Employment

I was a drunk and homeless at 19. Volunteering helped me get my life back

Some 74% of unemployed people who try volunteering feel more employable afterward, a Pro Bono Economics study suggests

Volunteering can help jobseekers into work, research shows. Credit: Royal Volunteer Society

When Anita Bhattacharjee was a teenager, she felt “on the edge of society.”

The Hull local had joined a Merchant Navy college at 16 – but three years later, she was thrown out for drinking. The teenager was stuck in a “cycle” of homelessness and alcoholism – with seemingly no way out.

“It felt like I had shifted away from society, I was on the edge,” the now-50 year old recalls.

“I couldn’t imagine ever working, or having any discipline. Even if I had the skills and qualifications, I couldn’t even think about committing to work, because I didn’t know how reliable I would be. I thought, ‘What if I drink tomorrow?’

Three decades on, she’s had a successful career – boasting roles such as a learning mentor for asylum seekers and a pastoral lead in schools. It all started with the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS).

“Volunteering can be the best way to just make a start on getting a life back,” she says.

New research supports this claim. Some 74% of unemployed people who try volunteering feel more employable afterward, a Pro Bono Economics study released on 15 March suggests.

More than two thirds (68%) of people who are currently unemployed would be interested in supported volunteering opportunities that help boost their skills, confidence and wellbeing to prepare them to find work. This rises to 74% of those aged 18-24.

People have an “appetite” for work, says Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of the RVS – and volunteering is a great place to start.

“Volunteering is a very effective means to improve confidence and skills and show commitment to an organisation, helping both employed and unemployed people boost their employability and prospects,” she said.

More than half (59%) of adults who are currently not in work would like to be, but barriers such as ill-health (39%) loss of confidence (33%) and a lack of experience (21%) are holding them back. 

Anita understands these barriers first hand. At 22, she knew “It was time to step back into the world” but  “felt completely unemployable.”

“I explained to an [RVS] coordinator that I had no skills and nothing to bring to the party, but I was looking for a meaningful way to occupy myself,” she says. “She was great and offered me a role as a runner on the meals on wheels service, but I was so scared of being put on a rota. It felt like too much responsibility.”

“We agreed that I wouldn’t be put on the rota, but instead I was happy to be rang as and when I was needed. I ended up doing around two shifts a week this way, every week for almost a year.”

Anita loved it. After a year, the then-23 year old felt confident enough to enrol in college. After leaving college, she went to university to study social anthropology and graduated with a first – a success she attributes to the skills she learnt volunteering.

“[Volunteering] showed me the world was a colourful place again,” she says. “It was all because of RVS.”

Volunteering is good for the economy, too. The report estimates productivity gains worth at least £4.6bn each year, or £4,551 per volunteer in professional and managerial occupations.

Roughly 25 million people volunteered in England and Wales throughout 2021/22, the report estimates.

“Millions of volunteers give their time to support important causes and their communities,” Johnstone said. “Often completing many hours of unpaid service each year, volunteers are the lifeblood of our society, but also a vital contributor to the economy.”

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