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Pro bono work improves mental health

Volunteering increases ‘life satisfaction’ and talent retention  

23 August 2013

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Pro bono work can improve mental health and help you live longer.

That’s according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of 40 papers that reported data from nine experimental trials and 16 cohort studies on the effects of volunteering.

It found around a 20 per cent reduction in mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers in cohort studies. Volunteers also reported lower levels of depression, stress and hospitalisation as well as increased life satisfaction, well being, longevity and quality of life.

The study noted however that, although people tend to volunteer for altruistic reasons, if they do not feel they are 'getting something back', then the positive impact of volunteering on quality of life is limited. In addition, volunteering too much can become a burden, bringing problems of its own.

In May, around 7,500 lawyers raised more than £575,000 for free UK legal advice providers by joining the ninth London Legal Walk. The record number of participants reflected growing concern over the reduced availability of legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which came into effect on 1 April.

Worldwide, the prevalence of adult volunteering varies, estimated at 22.5 per cent in Europe, 36 per cent in Australia and 27 per cent in the USA. Volunteers commonly cite altruistic motives for their habit – 'giving something back' to their community or supporting an organisation or charity that has supported them.

Involvement in community projects has been found to have a direct impact on law firm profitability.

“The social responsibility of the firm had emerged as a key factor for staff, particularly the younger members. They wanted their work to mean something more than a business transaction and they wanted to be part of something socially significant,” reflected Rob Bhol, managing director at DBS Law, in his Managing Partner article A people business: Increasing staff happiness and firm profits.

“This level of happiness has created a firm with very low staff turnover and fantastic feedback from clients.”

DBS Law, which posted record income figures in the past financial year, is now “actively seeking to acquire law firms from around the country to broaden its service base”.

Other law firms have also found that community and pro bono work can improve talent retention and business performance.

“By showing strong leadership and giving ‘permission’ for lawyers to spend at least some of their time doing things that make a difference to other people’s lives, or reminding them of the reasons they entered the legal profession in the first place, there can be a significant and positive effect on the sense of self-worth felt by individual lawyers,” said Jill King, the former global HR director at Linklaters, in her Managing Partner article Disenchanted lawyers: How to increase your retention of young talent.

“Putting an emphasis on meaningful work rather than exclusively on profitable work helps associates to align themselves to the firm’s values, especially if participation in pro bono and community programmes is recognised as valuable through performance review systems and career advancement decisions.”

More research is, however, needed to unpack the theoretical mechanisms by which volunteers may accrue different health benefits.

"Our systematic review shows that volunteering is associated with improvements in mental health, but more work is needed to establish whether volunteering is actually the cause. It is still unclear whether biological and cultural factors and social resources that are often associated with better health and survival are also associated with a willingness to volunteer in the first place,” said Dr Suzanne Richards at the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the review.

“The challenge now is to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to take up volunteering, and then to measure whether improvements arise for them.”

The full findings of the study are published today in BMC Public Health.

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