Burden experienced by community health volunteers in Taiwan: a survey
© Gau et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 21 December 2012
Accepted: 16 May 2013
Published: 21 May 2013
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© Gau et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 21 December 2012
Accepted: 16 May 2013
Published: 21 May 2013
Volunteers in Taiwan complement the delivery of health services by paid health professionals. However, in doing so, community health volunteers experience burdens associated with their activities. The reasons for these burdens and degree to which they are experienced are explored in this paper. Our study adds to international research regarding the burden experienced by volunteers. This project is the first to assess how community health volunteers in Taiwan experience burden.
The 20 item Burden on Community Health Volunteer (BCHV) instrument, specifically designed for this project, was administered to 435 volunteers attached to Community Health Promotion Development Centres in northern Taiwan.
The overall burden experienced by volunteers is relatively low. However, a multivariate adjusted regression analysis revealed significant differences in volunteer burden depending on the number of people each volunteer served on average per week, as well as the volunteer’s marital status and their perceptions about personal health. Volunteers who served many people and who perceived their own health as poor experienced a higher level of burden. Those who were a widow or a widower felt less burdened than others.
The results of the study identify areas where burden is high and where strategies can be developed to reduce the level of burden experienced by community health volunteers in Taiwan. Community health volunteers in Taiwan complement the role of nurses and other health care providers so their retention is important to ongoing service delivery.
Community health volunteers (CHVs) in Taiwan assist with the delivery of health promotion and monitoring activities across the community, contributing significantly to the health workforce and service delivery. As unpaid workers, their role is extremely important to the ongoing delivery of community care to a rapidly aging population in Taiwan [1, 2]. Volunteers are also used effectively to supplement the health workforce in many other countries [3–6] and, given the current constraints on health service delivery in many developed countries, offer a potential solution to health staff shortages. Currently, however, little is known about the burden experienced by these volunteers while carrying out their role, especially those undertaking this role in Taiwan. This paper presents the results of a study that measured the burden experienced by a sample of CHVs in northern Taiwan.
In Taiwan, approximately 300 Community Health Promotion Development Centres (CHPDCs) in cities and communities contribute to the healthy community-development programme funded by the national Department of Health . The volunteers of each CHPDC are educated to assist residents by delivering health promotion and health monitoring activities. The CHVs are important to the delivery of health services because they help to diffuse health promotion in their local community and complement the paid workforce in the area of health monitoring [7–10]. In particular, their role includes working with people with a disability, the elderly, and women and children. Community health volunteers are also expected to visit families for the purpose of monitoring health. For example, they provide blood pressure measurement for older community residents, and conduct health behaviour change programs such as cessation of smoking and betel nut chewing .
To become a CHV, a person must be nominated by the leader of a local community association and attend a volunteer training course. After completing the course, volunteer duties are determined by the leader of the centre. The CHVs, like other community health workers, are expected to maintain and promote the health of the community . In Taiwan there are three levels of CHVs. The ‘fundamental’ volunteers are the newest volunteers, those who have just begun in the role. ‘Cadre’ level volunteers are more experienced and capable. ‘Leaders’ are the most experienced volunteers; all volunteers undertake health promotion activities in the community while the ‘leaders’ also oversee the work of other volunteers. Volunteer services are overseen by the head of the CHPDC (known as the Chief). All ‘Chiefs’ are volunteers for the program. Some are also chiefs of a neighbourhood or a village. Chiefs are in charge of the community health promotion development program, they work with other volunteers and leaders in the community, organise volunteer teams, and plan how to use the minimal funding received from the Government or community for health promotion activities.
Burden, an accepted component of burnout, can be avoided or ameliorated if detected early. Most research on volunteer burden to date has focused on the burden experienced by family care givers in the community, especially of the elderly with dementia. It has been suggested that non-family volunteers are affected by the same type of negative impacts, or burdens, as for example, those experienced by family carer givers [12–14]. However, previous research on burden experienced by community health volunteers in countries other than Taiwan identified the following: work related to the physical and emotional nature of the role, the time taken to undertake the activity, insufficient emotional support from family, other volunteers, community health nurses and residents, lack of instrumental support, poor communication skills, lack of cooperation and lack of confidence [15–17].
