Volunteering in a time of COVID
6 December 2021 at 6:09 pm
As International Volunteer Day is celebrated, Mark Pearce highlights new research revealing the profound experiences of volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This weekend, volunteers were recognised around the world as part of the annual celebration of International Volunteer Day. Still foremost in people’s minds is the global pandemic and how our lives must continue to adjust to living with COVID-19. International Volunteer Day is an important opportunity to pause, thank and celebrate the volunteers who are supporting communities during the pandemic.
In Australia, we have witnessed a dramatic decline in much volunteering as many of us have endured extended lockdowns. An ANU study earlier this year found that the proportion of Australians engaging in voluntary work through an organisation or group fell from 36 per cent in late 2019 to 24 per cent in April 2021. The most recent Pulse of the For-Purpose Sector survey similarly found a sharp decline in volunteering, with a third of organisations reporting they had fewer volunteers than six months prior.
While this data is without doubt cause for concern, it is not the full story. Millions of people have continued to volunteer since the pandemic hit our shores early in 2020. Many have directly supported the COVID response through providing emergency food relief or offering crisis counselling. Other volunteers were able to maintain a sense of normality during lockdowns, for example through outdoor environmental work or governance roles which typically shifted online.
But what has the experience of volunteering been like for these volunteers? New research published on Monday by Volunteering Australia sheds light on this. Based on 800 qualitative responses gathered as part of the Life in Australia™ survey, the research reveals a striking picture of diversity and resilience.
Many of the insights show a positive experience of volunteering. Volunteers reported how their voluntary work helped maintain a connection with others, kept them active and busy, and gave them a sense of purpose. Others pointed to how their volunteering had helped them gain new skills and an opportunity to understand others better.
However, volunteering during the pandemic has not been an easy experience. Many volunteers reported increased workloads, heightened stress, and concern over putting themselves and others at risk. Volunteers were also worried about the people they were helping (and those they couldn’t help) and the impact COVID was having on their wellbeing. And whilst virtual volunteering was a positive experience for many, others reported how it had contributed to “technostress” and feelings of anxiety and mental fatigue.
This research raises important questions about how we might better support volunteers as the pandemic continues and how we might prepare for the future. As Volunteering Australia takes forward the development of a new National Strategy for Volunteering, in partnership with the volunteering ecosystem, we will consider the vital role of volunteers during emergencies and how we best protect their wellbeing.
While International Volunteer Day is over for another year, we must continue to publicly recognise their contribution and thank them for their service in these most challenging of times.