Voluntary Work: A Form of Resisting Stigma?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Uisce Jordan. Click here to read the article.

Men unable to work due to their mental health face a multitude of challenges. There is stigma related to both mental illness and welfare status, which can be experienced separately as well as intersect. In the UK, people with severe mental illnesses are the largest group claiming working-age sickness benefits and there are growing concerns this will rise as a consequence of covid-19. Here I report on findings from a psycho-social study which found that the men interviewed used voluntary work to counter stigma. Outlining the connections and purpose community engagement provides, ‘belonging’ is proposed as the antithesis of ‘othering’. 

Mental health has received increased government interest and attention has now turned to the role of stigma in limiting the opportunities of people experiencing mental illness. In this study there was widespread evidence of stigma being attached to the process of claiming benefits, especially where assessment is mandatory, including the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Assessments required people to self-disclose mental health problems to unfamiliar professionals which was experienced as intrusive and invalidating. Being required to emphasise the debilitating nature of your mental illness created personal conflict for some interviewees and was described as humiliating and isolating.

Many people rely on voluntary work to avoid isolation, foster positive social connections and resist stigma. Ten out of 17 men in this study were actively engaged in volunteering during the time of interview (three other participants had temporarily stopped). Voluntary work provided the opportunity to connect with people that understood potentially stigmatised characteristics which included their status as ‘mentally ill’ and ‘benefit claimant’. Some described a sense of camaraderie with peers who had shared similar experiences.

‘Othering’ has been increasingly identified in literature as a defensive strategy applied by people in poverty, whereby they emphasise the non-deservingness of the ‘other’ while defending their own entitlement to benefits. In this study ‘othering’ was absent in the narratives of those who volunteered which is, conceivably, consequential of both personal experience and exposure to marginalised people through volunteering. ‘Othering’ can lead to divisions in communities and create an atmosphere of distrust. The antithesis of ‘othering’ is belonging, which interviewees achieved through voluntary work and exposure to others with stigmatised characteristics.

For the men, volunteering encouraged and built upon their empathy with other groups who face stigma and oppression, creating solidarity. The men’s personal experience with isolation and difficulties with government welfare processes led to them expressing concerns for stigmatised groups, acknowledging that media portrayals can be contentious. They continuously provided examples of single mothers, people with substance misuse issues and people claiming asylum explaining that the process must be incredibly difficult for them. Rather than ‘othering’ the people they encounter, interviewees seemed keen to strengthen other people’s sense of belonging too; they countered ‘othering’ by extending community to ‘others’. 

In this study, the compassionate protection exhibited for other marginalised people supports the idea that proximity and personal experience of disadvantage reduces the likelihood of ‘othering’. Belonging is understood in a dual sense: firstly as men actively seeking it as volunteers and secondly extending it to others whilst in their voluntary role. Hence, belonging fosters the capacity and opportunity for benefit claimants to unify. Doing so they demonstrate the solidarity, social cohesion and force necessary to challenge government policy and rhetoric at a more everyday and interpersonal level rather than at a policy or explicitly political level. 

The increased government focus on paid work neglects the vital forms of unpaid work and contributions being made by benefit recipients. Engaging in voluntary work can be extremely beneficial to rebuild and strengthen social connections, however, there are limitations. Some found voluntary work was a way of being used for free labour and at times “quite a demoralising experience”. Both the policy drive for those on benefits to enter paid employment and voluntary work are not always beneficial or appropriate. 

Contrary to paid formal employment, interviewees emphasised the significance of the voluntary nature of their ‘work’ and rejected ‘voluntary’ work offered by the DWP. They referred to their chosen environments as a community, which gave them a sense of shared values, autonomy and ownership of their work. Further, as the men had made the decision to engage, they could withdraw when necessary, dependent on health and other commitments. Interviewees were not focused on making economic contributions to the labour market (despite pressure from the social security system) but the mutual value for their health and others. 

Unable to work due to their mental health, interviewees generated a new way of working, repurposing a space intended for capital accumulation and providing solidarity. Stigma has not worked as a deterrent to stop this group from claiming IRBs but it may begin to inhibit them from reaching out to their community in the future. Interviewees were increasingly nervous about voluntary work being used as evidence that they can fulfil the obligations of paid employment. Ultimately for the men in this study, drawing on their community, through voluntary work, can be seen as an act of resistance which helps to combat the multi-layered stigma and oppressions they faced. Everyday acts of connecting with others allow interviewees to undermine powerful and stigmatising narratives related to welfare claimants and people who experience mental illness. This article sheds new light through drawing attention to acts such as ‘belonging’ and ‘seeking purpose’ through volunteering, enriching our understanding of volunteering as a form of resistance to stigma. 


About the author

Uisce Jordan is a recent PhD graduate from Edge Hill University.

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