Do you volunteer your time outside of work? If not, you probably should. That's the finding from a new survey by Robert Half International. The employment firm asked more than 1,000 employees in the United States about their volunteering habits, and the 41 percent who volunteer reported an array of personal and career benefits from doing so. Their responses confirm what many people already know: When you spend time volunteering, you get more than you give.

Here are just some of the ways volunteering can improve both your life and your career:

1. It widens your network.

Do you want to meet business leaders, prospective customers, and influencers in your community? Volunteering is often a great way to do that. Fifty-seven percent of those who volunteer cited a wider network as one of the benefits they get from volunteering.

I would never suggest that you choose to volunteer for a charity solely in the hopes that you'll bump into a high-powered executive who happens to be on the board. On the other hand, paying attention to where the people you most want to meet spend their volunteer time can be a smart way to make contact with movers and shakers who are otherwise inaccessible. Just make sure the work is something you'd enjoy doing anyway, since there's no guarantee you'll fulfill your secret agenda. Whatever happens, you will get to meet people you don't already know, and those connections may lead to unexpected opportunities.

2. It makes you healthier.

In the survey, 61 percent of those who volunteer said volunteering enhanced their wellness, making them more effective at work. The survey authors don't go into detail about this, but there are many ways volunteering can contribute to wellness. Depending on the tasks you choose, they may make you more physically active (helping out at children's dance class or sports team, for instance) and may take you out of doors as well. But even a sedentary, indoor volunteer job will get you out of your office. And that's a good thing.

3. It takes your focus off work.

If you're anything like me, your job occupies most of the space inside your head most of the time. That's not good for you or your job. Volunteering forces you to focus your attention on something outside your day-to-day work concerns and obsessions. Not only does this lead to better mental health, it can also help you at work because a change in perspective will often give you a better grasp of a problem or a new idea.

4. It makes you feel good about yourself.

Knowing you're helping a cause you believe in or making life better for your fellow creatures is a really nice feeling and one of the primary rewards of volunteering. It's one big way volunteering can make you happier. And if happiness in itself isn't enough of a reward, your improved outlook will also  make you more effective on the job.

5. It teaches you new skills.

Nothing is as valuable as your skill set, and any chance to expand it is worth pursuing. That's one of the big benefits you can get from volunteering. Want to be a better speaker? Volunteering can give you the chance to hone those skills. Want to improve your  cold calls? Volunteering can give you the chance to practice. You can learn nearly any skill you want in a volunteer setting.

6. It can help put your company on the map.

If you're volunteering with an industry association, or in an area that's relevant to your company's products, it can benefit your company by raising its visibility. The same is true if you're volunteering for a local sports team, community group, or cultural venue. It's an especially powerful combination if you own the company. So look for opportunities to raise your companies profile as well as your own when you seek ways to volunteer.

7. It can help you get over a trauma.

That question wasn't in the survey--I'm speaking purely from personal experience. Many years ago, I moved from New York City to Woodstock, New York, to escape a brief and violent marriage. With my personal life in shambles, my professional life not much better, and a bleak Northeastern winter setting in, I went through some of the most hopeless days of my life. Family and distant friends pulled me through, but what really brought me back into the world was volunteering for Family of Woodstock a grass-roots crisis-intervention organization. It gave me a new social circle in my new town, a lot of inside information about what was going on around there, and a few hours every week completely distracted from my own problems. 

Volunteering there, and later with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, has made a huge difference to both my life and my career. If you try it, it will yours too.  

Published on: Nov 13, 2015