Two in three volunteers stop work due to COVID-19

19 May 2020

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the economic and social benefits generated by the roughly seven million Australians who volunteer for an organisation or group, new analysis from ANU shows. 

With almost six million Australian volunteers counted by the ABS a few years ago, a number that appears to have been increasing up until the start of this year, volunteering work is worth billions to the Australian economy each year, but appears to be at risk from COVID-19.

The analysis is based on a recent survey which found that 65.9 per cent of volunteers had stopped volunteering since February 2020 and the initial stages of the spread of the coronavirus. The research is commissioned by Volunteering Australia, with its release coinciding with National Volunteer Week. 

The researchers behind the analysis of the survey, Professor Matthew Gray and Professor Nicholas Biddle from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, say their findings reveal the major impact COVID-19 has had on a range of vital services across the country. 

"Whether it's delivering meals to people in need, or assisting those in our society who are economically, physically or emotionally vulnerable, volunteers are important and valued members of the Australian community," Professor Biddle said. "They provide services that may not otherwise be provided, often for those who are most vulnerable in the community. 

"Our survey found the cessation of volunteering during the spread of COVID-19 was equal to 12.2 million hours per week. This estimated drop in volunteering is a substantial decline in activities shown to be of benefit to the community and volunteers themselves.

"The decline in volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic will potentially reduce the amount and quality of services that many Australians rely upon.

"And if the level of volunteering in Australia continues to decline substantially and does not pick up as physical distancing restrictions are eased, then there are likely to be large flow-on effects for Australians that rely on volunteers, and for the volunteers themselves." 

According to Professor Biddle, volunteers had a higher level of life satisfaction prior to COVID-19 than non-volunteers. But their life satisfaction had dropped as a result of COVID-19.

"Longitudinally we found that life satisfaction has dipped for all Australians, regardless of whether they were volunteers or not, and whether they stopped or continued to volunteer," he said.

"What is important to note though, is that the drop in life satisfaction was far less for those who were able to continue to volunteer compared to those who weren't.

"On a scale of 10, where 10 indicates you are completely satisfied, for those who continued volunteering during the pandemic, their life satisfaction has dropped from 7.12 in January 2020 to 6.81 in April 2020. 

"And for those who stopped volunteering, their life satisfaction dropped from 7.17 to 6.72 over the same period. This might not seem like a large difference, but it is equivalent to about losing $216 per week."  

According to the survey's findings, COVID-19 had a clear impact on volunteers' mental health when they stopped volunteering.  

"On a scale of six to 30 for psychological distress, with 30 indicating the most distress, volunteers who continued volunteering during the COVID-19 crisis scored 11.05," Professor Biddle said. 

"In contrast those who stopped volunteering scored 11.88. This is just below the score for Australians who had never volunteered, which was 12.09."

Professor Biddle said the question of how volunteering in Australia could be supported after the COVID-19 pandemic passes was a significant issue for policymakers and political leaders. 

"Our survey shows that volunteers have done their part in following the physical distancing requirements, but at a large cost to themselves and to the communities that they serve," he said. 

"Finding a way to harness this volunteer workforce throughout the current pandemic is a vitally important policy challenge." 

Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone said: "It is important to recognise the role that volunteering plays in people's lives, with the report showing that those who continued to volunteer had a significantly and substantially smaller decline in life satisfaction and psychological distress than those who stopped or who never volunteered in the first place. This suggests that maintaining volunteering activity appears to be a very important protective factor.

"Overall, these findings are significant in showing the impact that the COVID-19 situation has on volunteers. The scale of the cessation of volunteering reinforces the challenge ahead in reinvigorating volunteering in the future. The findings also emphasise the incredible power of the volunteer workforce and its contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of Australia. The nation needs these volunteers back supporting their communities."

The analysis is available from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods website