The wellbeing benefits of ‘giving something back’

Volunteer work such as gardening, can help improve employee engagement
Dinendra Haria/REX/Shutterstock

Encouraging professional volunteering can be a great way for an organisation to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility. But it can also send out a powerful message around commitment to wellbeing, both at an executive and individual employee level, argues Adele Blakebrough.

As chief executive of the charity Social Business Trust (SBT), I know from experience how important a sense of purpose can be to employee wellbeing.

Our charity uses the expertise of business volunteers to help social enterprises grow, and those volunteers often tell me that their work with us is the most meaningful and enjoyable thing they do.

We each spend, on average, 92,000 hours working in our lifetime, so why should we not make that time worthwhile and good?

About the author

Adele Blakebrough MBE is chief executive of the Social Business Trust

When I spoke about this – how to encourage an engaged and purposeful workforce – at last year’s Wellbeing at Work event in London, the feedback I got from delegates was really positive. It underlined to me the importance employers are now placing on the wellbeing of their people, including encouraging social volunteering outside of the workplace.

What, only a few years ago, might have been seen as a niche topic is now high on the agenda of many major, high-performing businesses.

Workplace satisfaction is definitely about more than pay and conditions; when people feel valued and a part of something that matters they will in turn give their work their best. It’s good for people and it’s good for business results too. Employee wellbeing in this context cannot be taken for granted.

Another message that came through clearly to me at last year’s conference was that, rather than focusing on issues that can inhibit wellbeing in the workplace, employers are now much more open to providing positive support for employees to thrive.

It was particularly good to hear some people’s stories on this theme. These included individuals talking candidly about their personal “journeys”, especially when it came to overcoming mental health and other challenges, to become even more effective at work. There was also a strong message of hope: if employers proactively support staff wellbeing, it is clear, things can and will change for the better.

Leadership by example

Another theme that came through strongly was the need for business executives to lead by example. If business leaders speak out in favour of wellbeing but then visibly work themselves into the ground, the inconsistency will be all too clear to employees. If business leaders choose to embrace wellbeing, that advocacy must be authentic.

A good example of this in practice and in the context of what we do at SBT is the fact that each of our corporate partners has a senior representative on our investment committee, which decides which social enterprises we support.

The committee includes, for example, Steve Varley, chair and managing partner for EY UK and Jan-Coos Geesink, managing director at Thomson Reuters, who are committed to our cause. They’re incredibly busy people but, by personally making time for SBT, they are, in effect, sending out a very powerful message and encouraging their employees to do the same.

That ‘wellbeing factor’ at work

We encourage business people to use their skills for social good by volunteering their expertise to help high-growth potential social enterprises thrive.  We often find that people underestimate how much they know but their skills and knowledge can play a vital role, but also the sense of achievement and wellbeing they can get back in return.

Sceptics may of course question whether professional volunteering in this way can perhaps be detrimental to the careers of those involved during their time out; does it mean they’re taking their eye off the ball of their own career and development, missing out on opportunities and visibility? But 92% of our business volunteers say their experience has in fact helped their professional development.

You can work for a company and take pride in what you do: you’re a team player and make a clear contribution to the bottom line. But that doesn’t mean we still don’t want to “give something back”, perhaps to our local community or for causes that we feel passionate about. It does not need to be either/or. It can be, “I’m delivering for my company but what about those in our society who are in need?”.

Crucially, I feel people have a greater sense of wellbeing if they can contribute beyond the confines of a conventional working life. Many companies of course already recognise this and rally staff around fundraising activities. That’s all worthwhile, but we take it a step further and say to people that our social enterprises need you because you’ve got something incredibly useful to give that’s beyond money: your business expertise.

It brings our volunteers a great sense of satisfaction from feeling genuinely useful. Many people feel they can and should do more than make money. They feel that, if their skills are only honed for commercial gain, life can lack sufficient purpose and depth.  That’s a complex thing to grapple with but it really matters.

The importance of small things

Finally, I’m a great believer in the importance of a simple “thank you”.  So we hold an annual party to thank everyone involved in SBT, bringing together our corporate partners, business volunteers and social enterprises.

Recently more than 200 of them braved stormy weather to join us, showing just how much people like appreciation being shown. But what sticks in my mind are the words of one senior business person who received an award on behalf of his company to mark a record breaking year of achievement for SBT.

He told me that, despite having climbed to the top ranks in business, he’d not had any previous contribution recognised in this way. “This is the first ‘work’ award I have ever been in a position to collect personally, he explained, “And it felt really good.”

Simple words maybe but they certainly underlined to me, as much as any research or analysis, the benefits of making people feel valued at work.

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