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Why volunteering is good for business, employee engagement and company culture

Originally published in The Tennessean, July 2022

Margaret Anderson and her team recently sang “Happy Birthday” to a few people they’d never met and may never see again. And as Margaret tells it, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of the year for everyone involved.

Margaret, a Memphis-based Medical Home Partnership care coordinator at BlueCross, and her 10-person team have been volunteering at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee since 2019. The nonprofit works to provide the city’s homeless population with meals and medical care.

In early July, as Margaret and her team distributed sack lunches to those in need, several people who came through the line shared that it was their birthday.

“So, we all sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” Margaret recalls.

“You never know how people are feeling when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. But when somebody you don’t know recognizes that it’s your birthday and sings for you … you just smile.”

“And for us, it does our hearts so much good to realize how blessed we are — and blessed to all be there together.” 

Margaret and her team were unable to volunteer together in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic —but are now committed to reconvening at Catholic Charities twice a year, in person.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Darlene Smith and her team recently gathered after having not seen each other in several months to handmake cards and pack boxes for children — children in need of a reminder that they matter and are not forgotten.

Darlene, a program management specialist at BlueCross, and her colleagues began volunteering at the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Middle Tennessee, which works to grant wishes for children living with a critical illness, earlier this year.

Darlene Smith, far right

Many children hope to meet a favorite athlete or embark on a dream vacation, wishes that involve a lot of logistics and planning. Volunteers often meet at the nonprofit’s headquarters to pack uplifting “wish boxes” that are delivered to kids waiting to have their wish fulfilled.

“For me, the most meaningful moment was knowing that these boxes filled with candy, toys and stickers would bring a smile to a child’s face,” Darlene says.

“The time we spent packing the boxes would make such a huge difference, uplifting these children while they’re in the hospital.” 

Making a difference, together

I share these employee stories to illustrate the importance not only of giving back, but also how giving back as a team can foster deeper connections between employees. That unity and sense of purpose can be reinvigorating and motivate them to re-commit to the work they do every single day.

Across the nation, we’re seeing companies struggle with employee retention, preventing employee burnout and keeping their people engaged. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, 79% of employees had recently experienced work-related stress. Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative health impacts related to that stress. A staggering 44% reported physical fatigue — a 38% increase since 2019.

One of the ways companies can assist their employees with this stress is by finding opportunities for them to reconnect  outside of their workstations, whether they’re in an office or at home. Data from the Society for Human Resource Management showed 47% of U.S. companies offered community volunteer pro¬grams in 2018, up from 40% in 2014. That percentage is even higher for large companies, and I suspect it will steeply climb again with the next available data.

At BlueCross, we’ve found success in encouraging our employees to give back to their communities — often during regular business hours with manager approval.

Our TeamBlue employee volunteer program, established in 2008, maintained a strong virtual presence during the pandemic. But in 2021, our employees were back in our communities, volunteering 5,175 hours with 168 different organizations. This year, we’ve already exceeded 3,000 in-person and virtual volunteer hours and are on track to top last year’s total.

Benefits for all

Our employees have made their appreciation for incorporating TeamBlue volunteering into their workday clear. For us, it’s a win-win; local charity organizations benefit from our efforts, and our employees’ work in the community creates shared experiences, boosts morale and contributes to a more positive “on-the-clock” atmosphere. The face-to-face interaction and feelings of accomplishment after giving back are then reflected in the service they provide our members.

The experiences of teams like Margaret’s and Darlene’s can serve as an example for other companies looking for ways to inspire their employees.

“Volunteering brings us closer together,” Margaret says. “Our hearts are warm, knowing we’ve done something for somebody as a team. That feeling carries on and keeps spreading.”

“These in-person volunteering opportunities build camaraderie, especially since many of us work from home and don’t get to see each other much anymore,” Darlene adds. “They bring us back together, keep us connected and create even stronger bonds.”

About Dalya Qualls White, SVP & Chief Communications Officer

A photo of the authorDalya leads a team responsible for marketing, communication and community relations strategies that reflect the mission-driven culture of BlueCross. She has more than a decade's experience as a communications leader in health care, government services and sports information.

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