Workplace volunteering could unlock billions in the UK economy

Workplace volunteering has the potential to boost productivity, improve employees’ wellbeing, and generate billions for the UK economy, according to a new report by Pro Bono Economics (PBE).*

The report – ‘Triple dividend: How workplace volunteering can make us happier, healthier and more productive‘ – which has been produced for business volunteering charity Pilotlight, found that net productivity gains of between £1.6 billion – £2.8 billion could be unlocked for the UK economy by expanding workplace volunteering opportunities.**

PBE’s analysis revealed that 17 – 23 million employees currently do not have access to workplace volunteering, and so are missing out on the health benefits of volunteering and the opportunities to learn new skills. By expanding workplace volunteering opportunities to cover all employees in the UK, the current untapped potential could generate £1.2 billion – £3.6 billion in wellbeing benefits per year to the individuals themselves.

It could also reduce levels of absenteeism, with research showing that participation in a workplace volunteering scheme provides an average reduction in absence of around 0.9 days per year for each member of staff volunteering.*** The number of days that employees have taken off work due to illness has risen sharply since the pandemic, with 186 million lost alone in 2022, an increase of more than a third over the 2019 level. The total cost of sickness absence to UK employers was around £24 billion – roughly equivalent to the GDP generated by Newcastle – or £6.4 billion higher than if absence rates stayed at the 2019 level.****

Turning to the productivity benefit overall, the PBE report points to studies which have suggested the productivity impact of workplace volunteering is sizeable, with high-skilled individuals who volunteer experiencing an estimated £2,300 boost to earnings. If the estimated productivity increase was applied to all the 1.4 – 2.5 million additional volunteers who participated from workplace volunteering to all employees, it could provide a gross productivity increase of between £2.2 billion and £3.9 billion.

Even after deducting the costs of lost time and administration fees for volunteering schemes, the productivity benefits could amount to net productivity gains of between £1.5 billion and £2.8 billion to the UK economy.*****

There is a clear appetite from employees from the expansion of workplace volunteering. Analysis by NCVO suggests that between one quarter and a third of employees will take advantage of workplace volunteering when it’s available. This means that between 1.5 million and 2.8 million additional people might volunteer if workplace volunteering schemes were expanded across all employers.

While boost workplace volunteering would have some costs to the employer, the benefits more than outweigh those costs. For the employer, workplace volunteering schemes such as those run by Pilotlight which bring businesses and charities together could deliver between £1.50 and £3.60 of benefits for every £1 spent.

To make the most of the opportunity, research by the charity has suggested that employers should take steps to help employees around the options for volunteering. More than a third of employees surveyed (38%) said that an obstacle to volunteering is a lack of guidance from their employer. Of those currently involved in workplace volunteering, 79% believe that businesses themselves benefit from the practice.******

The benefits also have the potential to positively impact on communities, at a time when they are in need of extra support. Three in ten (30%) charities reporting increased rates of staff burnout as they struggle with the triple challenge of rising demand, difficulties recruiting volunteers and challenges with recruitment. This is particularly true of small charities, with almost six in ten (59%) reporting that recruiting volunteers is a major concern for them following a long-term decline in volunteer participation rates.*******

Dr Jansev Jemal, Director of Research and Policy at Pro Bono Economics, said:

Increasing access to workplace volunteering opportunities has a triple dividend, as it could boost productivity and unlock billions in the UK economy, while providing much needed support for charities. In addition to wellbeing for employees, there’s a compelling, hard-nosed business case for considering workplace volunteering, including boosts to health and skills.

As businesses take up this opportunity, there is a need to be realistic about the challenges for the charities themselves. Using volunteers effectively takes resources to manage, oversee and support those that are giving up their time. Businesses and other funders will need to consider how they can benefit by supporting the underlying costs of volunteering programmes, rather than assuming that an offer of time alone will suffice.

Ed Mayo, Chief Executive of Pilotlight, said:

When it comes to business and charity, these results change everything – volunteering is not a cost, it is an investment. It is good for charity, good for the volunteer and good for the bottom line.

At the heart of this, in the partnerships we have designed with a range of leading businesses, is how employees develop their skills as they deploy them in a radically different setting. In future, it will not be the PR or corporate affairs department that leads on employee volunteering, but HR leaders who see it as an integral part of their toolkit for developing talent and skills.

Jack Kidder, Responsible Business Manager at Henry Boot PLC, said:

At Henry Boot, we know that volunteering empowers our people to dedicate their time, skills, and passion for the benefit of our communities. This is not only impactful for charities, but also hugely beneficial for our business. Volunteering their time allows our people to connect with issues they care about in the communities in which we work and live. It creates a genuine sense of purpose and cohesion as our people come together to make a real difference for others – whether through inspiring learners, supporting communities, restoring habitats, or sharing knowledge. Volunteering enables our people to develop their skills and experience the positive wellbeing effects associated with helping others. This use of our time is helping shape our evolving culture as we celebrate being a long-term sustainable business that genuinely cares for the communities we work with, while we create exciting new places across the UK.

Alexandra Berry, Head of Sustainability at the Strand Palace Hotel said:

Our team love to get involved in team-building hikes, red nose days, wellbeing walks, ‘Wear it Pink’ days, charity runs, bingo nights, themed quizzes, clothing donation drives, as well as offering our team a paid volunteering day each year. Feedback from our team has expressed these community events provide socialisation and relaxation outside of the hotel alongside contribution to a charitable cause, of which they are passionate about supporting.

In 2023, the team raised over £3,000 through 8 local fundraising activities. What’s more, we have a regular commitment with The Connection at St Martins for our team members to volunteer to spend time with The Connection’s guests in their art room. With arts, crafts and chatting, the visits from the Strand Palace team help to build the guests’ confidence and social skills, providing a creative outlet away from the stress of being homeless.

*Workplace volunteering is when employers support their staff to take part in volunteering opportunities, usually during work hours. The proportion of recent volunteers who have used their professional skills in their volunteering has increased from 50% in 2019 to 60% in 2023.
**HM Treasury’s approach suggests that this improvement in wellbeing has an economic value of between £800 and £1,290 per additional volunteer. This means that expanding workplace volunteering to cover all employees could generate £1.2 billion – £3.6 billion of wellbeing benefits across the additional volunteers, with a central estimate of £2.2 billion.
***Someone participating in formal volunteering is likely to report higher level of life satisfaction using the ONS Life Satisfaction scale, for example. Involvement in workplace volunteering schemes specifically has been shown to lead to better self-reported health, lower risk of depression, and higher levels of job engagement and satisfaction. In addition, links have also been made between workplace volunteering and reductions in sickness absence, with the Evolve Workplace Wellbeing calculator estimating that participation in a workplace volunteering scheme provides an average reduction in absence of around 0.9 days per year.
****This rise from 2019 to 2022 is the equivalent of each worker taking an additional 1.5 days of sick leave across the year.
*****In addition, the increased job satisfaction and improved skills developed through workplace volunteering would be likely to help drive up productivity. Almost three quarters (74%) of volunteers feel that the experience has increased their confidence, and seven in ten (71%) feel that it improves their skills.
******Research by Pilotlight in 2022 suggested that, rather than leave it to employees to take action on their own, employers should take steps to help employees around the options for volunteering. Over a third of employees (38%) for example say that an obstacle to volunteering is a lack of guidance from their employer. This is a barrier, Pilotlight suggests, that employers are able to lift, particularly if they see business benefits in terms of staff development in doing so. Of those currently involved in workplace volunteering, 79% believe that businesses themselves benefit from the practice.
*******Research by Pro Bono Economics and the NTU National VCSE Data and Insights Observatory.

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