ANA on the Frontline

Advantages of altruism: Volunteering has positive impact on nurses’ well-being

Volunteering has positive impact on nurses’ well-being

By Susan Trossman, RN

It’s been said that it’s better to give than to receive. While it may be difficult to say that one truly edges out the other, research shows there are health benefits associated with altruism.

Nurses also agree that volunteering has a positive payoff when it comes to their overall well-being, although that’s not what ultimately drives them to help. What follows are some of their experiences and perspectives on volunteering and its rewards.

But first, the research

nurse altruism American nurses association journal frontline“There’s research that shows that if you feel tired, going for a walk will give you more energy,” said Dan Richmond, BSN, RN, CMSRN, an Oregon Nurses Association member who participates in a range of volunteer activities. “The same can be said of volunteering. And if you’re feeling stressed or burned out, it can give you a new perspective and renewed passion for your day job.”

Studies over the past two-plus decades have linked engaging in altruistic activities with mental health benefits, such as improved mood and feeling less stressed and more satisfied with life, particularly among older adults who donate their time. But there are other interesting results.

The authors of a 2015 article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine examined volunteering, work-life balance, and health outcomes through an online survey of 746 busy Swiss workers who also volunteered at a nonprofit organization. The authors concluded that although volunteering may consume a portion of people’s time and energy, “it may contribute to a greater sense of balance for people in the workforce, which might, in turn, positively influence health.”


In a 2013 study released by UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute, 76% of 3,351 adult respondents reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier, and 78% noted it lowered their levels of stress.

nurse altruism American nurses association frontline

Fulfilling a need, a passion

Neysa Ernst, MSN, RN, describes herself and her husband Pat as long-time, “pathological” fundraisers and volunteers. However, what led her to give her time and energy to help adults with developmental challenges was a personal loss; their 24-year-old son Danny died suddenly in 2011.

“As a way to move us out of a constant state of grief and help us give back, we started Danny’s Day Foundation,” Ernst said. The foundation’s mission is to advocate for, support, and enrich the lives of adults with develop-mental challenges, such as Down’s syndrome and autism, in Anne Arundel County, MD. To accomplish this mission, Ernst spends several hours most weeks helping to plan and run fundraising events, including a golf tournament and a holiday party, as well as determining grant funding to organizations that align with the foundation’s goals.

She also routinely volunteers for other activities, such as gardening projects and social events, at Providence Center, which provides services to adults with developmental disabilities in the region and has received foundation grants. Danny, who had been actively involved in charitable work with his parents since he was 5 years old, had become interested in helping this population and learning more about their challenges after becoming friends with a dishwasher, whom he worked with and who was a Providence Center client, explained Ernst.

“When you experience a sudden loss, it’s easy to become depressed, inwardly focused, and isolated,” said Ernst, a nurse manager in the endoscopy department at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a past president of the Maryland Nurses Association. “Although it’s not a replacement, starting the foundation gave me something concrete to do that honors his memory and that helps a disenfranchised population. And it provides meaning to something we can’t understand.”

Ernst also noted that her volunteer work is very rewarding, especially when she sees first-hand a socially withdrawn client engage in an activity for the first time, or witnesses the joy other clients experience at holiday parties.

Unique contributions

nurse altruism American nurses association frontlineDan Richmond believes that nurses bring many skills, expertise, and a unique perspective to any volunteer effort. “There are lots of opportunities out there just waiting for someone to show up,” said Richmond, who works in the float pool of an acute care hospital and is vice chair of the Oregon Nurses Association Constituent Association (CA) 4, which serves southern Oregon nurses.

Richmond knows whereof he speaks. For several years he volunteered on search and rescue missions in Jackson County, Oregon, where, for example, he helped to find and assist missing hikers on Mt. McLoughlin and search for a missing person last seen on remote, snowy roads. He’s taught wilderness first aid, which also requires rescuers to accurately assess the safety of the environment and improvise with limited resources.

In addition, Richmond spent time helping to restore natural vegetation on the Na Pali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii, and he and his wife went on a medical mission to a remote area of Rwanda to teach local nurses and midwives simple, life-saving techniques to clear newborns’ airways, helping them to survive.

Through his volunteer role in his constituent association, Richmond now is working with nurse members to sponsor the Southern Oregon Swing Dance Convention as a way to boost the health and wellness of RNs and community residents.

“Nurses work in high-stress situations, where we’re all trying to do more with less,” said Richmond, who also is treasurer of the ONA collective bargaining unit at his hospital. “Volunteering gives you a new perspective on nursing and a chance to be part of the solution. And it makes you feel good.”

