URC

Volunteering and Stress

Diana Hochstetler
Beverly Rutan
Sheena Sharpe
Huntington University

Abstract

This study compared the stress levels of long and short-term volunteers in disaster relief. It was predicted that long-term volunteers would experience significantly more stress than short-term volunteers while working in disaster relief. Participants were volunteers from a service organization involved with Hurricane Katrina relief. The participants completed the Impact of Event-Revised (IES-R) scale to evaluate their stress level (Weiss & Mamar, 1997). After the comparison of the obtained t (60) = .069 to the critical t (2.00), the null hypothesis was retained and the results implied that there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups. Differentiating between long and short-term volunteers may give insight into the personal stress in volunteers’ lives before they are placed in disaster relief.

Volunteering and Stress

In the exploration to define different motives for volunteering, research has extended across the disciplines from social science psychology to organizational behavior. Fisher and Ackerman’s (1998) findings in these areas suggested reasons such as empathy-based altruism to the avoidance of stress and sadness. Finkelstein, Penner, and Brannick (2005) focused on these motives and suggested that volunteering satisfies individual inner needs by expressing values, acquiring new experiences, using newly acquired skills, strengthening society or gaining career advancement.

Volunteering in America is important for both individuals and society. Its importance to the individual can be for altruistic or personal reasons such as self-development, career advancement, or social behavior. On a macro level, its importance to society computes into non-market activities. Volunteers provide man-hours to profit and non-profit organizational programs that otherwise would not be available to a community or would have a greater cost attached to them (Fisher & Ackerman, 1998). Johnson, Beebe, Mortimer, and Snyder (1998) showed that volunteering can start as early as adolescence, and Willigen (2002) suggested that it may continue across an individual’s live course.

Volunteering can have a variety of meanings and Penner (2000) gave two more reasons why individuals may volunteer. The first is pro-social behavior and is demonstrated when a bystander who, on their own in an emergency, will engage in helping a stranger. The second is compulsory helping, which occurs most often when a close friend or family member is involved in an emergency and there is a sense of obligation on the part of the helper to intervene.

There is ample research to answer the question as to who are likely volunteers and why they engage in this kind of work. Penner (2002) stated that volunteering itself is useful, but there is a need for a clear definition that differentiates between individual volunteering (pro-social or compulsive) and extensive helping efforts. The purpose of this research is to study what effects stress has on individuals over different time periods in disaster relief.

Although Penner (2002) acknowledged that pro-social and compulsive activities are definitions of volunteering, he suggested that volunteerism is more closely aligned with the pro-social definition. It is defined as a long-term, planned, pro-social behavior that consists of non-obligated helping of strangers usually occurring through an organizational framework.

Stress can be defined as a process in which environmental demands strain an organism’s adaptive capabilities, resulting in both psychological as well as biological changes that could place a person at risk for illness (Cohen, Doyle, Skoner, Fireman, Gwaltney, & Newsom, 1995). A person’s adaptive capability is when the normal state of well-being, or homeostatic state, is disrupted (Houghton, 2006). Some sources of stress that would disrupt homeostatic balance include loss, worrying about an uncertain future, procrastination, disorganization, burn out/exhaustion, harassment, interpersonal demands, personality clashes among peers, work environment, school environment, high responsibility, and role conflict (Messina & Messina, 2005).

When people refer to victims of disasters, most people tend to think about residents of that locale or people with close ties to the devastated area. What is not so common, however, is to think of rescue and relief workers who volunteer.

Workers who are mobilized to help with disaster relief are exposed to a multitude of stressors and this stress could be due to the separation from family, helping emotionally disturbed people, or lack of adequate resources. The American Red Cross mental teams focus on the immediate emotional needs associated with the shock of a natural disaster, including the needs and reactions of both victims and volunteers, especially the latter (Armstrong, Lund, McWright, & Tichenor, 1995).

The American Red Cross recognized the desperate need for volunteers immediately following the New Orleans disaster. Olson (2000) stated that natural disaster can cause workers to display posttraumatic stress disorder. While assessing the well-being of volunteers it was found that “Many mental health staff members were flood victims themselves and were exhausted.” Mental health teams were created to focus on immediate needs of victims and volunteers alike (Olson, 2000).