The objective of this study was to examine the burden experienced by community health volunteers in Taiwan.
A cross-sectional survey was undertaken in 2010.
The number of volunteers in each CHPDC varied between 20 and 50. The inclusion criteria were: (a) aged 20 years or older (the legal age of consent in Taiwan is 20); (b) volunteered for at least 3 months in the community health field in any type of CHPDC; and, (c) were involved in the delivery of health promotion activities to residents in the community. The number of total possible participants was 450. Fifteen responses were eliminated because of age limitations (n = 7) or due to surveys without a contact phone number that prevented the researcher from following up incomplete item responses (n = 8). Therefore, the final sample consisted of 435 volunteers (response rate = 97%) between the ages of 20 and 88; 229 (52.6%) from community based CHPDCs, 49 (11.3%) from public health CHPDCs, and 157 (36.1%) from hospital based CHPDCs. Figure 1 outlines the sampling of CHPDCs.
The demographic characteristic and information relating to the community health volunteer position of the survey participants (N = 435)
% Female participants
84.3% (n = 366)
Mean age (±SD)* [years]
% Highest level of education
Elementary school or less
34.1% (n = 145)
Junior high school
26.1% (n = 111)
Senior high school
26.4% (n = 112)
College, university, or postgraduate
13.4% (n = 57)
48.7% (n = 206)
31.9% (n = 135)
19.4% (n = 82)
% Language (multiple answers possible)
92.6% (n = 389)
80.2% (n = 337)
30.2% (n = 127)
3.1% (n = 13)
% Current occupation
31.1% (n = 129)
51.1% (n = 212)
7.7% (n = 32)
10.1% (n = 42)
81.0% (n = 341)
% With enough or sufficient economic resources
94.3% (n = 390)
% Current condition of health compared to people of similar age
16.1% (n = 69)
45.6% (n = 195)
35.5% (n = 152)
2.6% (n = 11)
0.2% (n = 1)
Mean years lived in this community (±SD)
% County of residence
36.8% (n = 160)
50.6% (n = 220)
12.6% (n = 55)
% Serving a village rather than a city
51.0% (n = 222)
Median years (IQR)** spent working as a community health volunteer
4 (2.0, 6.3)
Median hours per week (IQR) volunteering
6.0 (4.0, 8.0)
Median number of people (IQR) serviced per week
30 (16, 60)
52.6% (n = 229)
Public Health Centre based
11.3% (n = 49)
36.1% (n = 157)
% Volunteering job
52.2% (n = 210)
17.7% (n = 71)
15.7% (n = 63)
Chief (oversees volunteer services)
14.4% (n = 58)
% Time committed to other volunteering services
38.9% (n = 167)
25.9% (n = 111)
hree or more services
20.7% (n = 89)
Median years spent in all other voluntary services except community health promotion (IQR)
5 (3, 8)
Median total time in years spent in voluntary service (IQR)
8 (4.5, 14)
% Planning to stay on as a community health promotion volunteer
0.3% (n = 1)
0.5% (n = 2)
4.1% (n = 16)
54.6% (n = 214)
40.6% (n = 159)
The burden characteristics of the survey participants (N = 435) measured by the BCHV tool*
1. I feel the low participation by the community residents in planned healthcare activities impacts on my role.
2. I feel I lack support from members of the community residents in carrying out my role
3. Misunderstanding by the community residents about the health service availability affects my role.
4. I feel the presence of fraudulent groups in Taiwan makes my role as a health care volunteer more difficult.
5. I feel the adaptation courses provided for volunteers did not adequately help me to conduct my role.
6. I feel the lack of volunteers makes my role more difficult.
7. I feel the benefits for volunteers are inadequate.
8. I feel my role is affected by missing or broken equipment.
9. I feel the difficulty associated with completing the required paper work impacts on my role.
10. I feel the frequent change of supervising strategies of the health government impacts on my role.
11. I feel that I have too many community activities to conduct to be effective.
12. I feel the courses provided for volunteers did not adequately prepare me for the health problems I manage.
13. I find it difficult to communicate among some of the community residents, such as immigrant residents, and this makes my role harder.