Abroad and at home

nurse altruism American nurses association frontlineGermaine Williams, MSN, RN, CNOR, assistant nurse manager in a Johns Hopkins operating room depart- ment, has volunteered for two medical missions to Patzun, Guatemala, with The Healing Hands Foundation.

Immediately after arriving at the remote, mountainous region, Williams said she and the volunteer surgical team had to unpack supplies they brought with them—from bandages to defibrillators—to prepare for the upcoming surgeries.

“We operated from sunup to sundown, performing 71 surgeries in 5 days during one of those trips,” said Williams, a member of ANA and the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses. Surgeries included burn contracture releases, and repairs of hernias, ear deformities, cleft palates, and cleft lips.

“When I would be done for the day, I felt energized, not tired,” she said. “I also felt good about the work we were doing, to see the smiles on the faces of children who had surgical repairs and felt like they no longer had to hide their faces with their hair. And the good feeling lasts—especially when I share stories [about my experiences.]

“That area is very poor, and being there made me think about how we live so frivolously sometimes. We forget about the blessings in the United States, including health care.”

Jennifer Taylor, RN, an Oregon Nurses Association member and president of ONA CA 1, which serves nurses in Multnomah and Columbia counties, participates in a range of community outreach projects.

“I feel like volunteering is a civic responsibility,” she said. “As nurses, we are trusted and looked at as role models of health and wellness and experts in prevention, so we should be sharing our knowledge.”

nurse altruism American nurses association frontline“One of my passions is preventing head injuries,” said Taylor, who works on an inpatient psychiatric unit and previously worked as an inpatient physical rehabilitation nurse for many years. Since 2007, she’s been organizing ONA CA 1 community outreach projects, focusing on bike helmet and safety programs. So far, they’ve provided and fitted for free about 2,000 bike helmets to children and families in the Portland area. She also talks with children about the importance of wearing helmets and other protective gear whenever they ride a bike, scooter, or skateboard, or participate in sports, and she emphasizes to parents their need to use helmets and role model safe behavior for their children.

“I always tell kids and families that there is a chance of injuring their brain, which is the reason they need to wear a helmet,” Taylor said.

Some of her other volunteer activities include serving as an ONA unit representative, testifying before the Oregon legislature, and volunteering though the Oregon state emergency registry to respond to disasters and public health threats. She’s been deployed a couple of times: once to administer immunoglobulin and hepatitis vaccine after a local outbreak, and another time to perform lead testing in schoolchildren.

When Taylor thinks about the benefits of volunteering, she mentions that she feels joy and a sense of accomplishment knowing she has helped improve lives in her community in some way.

“It fills my heart and soul to give back,” said Taylor, who encourages young nurses to use their enthusiasm to engage in altruistic activities.

Answering the call

nurse altruism American nurses association frontline“Whatever your specialty or passion, I think it’s important to use your God-given gift to give back without remuneration,” said Nancy Durbin, MS, RN-BC, who works full-time and is on the board of the Health Ministries Association, an organizational affiliate of ANA. “Nurses should do some soul-searching, and even with time constraints, see if there is some way they can use their time, talent, and treasure [in a volunteer activity.] Maybe it’s helping with a blood drive or teaching a CPR class.”

What drives Durbin to volunteer is her faith and her family background.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed with many opportunities, so it’s my responsibility to give back—whether it’s rolling up my sleeves to help or writing a check,” said Durbin, an ANA-Illinois member.

Durbin has volunteered with the American Red Cross since 1990, assisting in emergency response and disaster preparedness, and she has been involved in a range of non-nursing volunteer activities with her church.

When she volunteers, Durbin feels a sense of satisfaction that stays with her.

Getting started

Durbin and other nurses interviewed suggested that RNs who are considering volunteering start small, perhaps participating in a walk for a cause they believe in, or combining a vacation with an altruistic activity. They also say it’s important to pursue activities and projects that they feel strongly about, including getting involved in their professional association, which also can boost confidence and self-esteem, and build skills.

Or maybe it’s engaging in a random act of kindness. When Durbin got off a plane and was walking through the airport on a Sunday night a few months ago, she came across a group of young lawyers who were holding signs saying they were available to help with legal services.

“I brought them some food from McDonald’s, and they were so thankful,” Durbin said. “No one asked them to be there, but there they were. The world would be so much better if we all gave back—even a little.”

– Susan Trossman is a writer-editor at ANA. american nurses association journal august 2017 ana frontline

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