comes as reports state that volunteers are leaving well-known organisation, The National Trust in their thousands across the UK.

Whilst there is not a huge amount of Irish data available on volunteering, Ireland has a strong track record of volunteerism. The most recent official data is found in the 2013 Q3 Quarterly National Household Survey by the Central Statistics office which shows that over 1 million people in Ireland volunteer each year, equating to 28.4 per cent of people in Ireland over the age of 15.

Annually, this adds up to an economic contribution of €5 billion per year (based on the value of the 232.8 million hours given multiplied by the average industrial wage). According to Irish Government statistics, in a normal year, about 15,000 new people register on the volunteering database I-Vol. In 2020, as a result of mobilising a huge number of additional volunteers in response to COVID-19, that number was approximately 35,000-40,000.

 

CAF: IRELAND AMONG ‘BIGGEST FALLERS’ IN OVERALL GENEROSITY

In 2017, Ireland was number one in Europe in terms of volunteering time according to the CAF World Giving Index. However, there has been a significant overall decrease across the world when it comes to the amount of people volunteering for charitable causes, and this fall in volunteering has also been felt strongly in Ireland.

Despite having very well established charitable traditions and highly developed civic infrastructure, Ireland is amongst this year’s biggest fallers according to the CAF data published in June 2021. This is despite Ireland consistently featuring in the Top 10 in recent years. Ireland, ranked eighth most generous country in the world in 2017, has fallen far down the rankings in the report, and is now placed 26th in the world for overall generosity. The UK, USA, Canada and the Netherlands are all countries which have fallen in rank, in a 2020 Index which showed that the Top 10 most generous countries have changed substantially in 2020.

The long running World Giving Index from the CAF provides the opportunity to look at how the Covid-19 crisis has impacted around the world. The study offers “combined insight into the scope and nature of giving around the world” and examines three aspects of giving behaviour. These are: helping a stranger, or someone you didn’t know who needed help; donating money to a charity; and volunteering your time to an organisation

Whilst Ireland bounced back from a decline in 2016, and was recorded as being on a slight downward trend from 2018, in 2020 saw a sharp move down the rankings and a significant decrease in its Index score. In the place of countries such as Ireland and the UK, several countries new to the Top 10 have taken their place, including Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Kosovo. Indonesia comes in first place, whilst Japan is last on the list of 114 world countries.

The United Kingdom, Ireland and The Netherlands are still amongst the top countries for donating money. However, each country has seen a significant decrease in the proportion of people making donations. Ireland now ranks below the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of overall generosity according to the Index report, coming in at 26th in the world, whilst the UK sits in 22nd place, and the US in 19th place. When it comes to volunteering our time to organisations, we come in 20th place, which is a significant decline.

 

THE GOOD NEWS: VOLUNTEERING BENEFITS US

While volunteering in Ireland may have been impacted negatively over the years – and specifically during the Covid-19 crisis – there is no doubt that volunteers across the country provide vital support to many charities and that our time and backing is needed more than ever before. Volunteers inject new perspectives, encourage a vibrant community spirit and bring fresh skills to so many worthwhile organisations doing tremendous work.

The good news is that volunteering comes with huge benefits. Indeed, various studies have evidenced the positive effects <https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/3ab64-minister-joe-obrien-announces-the-opening-of-seven-new-volunteer-centres/>  of volunteering on the health and well-being of those who volunteer, and consequently, their communities too – in a 2018 survey, 51% of volunteers reported that their physical health and wellbeing had improved. Meanwhile, 62% reported that their mental health and wellbeing had improved. Volunteering also has a positive effect on those in unemployment, helping them to return to the workforce through the development of new skills and also helping them to build much-needed confidence.

Whilst many people volunteer because of a desire to give something back, most volunteers find that they experience various benefits too. According to a report from Volunteer Ireland on the impact of volunteering on health and wellbeing, as well as benefits for both physical and mental health, it is also a way to meet new people, become part of a community, and develop or sharpen skills.

