IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Voluntary work for the physical and mental health of older volunteers: A systematic review


  • Trine Filges
  • Anu Siren
  • Torben Fridberg
  • Bjørn C. V. Nielsen


Background The increasing imbalance between the number of older adults not working and the number of adults in the age range of labour force participation (age range 20–64) has long been a fundamental public policy challenge in the Organization for Economic Co‐operation and Development member countries. At a societal level, this growing imbalance raises serious concerns about the viability and funding of social security, pensions and health programmes. At an individual level, the concern is probably more that of aging well with the prospect of many years in retirement. Some research suggests that retiring for some carries the risk of a fast decline in health. Volunteering can play a significant role in people's lives as they transition from work to retirement, as it offers a “structured” means of making a meaningful contribution in society once the opportunity to do so through work has been cut off. Some older people consider voluntary work as a way to replicate aspects of paid work lost upon retirement, such as organisational structure and time discipline. In many countries, volunteering of the older adults is increasing and programmes designed specifically for this subpopulation are emerging. Volunteering may contribute to both individuals aging well and society aging well, as volunteering by the older adults at the same time relieves the societal burden if it helps maintain health and functionality for those who volunteer. It thus remains to be established to what extent volunteering impacts on the physical and mental health of those who volunteer. Objectives The main objective of this review is to answer the following research question: what are the effects of volunteering on the physical and mental health of people aged 65 years or older? Search Strategy Relevant studies were identified through electronic searches of bibliographic databases, governmental and grey literature repositories, hand search in specific targeted journals, citation tracking, contact to international experts and internet search engines. The database searches were carried out to December 2018 and other resources were searched in September 2019 and October 2019. We searched to identify both published and unpublished literature. The searches were international in scope. Reference lists of included studies and relevant reviews were also searched. Selection Criteria The intervention of interest was formal volunteering which can be described as voluntary, on‐going, planned, helping behaviour that intend to increase the well‐being of strangers, offers no monetary compensation and typically occurs within an organisational context. We included older people aged 65 or over who are engaged in formal voluntary work. The primary focus was on measures of physical and mental health. All study designs that used a well‐defined control group were eligible for inclusion. Studies that utilised qualitative approaches were not included. Data Collection and Analysis The total number of potential relevant studies constituted 17,046 hits. A total of 90 studies, met the inclusion criteria and were critically appraised by the review authors. The 90 studies analysed 47 different populations. Only 26 studies (analysing 19 different populations) could be used in the data synthesis. Forty‐six studies could not be used in the data synthesis as they were judged to have too high risk of bias and, in accordance with the protocol, were excluded from the meta‐analysis on the basis that they would be more likely to mislead than inform. Eighteen studies did not provide enough information enabling us to calculate an effects size and standard error or did not provide results in a form enabling us to use it in the data synthesis. Finally, of the 26 studies that could be used in the data synthesis, two pairs of studies used the same two data sets and reported on the same outcome(s), thus in addition two studies were not used in the data synthesis. Meta‐analysis of both physical health outcomes and mental health outcomes were conducted on each metric separately. All analyses were inverse variance weighted using random effects statistical models that incorporate both the sampling variance and between study variance components into the study level weights. Random effects weighted mean effect sizes were calculated using 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Sensitivity analysis was carried out by restricting the meta‐analysis to a subset of all studies included in the original meta‐analysis and was used to evaluate whether the pooled effect sizes were robust across components of risk of bias. Results The 24 studies (analysing 19 different populations), used for meta analysis were from Australia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Korea and United States, three were a randomised controlled trial and 21 were NRS. The baseline time period (the year the voluntary work that was analysed was measured) spanned by the included studies is 30 years, from 1984 to 2014 and on average the baseline year was 2001. On average the number of follow up years was 5, although with great variation from 0 to 25 years. The average number of volunteers analysed (not reported in four studies) was 2,369, ranging from 15 to 27,131 and the average number of controls was 13,581, ranging from 13 to 217.297. In total the average number of participants analysed was 14,566, ranging from 28 to 244.428. Ten studies analysed the effect of voluntary work on mortality, however, eight studies reported a hazard ratio and two studies reported an odds ratio. We analysed these two types of effect sizes separately. A hazard ratio