Various studies have questioned whether volunteer time correlates with the amount of stress experienced. It would seem logical to assume that the longer one volunteers, the more stress one will feel. Elias (2005) stated, “Past experience with disasters shows that rescue workers may try to cope with heavy alcohol or drug use. They may suffer from stress months after their duty ends....”

North, Tivis, and McMillen’s (2002) research with rescue workers in the Oklahoma City bombing showed conflicting results. They stated, “On average, study participants indicated the disaster experience heightened their job satisfaction, possibly by allowing them to demonstrate their competency and provide services for which they were selected and trained.” According to North et al., previous studies support the claim that rescue workers make positive gains after a disaster. On the other hand, the workers were found “More symptomatic than unexposed comparison groups and even as symptomatic as direct victims” (North et al., 2002).

The amount of stress could also have to do with the type of situations that individual workers face. “Stress reactions such as insomnia and trouble concentrating ‘are magnified 100-fold’ in those who recover human remains and deal with children whose parents are nowhere in sight…” (Elias, 2005).

In this study, volunteerism is defined as long-term, planned, pro-social behavior, which consists of non-obligated helping of strangers, usually occurring through an organizational framework. Due to the research on the effect stress has on volunteers, it was hypothesized that long-term volunteers for disaster relief would experience significantly more stress than short-term volunteers.

Method

Participants

The targeted population for this study was long- and short-term volunteers in disaster relief working through a service organization based in Mississippi. These participants were male and female adults 18 years and older. A staff member of the organization selected forty long-term volunteers who had worked three weeks or more. Thirty-eight short-term volunteers, 18 years and older from a Christian liberal arts university in the Midwest, who had worked less than three weeks in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts were contacted by telephone and asked to participate in the study.

Measures

The first variable, gender, was nominal with two levels: long and short-term volunteers. The second variable, stress, was cardinal and was measured using the Impact of Event Scale-Revised (IES-R) (Devilly, 2004).

The IES-R, a self-report test that assessed the distress for a specific life event, was used for the study. It consisted of a scale with seven new items added to the original 15-item IES-R, making a total of 22 items. The new items were questions that identified, “hyperarousal symptoms such as anger and irritability; heightened startle response; difficulty concentrating; and hypervigilance…” (Devilly, 2004). Participants answered the items on the scale according to how they were feeling or what they were experiencing over seven days. The responses ranged from zero (not at all) to four (extremely). The IES-R was found to have a very high internal consistency. Alphas ranged from .79 to .92. Validity of the avoidance and intrusion subscales had high validity at 85% (See Appendix).

Procedure

We first contacted the service organization to obtain a staff member to assist in distributing the IES-R stress measurement survey. The staff member was then instructed to distribute the surveys to 40 long-term volunteers during one of the nightly debriefing meetings. A package containing the 40 surveys and instructions were sent via personal messenger. Included in the package were explicit directions for the staff member. The staff member then sent the completed surveys back to the researchers via express mail. In addition to postage reimbursement, the service organization also received a copy of the results and a thank-you letter. The thirty-eight short-term volunteers were personally administered the surveys. Each individual was contacted by phone, making arrangements for a time to meet individually. The surveys were then completed and collected. After all surveys were received, results were calculated.

Results

The mean scores of the two groups were compared by using a two-tailed t-test at an alpha level of .05. Long-term volunteers’ mean score was 15.10 and the standard deviation was 10.56; short-term volunteers’ mean score was 15.26 and the standard deviation was 7.65. When the obtained t (t (60) = .069) was compared to the critical t (t (60) = 2.00), the null hypothesis was retained. Therefore, there was no significant difference between the two groups.

Table 1. Volunteering and Stress

Type of Volunteer

IES-R
Score

Statistics

Long-term

Short-term

M

15.10

15.26

SD

10.56

7.65

Discussion

The null hypothesis was retained in this research and there was no significant difference found in the stress levels between long- and short-term volunteers. The magnitude of recent disasters occurring in the world today has presented a need for a substantial number of volunteers willing to work in extreme circumstances. The purpose of this study was to find what effects stress has on volunteers in circumstances caused by working in disaster relief.

