As the risks associated with growing labour market deregulation and flexibilisation are increasingly shifted towards individuals, an increasing number of people are likely to experience unemployment, which can result in declining mental health and well-being. This paper asks whether voluntary work can reduce the negative effects of unemployment on well-being. Drawing on Latent Deprivation Theory, the Agency Restriction Approach and Beck’s vision of civil labour in multi-activity society, this article also examines the extent to which voluntary work and the unemployment benefits of countries can compensate for the loss in manifest and latent benefits associated with paid work and thus improve unemployed individuals’ well-being and mental health.

Using multilevel data from the European Quality of Life Survey for unemployed individuals in 29 European countries and various external sources, this study finds that in countries with more generous unemployment benefits, all unemployed people, regardless of whether they volunteer, have better mental health, and more happiness, life satisfaction, and life fulfilment. We also found that unemployed people who volunteer more regularly have better mental health in countries with higher unemployment benefits, compared to unemployed people who do the same level of volunteering in countries with a lower level of unemployment benefits; and unemployed people who volunteer frequently report that their life is more worthwhile than the unemployed who do not volunteer. Our findings also suggest that regular volunteering in a country with low unemployment benefits (the proportion of net income in work that is maintained after job loss) can actually be detrimental for mental health.

The main conclusion is that although voluntary work constitutes an alternative source of activity and identity which gives people a feeling that their lives are worthwhile, the generosity of unemployment benefits is vital for maintaining good mental health and high levels of well-being during unemployment. These findings indicate that Beck’s vision of civil labour in multi-activity society can only be beneficial for public health if voluntary work is combined with generous welfare benefits.