Volunteering not only helps other people, but makes the do-gooder feel good too - or that's what we tend to assume.
A new Flinders University study suggests that volunteers and their organisations need to be a little more thoughtful about the effects of voluntary work on health.
Dr Anna Ziersch, a research fellow in the Department of Public Health, said that results of a survey of more than 500 people in Adelaide's western suburbs had shown an association between working for voluntary groups and community associations with worse-than-normal physical health.
The survey included organisations ranging from sporting, recreational and hobby-based bodies (the most popular) to those concerned with politics and social justice.
Dr Ziersch said the results should not be viewed as a disincentive to taking on volunteer work.
"I'm not saying that volunteering in groups is going to be dreadful for everybody, but I am saying that we have to be wary about assuming that it's always going to good for people's mental or physical health," she said.
She said that individuals who volunteer need to monitor their own welfare and that the bodies they work for need to offer them adequate support.
The study also included interviews with 16 people who completed the survey. While the statistical survey showed that mental health was largely unaffected by volunteer work, some individuals did acknowledge that dealing with other people's problems could be stressful.
Dr Ziersch said that for many people, however, it seemed that the chief source of stress lay within the organisational set-ups. "Volunteering per se may not be the problem," she said.
"Much of what people talked about was group dynamics, and dealing with personality conflicts."
Dr Ziersch said that it was possible too that the statistically poor health levels of volunteers in the survey may owe something to the general health of individuals involved. She said people with poor health might be less likely to work full-time and therefore have more time to devote to voluntary activities.
"The qualitative work, however, suggests that it is the group involvement that has an impact on health."
Factors associated with good physical health by the survey included a high level of education and working full-time or part-time. Good mental health was associated with older age, being in employment and a higher income level. Dr Ziersch said that rather than frightening people away from voluntary work, she hoped the study will have positive consequences in the form of awareness and changes in policy.
"It's important for people to realise that voluntary work may be good for the community, but may not always be good for individuals," she said.
"Those who run voluntary organisations or groups need to look at ways to support people within those groups, and the individuals need to look at how their role is affecting their health."
The answer for organisations could be as simple as offering training in conflict resolution, or courses in time and meeting management.
"In any workplace or any element of our lives, people have to manage conflict and difference," Dr Ziersch said. "Volunteer work is no different."
Individuals who find themselves under stress should consider seeking support or reducing their involvement, for example, by stepping back from a particular responsibility, Dr Ziersch said: actually leaving a group would be a measure of last resort.
"The research does not suggest that volunteering is necessarily a negative experience. Many people feel good about doing something for the community, and there is no doubt that the community benefits.
"But it is important to weigh up the effect on the individual."