Engaging your employees through volunteering

As a passionate volunteer, paid volunteer days support my career development and mental health 

By Eunice Doroni

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new level of isolation to the world. The adverse effects of physical and social isolation have been so detrimental that it’s even been recognized as a public health concern. As restrictions continue to ebb and flow, so does our wellbeing. With the additional stressors posed by working from home, the push for employers to pay attention to and address workers’ mental health challenges is even more crucial. 

There are some practical ways that organizations are already adjusting to caring for their workers. For example, Spotify announced a “Work from Anywhere” policy that allowed workers to work from home, even in another country if they would like, which gave employees agency on their work environment. Common Future, a non-profit focused on racial justice and economic empowerment, is experimenting with a 4-day work week with no pay cut over the summer to shift their understanding of productivity. 

Personally, as a long-time volunteer and employee of the non-profit and voluntary sector, I’ve continuously found that volunteerism is an important way for me to enhance my work in the sector and my mental and physical health.

While I don’t think that volunteerism is the ‘fix-all’ to improve wellbeing, I hope to provide an insight into the benefits of providing staff with paid volunteer time, and how work across sectors can benefit from on-the-ground engagement with their communities.

Embodying the “Volunteer” in Volunteer Alberta 

To encourage community engagement and to show our commitment to our mission of strengthening and creating pathways for volunteerism and civic engagement in Alberta, each employee at Volunteer Alberta (VA) receives 15 hours of paid volunteer time as part of their benefits package. Our name, mission and values emphasize what we believe is an essential thread to the fabric of society – getting out there and giving back. 

Pre-pandemic, mental health breaks for me meant getting out and exploring the national parks, volunteering and being out in the community, and of course, social outings. As restrictions were easing in Alberta, I knew that the first thing I wanted to do was go back to volunteering as a Conversation Circle Facilitator with the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association (EISA). 

In June, I volunteered one hour twice a week in my workdays to converse with newcomers to Edmonton, play games, and share stories to practice their conversational English. Facilitating is a key part of my work; exercising this skill differently and with a diverse group makes me a more well-rounded facilitator. It also provided a way for me to break up my workday. Facilitating the conversation circles allowed me to stay connected to others in my community and avoid feelings of isolation. 

While working with newcomers is my personal passion, other VA staff used their hours to volunteer at music festivals, their children’s school events, and organizing community conversations on pressing topics. Having days where we get the opportunity to give back to our communities by participating and attending events or providing necessary services with our specialized skills significantly enhances our work as a volunteer centre. 

Three ways paid volunteer time enriches employees’ experiences 

Volunteering is not just ‘paid time off.’ Rather, the time spent volunteering can truly enrich employees’ experience at work and beyond.

Mental and physical benefits of volunteering: While volunteerism benefits the recipients of the direct and indirect services that volunteers provide, volunteers can also benefit. These personal benefits include reducing stress, anxiety or depression symptoms, building professional skills, trying out leadership opportunities, and finding intrinsic purpose. Especially in the pandemic, finding multiple ways to nourish mental wellbeing is essential.

Building relationships outside of the work context: In 2019, I used my volunteer hours to attend an international youth summit in Montreal for my volunteer work with Apathy is Boring. I had the chance to meet youth from all over Canada and Europe and learn different ways of doing from different parts of the country and the world. I maintained these networks and brought them in to advise and support brainstorming around my ideas at work. New connections led to an increase in my creativity and broadened my way of thinking.

Passion projects can incite motivation in other areas like work: Spending so much of our waking time at work can often stagnate our personal development and put our personal goals on hold. By allowing employees to work on their passion projects or personal goals through volunteering, they don’t have to choose between giving back to their community or taking a pay cut for a day off to participate. It also signals the employers’ commitment to the personal development of their employees outside of their direct work. After finishing my volunteer commitment with EISA and hearing about how a lot of resources are not accessible to English Language Learners, I was motivated to find ways to make our youth resources more accessible to diverse populations. 

Find volunteer opportunities in your community 

Volunteering opportunities can look different for everyone’s comfort levels, and that’s perfectly fine. So, where do you find these opportunities to volunteer in your community? 

Group volunteering. Corporate volunteering is a popular way to build comradery within teams. Group volunteering can look like an organized community cleanup or volunteering together at the local food bank. One thing to note about group volunteering is that it can sometimes be intrusive and stressful to organize. Group volunteering is often short-term and focused on the development of the individuals in the group and not on any long-term benefits to the organization hosting the group. Before planning a group volunteering opportunity, ask: Is this a mutually beneficial exchange? 

Individual volunteer opportunities. There are volunteer search engines like Charity Village where you can filter your interests and location to find the right volunteer opportunity. Alberta residents can also access Volunteer Connector which is regionally focused. Check with your local volunteer centres to determine the resources available for volunteers. A volunteer centre may be a Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) office or equivalent. You can also check out the Volunteer Alberta website (or Volunteer Canada to find your province’s equivalent organization) to explore ways to volunteer, among other resources. 

Eunice Doroni is Manager of Youth Engagement with Volunteer Alberta in Edmonton. Since moving to Alberta in 2011, the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association (EISA) has been the nearest to Eunice’s heart for the great work they do in the community, and many learning opportunities they’ve given her. Outside of work and volunteering, Eunice enjoys falling down YouTube rabbit holes, playing ’70s hits on her ukulele, and hanging out with her partner in the River Valley.