Participants volunteered to help with Hurricane Katrina relief for a variety of reasons. Some may have been pro-social or compulsory helpers as defined by Penner (2000). Other volunteers were working through the framework of an organization as defined by Penner (2000), such as the American Red Cross and the current service organization. It was apparent in Olson’s (2000) study that some volunteers, namely American Red Cross Staff personnel, were flood victims themselves in the New Orleans disaster.

Other reasons for volunteering may have included career advancement, new experiences, and self-development, which were suggested by Finkelstein, Penner and Brannick (2005). In addition, Fisher and Ackerman (1998) cited avoidance of stress and sadness as reasons for some to volunteer. The service organization with whom we worked was a first-response organization. They arrived three days after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.

The Impact of Event Scale-Revised (IES-R) (Devilly, 2004) measured several components including current distress, hyperarousal, and intrusion, much like Messina and Messina (2005) and Cohen and colleagues (1995). Harvard University Health Services’ (2003) definition of stress included good and bad stress. The IES-R, however, did not differentiate between the two. The scale did correspond to Harvard’s definition of stress, which included a person’s response to the environment. Messina and Messina’s (2005) sources of stress, including loss, worrying about an uncertain future, procrastination, and work environment were also assessed by the IES-R.

According to Elias (2005), stress reactions such as insomnia and trouble concentrating “are magnified 100-fold” in those responders who recovered human remains and dealt with children whose parents are nowhere in sight, which would be what first responders would encounter. Ussery and Waters (2006) suggested that first responders are “those frontline professionals responsible for the safety and security of the public….”

This study conceptualized short-term volunteers as having worked in disaster relief three weeks or less and long-term volunteers as having worked in disaster relief for three weeks or more. The service organization proposed this length of time as their criterion in differentiating between long and short-term volunteers. The conceptualization of long-term and short-term volunteers could have had an impact on the results.

It is unclear how many long-term volunteers were “first-responders.” It is also possible that the long-term volunteers were self-selected, thus making them more proficient in handling stress than short-term volunteers. Therefore, those who were less capable of dealing with the stress dropped out of the organization soon after joining, leaving those well-suited to dealing with the long-term stress. Johnson et al. (1998) contacted first responders by surveys and reported that responders “suffered debilitating consequences of their work, including depression, drug use, and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Given that this study did not conceptualize the short-term volunteers as first responders, future research could make a comparison between first responders and long-term volunteers. This might yield different data on the effects stress plays in the lives of disaster volunteers. A longer time span between long and short- term volunteers may also create a more realistic view of the stress placed on each group relating to how long they actually work in the disaster relief and also to when they enter the actual disaster zone.

Moresky, Eliades, Bhimani, Bunney, and VanRooyen (2001) suggested that this research is important because of the growth of the humanitarian aid industry. As it continues to grow, standardized training programs for volunteers will become necessary to limit the number of inexperienced personnel in leadership roles during relief activities.

Messina and Messina (2005) suggested that the effects stress had on volunteers working in disaster relief were also affected by confounds. One is personal stress relating to situations outside the disaster event. In addition to this definition, the study takes into account the stressors that disrupt a person’s “normal state of well-being.” These stressors increase the impact on physical and emotional stress of the long and short-term volunteers.

A final issue in Elias’s (2005) study is that alcohol consumption for the long-term volunteers may have been a confounding variable. There were some reports that alcohol use occurred among the long-term volunteers. The short-term volunteers did not participate in any alcohol consumption while volunteering.

Research into the effect that stressors have on volunteers is important since more volunteers are participating in disaster relief. Differentiating between long- and short-term volunteers may give insight into the person stress in volunteers’ lives before they are put in disaster relief. This would help psychologists and volunteer service agencies better understand individuals and their needs as they plan standardized training programs in order to limit the number of inexperienced personnel in leadership roles during relief activities.

References

Armstrong, K. R., Lund., P. E., McWright, L.T., & Tichenor, V. (1995). Multiple stressor debriefing and the American Red Cross: The East Bay Hills fire experience. Social Work, 40(1), 83-90.

Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Fireman, P., Gwaltney, J. M., & Newsom, J. T. (1995). State and trait negative affectivity as predictors of objective and subjective symptoms of respiratory viral infections. Journal of Personality and SocialPsychology, 68, 159-169.