Volunteering is a valuable part of a healthy society where wellbeing and community is valued. Social interactions, for instance, are crucial for good mental health and a growing body of research shows that there are strong links between community involvement, volunteering and emotional wellbeing. According to Volunteer Ireland, people who volunteer report feeling ‘useful, purposeful and valued’. They also feel connected to the community and possess an important sense of belonging, helping to boost self-esteem. Further, volunteering you do is also likely to have a positive and impactful effect on the health and wellbeing of your own community, so it’s a win-win scenario.

For instance, hundreds of men in Ireland improved their physical and mental wellbeing through partaking in a 10-week pilot health programme that took place through the men’s shed initiative, a recent report has found. The report, launched by the Irish Men’s Sheds Association’s (IMSA) has revealed that the physical and mental wellbeing of men’s ‘shedders’ improved significantly through a pilot ‘Sheds for Life’ health initiative supported by the HSE and Sláintecare. The successful 10-week initiative ran in 22 men’s sheds in Limerick, Waterford, Kildare, and Louth and involved 421 men, between 27-90 years of age.

 

MEN’S SHEDS PILOT PROGRAMME BOOSTED HEALTH AND WELLBEING

An impact report launched in June found that participants in the health programme improved their mental wellbeing, increased their physical activity, and reported higher levels of life satisfaction, as reported here. The research also shone a light on an increase in levels of loneliness due to the onset of Covid-19 and a subsequent decrease in social interaction. Levels of loneliness increased significantly during the Covid crisis to 33% among those involved in the study, highlighting the value of the men’s shed initiative in itself, which is aimed primarily at men who have retired.

The men’s shed ‘Sheds for Life’ programme involved a health check as well as a focus on cooking and healthy eating, performing CPR, suicide prevention, diabetes and cancer awareness and digital literacy. Of the men taking part in the health check with the initiative, 80% were referred to their GP for a further check-up. The number of men’s sheds has increased to 450 across Ireland since the first shed opened its doors in Tipperary in 2009. Today over 10,000 men in Ireland visit a men’s shed every week.

 

Credit: Maria Thalassinou / Unsplash https://bit.ly/2ZZVkDf

 

THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 LOCKDOWNS ON MENTAL HEALTH

Volunteering can be a great option for those who want to get active, or for those who are feeling lonely and perhaps just want to get out and about in their communities. As reported by Gript, lockdowns have had catastrophic consequences for people here in Ireland and further afield. Tragic repercussions include spikes in loneliness, depression, and domestic abuse as people are deprived of social outlets beyond the confines of their homes.

Coronavirus has undoubtedly fuelled feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and fear of the future for many people. One recent study showed that the number of people searching online for topics related to boredom, worry and loneliness rose sharply at the beginning of the first lockdown.

According to a report in Education Executive: “Experts from Warwick Business School, the University of Ottawa, and the Paris School of Economics examined Google Trends data from 10 countries across Europe and the United States. They found search patterns which suggested lockdown had ‘severely affected’ mental health.

When compared to the same period in 2019, the number of searches in Europe at the time of the lockdown in 2020 for ‘boredom’ rose by 93%, loneliness 40%, and worry 27%. Researchers found results were similar whether countries, states or cities went into full or partial lockdown – suggesting that any form of restriction had a substantial impact on wellbeing.”

Commenting on the findings, Nattavudh Powdthavee, professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, the “findings indicate that people’s mental health may have been severely affected by the pandemic and lockdown.” He added that “there was a substantial increase in searches for ‘boredom’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘worry’. It may be necessary to make sure support is provided  to help those struggling most with lockdown.”

If you choose a cause that you are passionate about, something you’re good at and something that fits around your free time, volunteering can undoubtedly have a concretely positive impact on your life; from helping you to gain confidence to making a real difference in the lives of others. The confidence and sense of fulfillment gained through acquiring new skills and personal growth are all important for maintaining your wellbeing, especially at a time when mental health has severely suffered due to the impact of lockdowns and a decrease in social interaction.

Further, if you choose something active, volunteering can also be a brilliant way to help you fit in some of your 30 minutes of daily physical activity too.

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