May 10, 2024
Improving workforce vitality through volunteerism and community engagement

Employers are eager to cultivate a healthy and productive workforce, and employees want to become more engaged in their communities and feel a sense of purpose. This is particularly true among the Gen Z and Millennial workers, who currently comprise 38% of the global workforce and are expected to comprise 58% of the workforce by 2030.

According to the 2023 “Vitality in America” study conducted by The Cigna Group, Gen Z and Millennial employees in particular want to feel a sense of purpose at work and to connect with their communities. The study suggests that helping employees meaningfully contribute to their work and their communities could improve their mental health, vitality, and sense of belonging, and help them to forge social connections. In fact, those with higher vitality are significantly more likely to volunteer, say they have a sense of purpose, and connect strongly with their community.

To explore this connection between volunteerism, community engagement, and a healthy workforce, Melissa Skottegaard, board chair of The Cigna Group Foundation, sat down with Dr. Stephen Trzeciak, a leading physician and scientist and the author of “Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself.”

Read on for some of the key insights from their conversation and to learn more about The Cigna Group Foundation’s new $27 million, multiyear philanthropic and community engagement initiative.

The science behind how volunteerism improves physical and mental health

As a practicing specialist in intensive care medicine and a clinical researcher with more than 100 publications in scientific literature, Dr. Trzeciak is dedicated to exploring the connections between health, compassion, and serving others. His research has found scientific evidence that volunteerism and community engagement improve a person’s physical and mental health at a biological level.

Serving others activates neural pathways that amplify positive emotions and increases neurotransmitters and hormones like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin – contributing to beneficial effects on physiology and improving mood. Serving others also quiets the sympathetic nervous system and can lower stress, anxiety, and depression. Over time, Dr. Trzeciak explained this can improve conditions such as chronic inflammation and blood pressure, adding up to improved physical health, mental health, and longevity.

The connection between volunteerism and a healthy workforce

Skottegaard acknowledged how employers like The Cigna Group are eager to cultivate a healthy workforce, which means understanding that the positive effect of volunteerism on vitality goes far beyond the individual volunteer and actually correlates to healthier workforces. For example, the aforementioned research on vitality found that workers with high vitality are more likely to enjoy their work and pursue tasks that interest them. They feel more capable, energetic, and enthusiastic at work, are confident they can do their job well, and are more productive across the board.

Dr. Trzeciak’s research complements the vitality findings from The Cigna Group. He has found that workers are happier when they are consistently and routinely engaged in the service of others – highlighting the importance for organizations to regularly foster volunteer and community engagement opportunities.

Serving others as a cure to burnout

When it comes to addressing employee burnout, encouraging acts of volunteerism can be a critical lever for employers. This is especially important in the wake of the pandemic, when employee burnout reached an all-time high and workers made clear they expected more from employers in terms of a healthy work culture and environment.    

Speaking from his own experience as a specialist in intensive care medicine, Dr. Trzeciak shared evidence that volunteerism is associated with lower burnout. “When I was in medical school, I was taught ‘don’t care too much, too much caring burns you out,’ and I believed that dogma for 25 years,” he said. “But it’s not true. Imagine my surprise when 25 years later, I went to the scientific evidence – more than 80% of the published studies showed that more compassion, more caring, more human connection was associated with lower burnout.”

The Cigna Group makes commitment to healthier communities  

The Cigna Group has long championed volunteerism as a way to foster a healthy workforce and cultivate a deeper connection to local communities. This is core to The Cigna Group Foundation’s new philanthropic and community engagement initiative focused on improving youth mental health, improving veteran mental health through housing stability and wraparound services, and reducing barriers to health equity. A key component is a commitment by The Cigna Group to enhancing volunteer opportunities for its own workforce.

“Volunteering is a way to deliver on our promise of impacting the health and vitality of those that we serve,” said Skottegaard. “I always feel great giving back to our communities, but to learn from Dr. Trzeciak how there’s personal health benefits to body and mind is terrific insight.”

To support healthier communities, employees from across the company took part in volunteer events around the United States, both in person and virtually. To support youth mental health with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, more than 300 employees gathered in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas to assemble mental well-being kits for local children and young adults.

Employees at The Cigna Group headquarters in Bloomfield, CT assemble mental well-being kits for local Boys & Girls clubs.

The kits included items such as stress balls, fidget key chains, and writing journals to help young people practice techniques that promote positive mental well-being.

More than 300 employees gathered in person across The Cigna Group to volunteer as part of the initiative's launch.

In addition to the in-person events, The Cigna Group also partnered with grantee Mental Health Collaborative to offer employees a virtual mental health literacy training, where over 1,200 employees joined the voluntary sessions.

“It feels good to do good, especially when you can accomplish something great with your colleagues, said Kelly Cole, an employee at The Cigna Group who volunteered in Connecticut. “Coming together to volunteer not only connected me with my teammates on a different level but helped me feel like an important part of our enterprise efforts to build healthier communities.”

Vitality in America

Vitality in America 2023

Take a closer look at this year’s Vitality in America study to learn how individuals can improve their health, well-being, and vitality.

View the report