14. I am unclear about the expectations of my role.
15. I feel lack of communication and/or interaction with other volunteers makes my role more difficult.
16. I feel that the dangers associated with the health services and home care impact on my role.
17. I feel physically exhausted due to my volunteer role.
18. I feel the lack support of my family makes my role more difficult.
19. I feel it is difficult to arrange health schedules during holidays.
20. Overall, I feel the burdens associated with the volunteer’s role are heavy.
Overall mean sum of burdens
Overall mean of single burdens
The BCHV was tested for reliability and validity with CHVs in Taiwan. The internal consistency of the instrument satisfied the minimum recommended level of reliability for Cronbach’s coefficient alpha (0.823) with Cronbach’s alphas for test and re-test of 0.82 and 0.77 respectively (Gau, Buettner, Usher & Stewart, 2012). The content validity index (CVI) was 0.86.
Ethical approvals to conduct the study were sought and received from the University Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) and the committee of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of Chang Gung Medical Foundation in Taiwan. All participants in the study were voluntary.
All data were entered into the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences [SPSS] (IBM SPSS version 18, Chicago, Illinois) for Windows. Descriptive statistics such as percentages, mean values, standard deviations and median values were calculated to describe the sample. This was followed by inferential statistics using Chi-square tests, and analysis of variance or the non-parametric Kruskal-Wallis test to determine whether the burden differed between the three groups of volunteers. Multivariate linear regression analysis was used to determine factors associated with the overall sum of the burden as the dependent variable.
Demographic characteristics of the 435 participants who completed the study are described in Table 1. Most volunteers were female (84.3%), with a mean age of 59.1 ± 10.8 years, 39.8% had senior high school education or higher, 61.7% reported feeling “well” or “very well” considering their current health compared with people of a similar age, and 94.3% reported having “sufficient” or “enough” current economic resources.
The percentage of participants serving in the city and in village regions was almost the same (49% and 51%), and the median number of years working as a CHV was 4 years (Inter-quartile range [IQR] = 2.0, 6.3). The median number of hours per week spent volunteering was 6.0 (IQR = 4.0, 8.0), and the median number of people serviced per week was 30 (IQR = 16, 60).
As shown in Table 2, the mean score for the work burden of the CHVs was 45.6 (Standard deviation [SD] ±11.5). The overall mean score per question was 2.28 (SD ±0.58), which indicated that the majority of participants experienced burden from ‘seldom to sometimes’. The top four burdens experienced were: item 1; “I feel the low participation by the community residents in planned healthcare activities impacts on my role” (mean 3.01; SD ±0.98); item 6; “I feel the lack of volunteers makes my role more difficult” (mean 2.86; SD ±1.18); item 4; “I feel the presence of fraudulent groups in Taiwan makes my role as a community health volunteer more difficult” (mean 2.71; SD ±1.20); and, item 9; “I feel the difficulty associated with completing the required paper work impacts on my role” (mean 2.62; SD ±1.15).
