Any volunteers?

Although altruism is the main motivation for voluntary work, it can also enhance staff skills that can then be transferred to the workplace. Paul Schrade and Jeremy Payne explain

Insurance, as we are constantly reminded, is a people business.

There are many different ways of acquiring and honing the people skills that are so fundamentally important to most job roles in this market.

One of the most effective - and often the most fulfilling for the individuals concerned - can be to engage in voluntary work outside the workplace on a regular basis.

Charity work

The primary motivation for most people who give their time for charity work is, of course, altruistic but voluntary work can also provide real benefits in terms of proficiency at work and career development prospects.

A recent survey by Time Bank among 200 of the UK's leading businesses found that 94% of employers support the view that volunteering contributes to workplace skills and 58% went so far as to say that voluntary experience can actually be more valuable than that gained in paid employment.

Among the many transferable skills that voluntary work can help develop are building confidence and self-esteem; encouraging individuals to believe in their own ability to make a difference; providing a sense of perspective and broader awareness of the diversity of human experience; building social skills and the ability to form open and honest relationships; and, crucially, helping to develop good communication skills.

Despite the generous financial support of many individuals and companies, most charities depend ultimately on volunteers donating that most valuable of all commodities - time. This is particularly true of a charity like Samaritans, which provides confidential emotional support to people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair and campaigns to increase public awareness of issues around emotional health. Samaritans relies on a volunteer workforce of thousands to provide this vital service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The charity's volunteers are not professional counsellors but simply caring volunteers who have been trained in the art of listening and empathy.

And the training and experience these volunteers gain have many valuable applications in the workplace. In particular, Samaritans applies a technique known as 'active listening' designed to ensure that volunteers responding to people in need of emotional support - whether over the phone, face to face, by letter or by e-mail - properly understand what it is that these individuals are trying to communicate.

Verbal communication

A large proportion of mistakes in the workplace result from mishearing or misunderstanding verbal communication or e-mailed instructions from colleagues. Therefore, the skills and techniques involved in active listening can significantly reduce confusion, prevent misunderstanding and focus situations on finding solutions.

There are several key concepts involved in active listening that are highly relevant to communication within the workplace. One of these is avoiding asking questions with a simple yes or no answer. This helps to prevent basic misunderstandings and oversimplifications and ensures all necessary and relevant information is communicated.

Another is summarising, feeding back your understanding of what has been said in order to confirm that this corresponds with what the other party actually intended. This is a particularly valuable discipline in e-mail or voice-message communication where the person sending the original message can all too easily provide less information than is needed to express their real meaning.

A heightened understanding of the many and real benefits of volunteer work - and the transferable skills it can help employees develop - is encouraging a growing number of companies to support staff in giving their time to charities. The result is a more diverse, rewarding and fulfilling life experience for those involved, and a vital lifeline of support for the good causes they espouse.

CASE STUDY

Coralie Flatters is an actuarial consultant with Royal and Sun Alliance based in Horsham, West Sussex. She joined the company in 1990 and completed her exams to become a fully qualified actuary in 1996. In 1999, she began volunteering with Samaritans and has worked actively with the charity ever since, often donating up to 14 or 15 hours a week.

"I have found working with Samaritans hugely rewarding," she says, "although it can often be a challenging and emotionally intense experience. In terms of transferable skills, I think one of the most important things I have gained from my voluntary work has been to understand better what people are really trying to communicate and to avoid making oversimplified assumptions. I know I have become a much better and more acute listener, and I think my people skills generally have become much stronger.

"When I first started with Samaritans, I did find the experience a bit daunting, although there is obviously a very helpful process of training and preparation. I still feel a sense of apprehension every time I answer an incoming call but at the same time, I have developed a real confidence in my ability to cope. That is a very empowering feeling and I'm sure it does cross over into my ability to manage my own team at work and communicate effectively with colleagues in the workplace.

"Above all it is the feeling of being able to make a positive difference to other people's lives that makes it all worthwhile for me. The experience I have gained with Samaritans has given me a much broader outlook on life and made me really appreciate the importance of good open communication and emotional support in all areas of life - not least at work."

* RSA has a three-year partnership with Samaritans and is funding the development of two emotional health promotion projects, which will raise awareness of emotional health and promote positive coping skills in the workplace and schools.

- Paul Schrade is community investment manager at Royal and Sun Alliance, and Jeremy Payne is director of fund-raising and external relations for charity Samaritans.

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