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Volunteerism can help solve the employee morale crisis

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank distributes food outside a church during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 19, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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While there are many advantages to remote work, the isolated nature of working from home during a pandemic can fray employee spirits and connectedness. Two-thirds of HR managers in the US say it’s been difficult to maintain employee morale, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 40% of US adults are showing increases in mental health issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Employers hoping to address mental health must look beyond the occasional virtual social hour or long weekend. More than 60% of US workers are working from home, having spent the better part of a year away from the familiar comforts of their offices and colleagues, and the sense of community they foster. Workers want—and need—to stay connected not only to each other but to the world around them.

One way to combat the growing Covid-induced malaise is to invest in employee volunteer programs. According to a study from Deloitte, such programs boost morale, workplace atmosphere, and brand perception. Nearly 90% of respondents say they believe employers that sponsor volunteer activities offer a better working environment overall. About three-quarters say that volunteer opportunities boost morale more than company mixers, and nearly 80% say they believe that volunteerism is essential to employee well-being.

The psychological benefits of volunteering are well documented. Volunteering has been associated with reducing depression, stress, and anxiety, while increasing self-confidence and self-worth. Older adults who volunteer, especially by tutoring children, have been shown to delay or even reverse the decline of their cognitive functions. Remarkably, one study from Carnegie Mellon University even found that adults over the age of 50 who volunteer on a regular basis are less likely to develop high blood pressure.

Companies can encourage employees to give back by providing them with the time and resources necessary to find valuable volunteer opportunities that fit into their busy lives. They can become corporate partners to specific programs, develop programs of their own, or invest in nonprofits and charities. Deloitte, where one of us (Alicia) works, currently offers opportunities for its people to volunteer and give remotely, including a virtual mentoring program that engages Deloitte professionals as mentors for underserved students navigating the college application process. Today, the program is the largest year-round employee engagement activity at our organization.

Similarly, American Express gives employees—and credit-card holders, too—the opportunity to become a virtual mentor, helping to create a broad culture of volunteerism that reaches across the enterprise. Jackie Morgan, a manager on the company’s organizational effectiveness team, has been virtually mentoring aspiring college students for two years, and credits the experience with a renewed sense of creativity, energy, and purpose that carries over in the workplace.

Of course, just as the Covid-19 pandemic has made work challenging in recent months, so too has it stymied many traditional volunteering opportunities. Virtual tutoring and mentoring programs are especially valuable during this time, and not just for those doing the volunteering.

Covid-19 is having a disastrous impact on the college aspirations of millions of students. Facing financial and academic uncertainty, many students are deferring their college plans, a decision that could cost them in the long run. The number of US students completing their Fafsa forms for financial aid has dramatically fallen since the pandemic began.

Research shows that mentoring programs increase a student’s chance of not only attending college but graduating and starting a career. Having a mentor “who encourages a student’s goals and dreams” may be the single most important factor in whether a college student graduates and finds career success, according to a Strada-Gallup poll. And yet very few students actually report ever having a mentor.

Virtual mentoring programs can play a key role in helping students stay on track to find college success. And they can boost the morale of employees working from home, helping to provide them with a greater sense of purpose at a time when the rest of their world can seem so far away.

Whether they invest in student mentoring organizations or other kinds of programs, employees have an opportunity to build an ongoing culture of virtual volunteerism. Doing so can allow them to stay tethered to one another—and to society—even when they must remain at a distance.

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