Devilly, G. J. (2004). Assessment Devices. Retrieved March 24, 2004, from Swinburne University, Clinical & Forensic Psychology Web site: http://www.swin.edu.au/victims/resources/assessment/asessment.html

Elias, M. (2005). Katrina weighs heavily on first responders. USA Today.

Finkelstein, M. A., Penner, L. A., & Brannick, M. T. (2005). Employment sector and volunteering. Sociological Quarterly, 47(1), 21-40.

Fisher, R. J., & Ackerman, D. (1998). The effects of recognition and group need on volunteerism: A social norm perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 25, 262-275.

Harvard University Health Services (2003). Stress Management. Retrieved February 16, 2006, from http://huhs.harvard.edu/HealthInformation/ CWHCWellnessInformationStressManagement.htm

Houghton Mifflin Co. (2006). Equilibrium. Retrieved April 20, 2006, from http://www.answers.com/main/ntquery?method=4&dsid=2066&dekey=equilibrium&curtab=2066_1&linktext=equilibrium#copyright

Johnson, M. K., Beebe, T., Mortimer, J. T., & Snyder, M. (1998). Volunteerism in Adolescence: A process perspective. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8(3), 309- 332.

Messina, J. J., & Messina C. M., (2005). Tools for coping with life’s stressors [On-line]. Available: http://www.coping.org/growth/stress.htm#training.

Moresky, R. T., Eliades, M. J., Bhimani, M. A., Bunney, E. B., & VanRooyen, M. J. (2001). Preparing international relief workers for health care in the field: An evaluation of organizational practices. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 16(4), 257-262.

North, C. S., Tivis, L., & McMillen, J. C. (2002). Coping, functioning, and adjustment of rescue workers after the Oklahoma City bombing. Journal of Traumatic Stress 15(3), 171-175.

Olson, R. P. (2000). A meaningful role for graduate students in disaster mental health services. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31(1), 101-103.

Penner, L. A., (2002). Dispositional and organizational influences on sustained volunteerism: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Social Issues, 58(3), 447- 467.

Ussery, W. J., & Waters, J. A. Brief treatment and crisis intervention advance access. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention 6(1), 66-78.

Willigen, M. V., (2002). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, 55(5), 308-319.


Appendix

The Impact of Event Scale-Revised and Instructions for Volunteers

Dear Participant,

Hello and thank you for participating in our study! The purpose of this study is to measure the effects that disaster relief has on volunteers. Your responses will be kept completely confidential, only being assessed by the three of us conducting the study. The survey below should only take a few minutes to complete. Indicate your responses by circling the number.

The Impact of Event Scale - Revised

Below is a list of difficulties people sometimes have after stressful life events. Please read each item, and then indicate how distressing each difficulty has been for you DURING THE PAST SEVEN DAYS with respect to Hurricane Katrina relief, how much were you distressed or bothered by these difficulties?

 

Not at all

A little bit

Moderately

Quite a bit

Extremely

Any reminder brought back feelings about it

0

1

2

3

4

I had trouble staying asleep

0

1

2

3

4

Other things kept making me think about it

0

1

2

3

4

I felt irritable and angry

0

1

2

3

4

I avoided letting myself get upset when I thought about it or was reminded of it

0

1

2

3

4

I thought about it when I didn’t mean to

0

1

2

3

4

I felt as if it hadn’t happened or wasn’t real

0

1

2

3

4

I stayed away from reminders about it

0

1

2

3

4

Pictures about it popped into my mind

0

1

2

3

4

I was jumpy and easily startled

0

1

2

3

4

I tried not to think about it

0

1

2

3

4

I was aware that I still had a lot of feelings about it, but I didn’t deal with them

0

1

2

3

4

My feelings about it were kind of numb

0

1

2

3

4

I found myself acting or feeling as though I was back at that time

0

1

2

3

4

I had trouble falling asleep

0

1

2

3

4

I had waves of strong feelings about it

0

1

2

3

4

I tried to remove it from my memory

0

1

2

3

4

I had trouble concentrating

0

1

2

3

4

Reminders of it caused me to have physical reactions, such as sweating, trouble breathing, nausea, or a pounding heart

0

1

2

3

4

I had dreams about it

0

1

2

3

4

I felt watchful or on-guard

0

1

2

3

4

I tried not to talk about it

0

1

2

3

4


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