By Jon Franklin, Chief Economist at Pro Bono Economics

As the UK approaches the possible light at the end of a longer-than-initially-anticipated tunnel, the stickiness of the changes we’ve seen through the pandemic is about to be put to the test. Will mask wearing become common courtesy in crowded spaces? Is hybrid homeworking here to stay for office workers? And have people’s interactions with their communities altered for good?

We have already taken a look at how some changes to volunteering may well hang around. But what if volunteering can also play a role in unwinding some of the longer-term impacts on our economy and society, such as the drop in wellbeing?

What happened to wellbeing?

It is perhaps not surprising that that the country has been less happy overall of late. But the nature of the change in mood over the course of the last 12 months has had some nuance. In the early weeks of the first lockdown, happiness fell and anxiety rose. Yet people’s sense of life satisfaction and worth held up relatively well.

Fast forward a year and our national happiness and anxiety measures have regained much – though by no means all – of that lost ground. Now, however, our satisfaction and worth are much reduced relative to pre-crisis levels, falling to post-pandemic lows in the early weeks of 2021. The implication seems to be that we’ve learned to live with the virus – feeling less anxious about the future and happier with our lot – but that pandemic fatigue has ground us down and reduced life’s sense of meaning.

Average reported life satisfaction, sense of worth, happiness, and anxiety (0-10): All adults, Great Britain

Sources: PBE analysis of ONS, Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain; various

The restoration of ‘normal’ may well prompt a recovery in wellbeing, but we can’t assume the end of the roadmap in June will deliver a full bounceback. The ONS’s measures of anxiety were 9.5% higher in July-September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, for example. That is despite many aspects of normal life having resumed during that time in much of the country, with travel corridors, bars, hotels and hair salons all open and many millions of us tucking into discount meals through the Eat Out to Help Out initiative. So we’re going to need more tools in our toolbox.

Average reported life satisfaction, sense of worth, happiness, and anxiety (0-10): All adults, Great Britain

Sources: PBE analysis of ONS, Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain; various

Could volunteering be one of those tools?

Volunteering is positively associated with wellbeing. And, in particular, that people with lower levels of initial wellbeing before volunteering tend to benefit the most from it. So it could be a route to hiking wellbeing back up, if the right people benefit from opportunities.

The first group to turn our attention towards would be the older generation. There is evidence that 55-74 year olds tend to benefit more from volunteering than younger people. Yet shielding meant a chunk of this cohort dropped out of the volunteering pool: 29% of over-65s in a recent PBE survey said they helped out neighbours during the first lockdown, well down on the 43% of 50-64 year olds who reported doing so. Getting this group of volunteers back through the doors of our community centres, animal shelters and charity shops quickly will be key, not least because of how much the social sector relies on them in normal times.

The second group to prioritise would be the socially isolated. Social isolation has risen substantively during the pandemic, with 4 in 10 people reporting feeling sometimes, often or always lonely throughout the last year. It should not be assumed this will cease to be a concern once pubs and community spaces re-open. 726,000 employees have lost their jobs during the pandemic, and that means losing not just income but a social network that plays a crucial role in people’s lives. And of course, many more individuals have lost loved ones. With reports of leisure centres, cafes, and other social hubs at risk of permanent closure after a year of diminished income, some routes to making new connections have been lost. Yet evidence suggests that volunteering promotes the development of new social networks. With those who suffer ill health, the disabled and working age adults living alone all scoring highly for chronic loneliness, there may be lots to gain from linking these groups with volunteering.

The third group is people with low incomes. Personal finances have taken a significant hit throughout the pandemic, with job losses, pay cuts, reduced hours and furlough all playing a role in lowering incomes an average of £300 per household. These, too, are expected to take some time to restore, with the OBR projecting that it will be 2023 before household incomes recover. While volunteering itself cannot reverse this, it can play a role in supporting the wellbeing of these groups, with some evidence suggesting that those with personal incomes below £10,000 experience greater benefits from volunteering than other groups.

Clearly, in a sector organised as loosely as the social sector, channelling the people who have the potential to benefit the most from volunteering towards opportunities to do so is substantially easier to blog about than to execute. One route might be to consider how structured participation such as corporate volunteering schemes can take into account who gets the most out of the opportunities that exist, something we look into in more detail here. The Kruger review also holds a number of interesting proposals for government to chew over. But there’s potential there.

The country needs a wellbeing boost, and some need it more than others. A renewed focus on the benefits of volunteering might just offer a path.