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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers

Caroline E Jenkinson1, Andy P Dickens2, Kerry Jones3, Jo Thompson-Coon3, Rod S Taylor1, Morwenna Rogers3, Clare L Bambra4, Iain Lang3 and Suzanne H Richards1*

Author Affiliations

1 Primary Care, University of Exeter Medical School, Smeall Building, St Luke’s Campus, Exeter EX1 2LU, UK

2 Public Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Health and Population Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK

3 PenCLAHRC, University of Exeter Medical School, Veysey Building, Salmon Pool Lane, Exeter EX2 4SF, UK

4 Department of Geography, Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing, Durham University, Queen’s Campus, Stockton-on-Tees TS17 6BH, UK

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:773  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-773

Published: 23 August 2013

Abstract

Background

Volunteering has been advocated by the United Nations, and American and European governments as a way to engage people in their local communities and improve social capital, with the potential for public health benefits such as improving wellbeing and decreasing health inequalities. Furthermore, the US Corporation for National and Community Service Strategic Plan for 2011–2015 focused on increasing the impact of national service on community needs, supporting volunteers’ wellbeing, and prioritising recruitment and engagement of underrepresented populations. The aims of this review were to examine the effect of formal volunteering on volunteers’ physical and mental health and survival, and to explore the influence of volunteering type and intensity on health outcomes.

Methods

Experimental and cohort studies comparing the physical and mental health outcomes and mortality of a volunteering group to a non-volunteering group were identified from twelve electronic databases (Cochrane Library, Medline, Embase, PsychINFO, CINAHL, ERIC, HMIC, SSCI, ASSIA, Social Care Online, Social Policy and Practice) and citation tracking in January 2013. No language, country or date restrictions were applied. Data synthesis was based on vote counting and random effects meta-analysis of mortality risk ratios.

Results

Forty papers were selected: five randomised controlled trials (RCTs, seven papers); four non-RCTs; and 17 cohort studies (29 papers). Cohort studies showed volunteering had favourable effects on depression, life satisfaction, wellbeing but not on physical health. These findings were not confirmed by experimental studies. Meta-analysis of five cohort studies found volunteers to be at lower risk of mortality (risk ratio: 0.78; 95% CI: 0.66, 0.90). There was insufficient evidence to demonstrate a consistent influence of volunteering type or intensity on outcomes.

Conclusion

Observational evidence suggested that volunteering may benefit mental health and survival although the causal mechanisms remain unclear. Consequently, there was limited robustly designed research to guide the development of volunteering as a public health promotion intervention. Future studies should explicitly map intervention design to clear health outcomes as well as use pragmatic RCT methodology to test effects.

Keywords:
Volunteering; Community participation; Systematic review; Meta-analysis; Health; Outcomes; Mortality