Suggested Citation

  • Trine Filges & Anu Siren & Torben Fridberg & Bjørn C. V. Nielsen, 2020. "Voluntary work for the physical and mental health of older volunteers: A systematic review," Campbell Systematic Reviews, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 16(4), December.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:camsys:v:16:y:2020:i:4:n:e1124
    DOI: 10.1002/cl2.1124

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    File URL:
    LibKey link: if access is restricted and if your library uses this service, LibKey will redirect you to where you can use your library subscription to access this item

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Kimiko Tomioka & Norio Kurumatani & Keigo Saeki, 2018. "The differential effects of type and frequency of social participation on IADL declines of older people," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 13(11), pages 1-17, November.
    2. Musick, Marc A. & Wilson, John, 2003. "Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(2), pages 259-269, January.
    3. Kim, Eric S. & Konrath, Sara H., 2016. "Volunteering is prospectively associated with health care use among older adults," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 149(C), pages 122-129.
    4. Kumiko Nonaka & Hiroyuki Suzuki & Hiroshi Murayama & Masami Hasebe & Takashi Koike & Erika Kobayashi & Yoshinori Fujiwara, 2017. "For how many days and what types of group activities should older Japanese adults be involved in to maintain health? A 4-year longitudinal study," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 12(9), pages 1-12, September.
    5. Thomas Hansen & Marja Aartsen & Britt Slagsvold & Christian Deindl, 2018. "Dynamics of Volunteering and Life Satisfaction in Midlife and Old Age: Findings from 12 European Countries," Social Sciences, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 7(5), pages 1-15, May.
    6. Emily A. Greenfield & Nadine F. Marks, 2004. "Formal Volunteering as a Protective Factor for Older Adults' Psychological Well-Being," Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Gerontological Society of America, vol. 59(5), pages 258-264.
    7. Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke, 2009. "Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist's Companion," Economics Books, Princeton University Press, edition 1, number 8769.
    8. David M. Cutler & Adriana Lleras-Muney, 2006. "Education and Health: Evaluating Theories and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 12352, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Leonardo Becchetti & Pierluigi Conzo & Mirko Di Febbraro, 2018. "The Monetary†Equivalent Effect of Voluntary Work on Mental Wellbeing in Europe," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 71(1), pages 3-27, February.
    10. Kimiko Tomioka & Norio Kurumatani & Hiroshi Hosoi, 2018. "Social Participation and Cognitive Decline Among Community-dwelling Older Adults: A Community-based Longitudinal Study," Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Gerontological Society of America, vol. 73(5), pages 799-806.
    11. Hayley Guiney & Liana Machado, 2018. "Volunteering in the Community: Potential Benefits for Cognitive Aging," Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Gerontological Society of America, vol. 73(3), pages 399-408.
    12. Dhaval Dave & R. Inas Rashad & Jasmina Spasojevic, 2008. "The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes," Southern Economic Journal, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 75(2), pages 497-523, October.
    13. Gupta, Sumedha, 2018. "Impact of volunteering on cognitive decline of the elderly," The Journal of the Economics of Ageing, Elsevier, vol. 12(C), pages 46-60.
    14. Sorlie, P.D. & Backlund, E. & Keller, J.B., 1995. "US mortality by economic, demographic, and social characteristics: The National Longitudinal Mortality Study," American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, vol. 85(7), pages 949-956.
    15. Okun, Morris A. & August, Kristin J. & Rook, Karen S. & Newsom, Jason T., 2010. "Does volunteering moderate the relation between functional limitations and mortality?," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 71(9), pages 1662-1668, November.
    16. Catherine Deri Armstrong & Rose Anne Devlin & Forough Seifi, 2018. "Doing Good, Feeling Good: Causal Evidence from Canadian Volunteers," Working Papers 1807E, University of Ottawa, Department of Economics.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    Most related items

