Across the festive period I was mulling over the five ways to wellbeing and how I can make these a more integral part of my life. After all, it’s important to practise what we preach.
A quick audit suggests I’m already prioritising four of the five ways to wellbeing: connecting with friends and family; taking regular physical exercise; taking notice; making time to keep learning. However, there’s definitely room for improvement when it comes to the fifth way to wellbeing – giving.
Research has shown that committing an act of kindness (such as giving) once a week over a six-week period is associated with an increase in wellbeing. But what’s the psychology behind this, and what can employers do to help giving become a regular part of our lives?
The psychology of greed and the neuroscience of giving
According to psychologist Victor Shamas, with greed as with drug addiction, the feeling of pleasure comes from the process of pursuing the reward, not from the final result. So, enough is never enough.
Meanwhile, giving stimulates the body’s production of feel-good neurochemicals that boost our mood. Small repeated boosts produce the most benefit.
Giving, by its very nature, also turns our attention away from ourselves and towards the outside world. This is also good for our mental health.
A 2017 study even found that helping others and avoiding selfish behaviour can lift depression.
Paul Corcoran is Managing Director of Business Volunteers, an organisation which supports UK companies with employee volunteering. Volunteering has traditionally been handled by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments. However, Paul has seen a big increase over the past year in people looking for help with arranging volunteering as part of their wellbeing strategy.
Business Volunteers supports charities and communities across the UK. Activities range from decorating rooms for a charity that offers a safe place for the homeless, to dredging a pond on a nature reserve or caring for rescue animals.
Challenging yourself to make a difference
For those who want to push their boundaries, a fundraising challenge might be an option.
Charity Challenge events have included everything from treks, bike rides, mountain climbs and community builds to rafting, kayaking and dog sledding.
Recognising the link between giving, mental health, physical exercise, connecting with others, being at one with nature and setting and achieving goals, the company has created Minds in the Wild challenges.
Phil Soper is CEO of Canada based firm Brookfield Real Estate Services, which has undertaken three Charity Challenges to raise funds for the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation. 2019 saw a group of 120, including Phil, trekking in the Sahara Desert.
Phil’s description of the challenge conjures up images of a harsh landscape, huddling together under a lone acacia tree to shade from the blistering heat and gazing, overawed at the purity of the night sky.
The challenge is not only physically and mentally rewarding for the trekkers. Phil says: “The ability of the challenges to touch people beyond the 120 who trekked is amazing.
“A few walk but many, including family, friends and wider communities, get involved in the fundraising.”
The charity challenges have also become an important tool for promoting a positive workplace culture.
One good turn deserves another
The effect on employees who decide to make giving part of their lives is very positive.
Jon Neal is Head of Learning and Development at employment skills and services provider PeoplePlus UK and he has experienced its feel-good power. He explains: “It makes you think and also has positive impacts on other parts of your life as it puts you in a different mindset”.
He believes that this relates to pattern recognition in the brain. He says: “When you give, you start to see more opportunities for giving”.
In line with his company’s wellbeing strategy, Jon initially donated a day of his time to training therapists who work for Imara – a service that supports children, young people and their family following a disclosure or discovery of child sexual abuse.
The experience of volunteering time can be liberating. One act of giving, like Jon’s volunteering, can open your mind to so much more.
Katherine Billingham-Mohamed has been working with the UK Government’s communications regulator Ofcom to design their wellbeing strategy for 2020 and beyond. One of the priorities of the strategy is ‘doing good to feel good’. Katherine also created the wellbeing strategy called ‘Wellbeing@Aviva’, of which ‘Be awesome” was one strand, which was all about giving back, when she was Global People and Culture Lead for insurance, savings and investments provider Aviva.
Last Christmas Katherine volunteered to wrap presents at a local shelter and also helped at a food bank. She said: “Putting together a parcel of Christmas Day food for a family of four really made me realise how lucky I am”.
But it’s not Katherine’s own interest in giving that’s driving Ofcom’s wellbeing strategy.
Having held listening sessions with employees to understand what wellbeing meant to them, Katherine can say hand on heart that “doing good to feel good” is a key priority for Ofcom’s colleagues.
Katherine’s top tips for making giving work as part of a wellbeing strategy are:
1) Take the lead from your employees. What are they already doing? What are their volunteering needs?
2) Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look at the organisation’s existing volunteering strategy and what people are doing before starting from scratch. Often you can ‘re-tell’ the volunteering story with a Wellbeing filter
3) The key to keeping people engaged is communication. Explain WHY giving is good for you, not just that it IS good for you.
4) Keep telling stories that illustrate the positive outcomes of volunteering. As an example, someone enthusing about the impact of reading with children at the local school can really inspire others.
5) Look beyond the obvious and work with the charity to help fill their gaps. Food banks don’t just need help at Christmas. Can your teams help in June or July when there is a dearth of support and donations?
6) Keep the process as simple and streamlined as possible. Make sure things like risk assessments or disclosures are taken into consideration.
Everyone’s a winner
Everyone’s a winner when it comes to volunteering: the charity benefits, individuals and teams boost their wellbeing and engagement, plus the employer enhances its reputation.
It’s important to remember that charities and community organisations need a range of skills. Communication is often a stumbling block, so if this is your strength, you could donate your time to write a cause’s newsletter or manage their social media feed.
Don’t forget that giving can be as simple as having compassion for others’ mistakes, making constructive comments or generally being less self-centred.
The possibilities are endless. Over the years, I’ve run a local playgroup, volunteered for the school library and was on the committee of my sons’ school PTA. As the boys fly the nest, my challenge for 2020 is to find the best fit for giving in my life’s next chapter.
I’m looking forward to more employers integrating giving into their wellbeing strategies and will be interested to see whether CSR starts to embrace wellbeing proactively too.
About the Author:
Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Mad World News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times.