    These are the items that most often cite the same works as this one and are cited by the same works as this one.
    1. Liu, Yiwei & Duan, Yanan & Xu, Ling, 2020. "Volunteer service and positive attitudes toward aging among Chinese older adults: The mediating role of health," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 265(C).
    2. Lamar Pierce & Jason Snyder, 2015. "Unethical Demand and Employee Turnover," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 131(4), pages 853-869, November.
    3. Pierre-Jean Messe & François-Charles Wolff, 2019. "Healthier when retiring earlier? Evidence from France," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 51(47), pages 5122-5143, October.
    4. Han, Sae Hwang & Kim, Kyungmin & Burr, Jeffrey A., 2018. "Stress-buffering effects of volunteering on salivary cortisol: Results from a daily diary study," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 201(C), pages 120-126.
    5. Lindsey McDougle & Femida Handy & Sara Konrath & Marlene Walk, 2014. "Health Outcomes and Volunteering: The Moderating Role of Religiosity," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 117(2), pages 337-351, June.
    6. Thomas Barnay & Eric Defebvre, 2018. "Retired, at last? The short-term impact of retirement on health status in France," TEPP Working Paper 2018-01, TEPP.
    7. Bonilla, Sade, 2020. "The dropout effects of career pathways: Evidence from California," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 75(C).
    8. Michelle I. Jongenelis & Liyuwork Mitiku Dana & Jeni Warburton & Ben Jackson & Robert U. Newton & Zenobia Talati & Simone Pettigrew, 2020. "Factors associated with formal volunteering among retirees," European Journal of Ageing, Springer, vol. 17(2), pages 229-239, June.
    9. Wang, Wei-Pang & Wu, Li-Hsueh & Zhang, Wei & Tsay, Ruey-Ming, 2019. "Culturally-specific productive engagement and self-rated health among Taiwanese older adults," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 229(C), pages 79-86.
    10. Brunello, Giorgio & Fabbri, Daniele & Fort, Margherita, 2009. "Years of Schooling, Human Capital and the Body Mass Index of European Females," IZA Discussion Papers 4667, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    11. Heller-Sahlgren, Gabriel, 2017. "Retirement blues," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 54(C), pages 66-78.
    12. Binder, Martin & Freytag, Andreas, 2013. "Volunteering, subjective well-being and public policy," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 34(C), pages 97-119.
    13. Ohrnberger, Julius & Fichera, Eleonora & Sutton, Matt, 2017. "The dynamics of physical and mental health in the older population," The Journal of the Economics of Ageing, Elsevier, vol. 9(C), pages 52-62.
    14. Buckles, Kasey & Hagemann, Andreas & Malamud, Ofer & Morrill, Melinda & Wozniak, Abigail, 2016. "The effect of college education on mortality," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 50(C), pages 99-114.
    15. Kim, Eric S. & Konrath, Sara H., 2016. "Volunteering is prospectively associated with health care use among older adults," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 149(C), pages 122-129.
    16. Martina Celidoni & Vincenzo Rebba, 2017. "Healthier lifestyles after retirement in Europe? Evidence from SHARE," The European Journal of Health Economics, Springer;Deutsche Gesellschaft für Gesundheitsökonomie (DGGÖ), vol. 18(7), pages 805-830, September.
    17. Eibich, Peter, 2015. "Understanding the Effect of Retirement on Health: Mechanisms and Heterogeneity," EconStor Open Access Articles and Book Chapters, ZBW - Leibniz Information Centre for Economics, pages 1-12.
    18. Eve Caroli & Claudio Lucifora & Daria Vigani, 2016. "Is there a Retirement-Health Care utilization puzzle? Evidence from SHARE data in Europe," DISCE - Working Papers del Dipartimento di Economia e Finanza def049, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Dipartimenti e Istituti di Scienze Economiche (DISCE).
    19. María Isabel Saz-Gil & José Paulo Cosenza & Anabel Zardoya-Alegría & Ana I. Gil-Lacruz, 2020. "Exploring Corporate Social Responsibility under the Background of Sustainable Development Goals: A Proposal to Corporate Volunteering," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 12(12), pages 1-21, June.
    20. Gabriele Ruiu & Giovanna Gonano, 2020. "Religious Barriers to the Diffusion of Same-sex Civil Unions in Italy," Population Research and Policy Review, Springer;Southern Demographic Association (SDA), vol. 39(6), pages 1185-1203, December.

    More about this item


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:wly:camsys:v:16:y:2020:i:4:n:e1124. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: . General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a bibliographic reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: Wiley Content Delivery (email available below). General contact details of provider: .

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.