Factors influencing burden of volunteer work in Taiwan (n = 310)
Associates of the sum of all burdens
Service in rural area (compared to service in the urban area)
P < 0.001
Service 60 people or more per week (compared to servicing less people)
P < 0.001
Service hours per week
3 to 11.9 hours per week
P = 0.014
12 hours or more per week
P = 0.017
Work in Health Promotion Development Centre hospital based (compared to community or public health centre based)
P = 0.009
Time spent as a community health volunteer* (number of years)
P = 0.002
Total time spent in voluntary service overall** (number of years)
P = 0.005
Being a widow or widower (compared to being single, unmarried, married, or divorced)
P = 0.026
Health status in comparison to someone of similar age being average, not well or really unwell (compared to well and very well)
P = 0.003
R2 =0.303 F(11,298) = 11.803 (p < 0.001)
Results of the linear regression analysis demonstrated that volunteers who served more than 60 people per week felt greater burden compared with people who served fewer people per week (β =10.030, p < 0.001). The sum of burden of participants who served 60 or more people per week was expected to be about 10.030 units higher then participants who served fewer people. Volunteers who served in a rural area felt on average less burdened than volunteers who served in an urban area (β = −8.084, p < 0.001) and volunteers who were a widow or widower felt less burdened than volunteers with another marital status (β = −4.056, p = 0.026). In addition, volunteers who perceived their own health as poor felt more burdened than those who perceived their health as good (β =3.449, p = 0.003). Moreover, the more hours a volunteer served per week, the higher the burden experienced. Volunteers who worked in a hospital based CHPDC experienced on average a higher level of burden than volunteers who worked in community or public health centre based CHPDCs (β =3.514, p = 0.009). The influence of the type of volunteer position on the sum of burden was not statistically significant in multivariate analysis: cadre (p = 0.814), leader (p = 0.378) and chief (p = 0.753) [compared to fundamental volunteers].
The study examined the relationships between a series of demographic variables and the role-related burden experienced by CHVs in Taiwan. CHVs complement the health workforce, and particularly assist paid community health workers. Understanding their level of role-related burden and finding ways to overcome it so that they continue volunteering in the future is critical as attrition from the volunteer role is high. The level of burden identified in the study was relatively low, which may be related to the rewarding social interactions associated with the role, the feelings of being useful to others, and the approval of volunteer work by society [18–20]. It is also possible that the volunteers with a higher level of burden than those who participated in the study had already left the service. In addition, those who participated in the study might not have felt as burdened by their role as those who did not participate, leading to an underestimation of burden. The results, however, indicate that those who are female, middle-aged, married and with a high school level education dominate the sample. This is consistent with other similar studies of volunteers [6, 21, 22] that found volunteers tended to be predominantly female, aged between 50 and 69 years, with a high school level education, and married. Other studies have found that ability to undertake volunteer activities depends upon the number and age of children, parents’ ages, marital status, employment status, and the nature of the volunteer work [23–25]. Furthermore, according to statistics from the Taiwan Ministry of Interior , the percentage of volunteers over the age of 65 years has risen from 8.81% in 2001 to 14.05% in 2010, indicating that healthy older persons in Taiwan are volunteering at higher rates than ever before.
Most prior research on CHVs has been undertaken using a qualitative approach and has therefore not attempted to measure the degree of difficulty that volunteers experience as they carry out their role. The results of this study reveal that CHVs in Taiwan experience a relatively low level of burden, similar to the results obtained by Murayama at el . Volunteers give their time freely with the expectation of benefit to the local community [24, 27]. However, the low participation by the community residents in planned healthcare activities, the presence of fraudulent groups in Taiwan (people involved in criminal activity who try to gain entry to homes for fraudulent purposes) that cause community members to be suspicious of newcomers including community health volunteers, and misunderstanding by the community residents about the health service availability, resulted in burden for the volunteers. Burden was also experienced because of insufficient numbers of volunteers available to carry out the required activities and individual volunteers having large numbers of people to serve. Previous studies have reported similar results [15, 28, 29].
Interestingly, the study found that those who perceived their current health condition as good (97.8%) experienced less role-related burden. A study by Erlinghagen and Hank  found a strong relationship between health status and the rate of engagement in voluntary work, with much lower activity rates among those who perceived their current health status as ‘fair or worse’ (0. 6%) than those who reported ‘good or better’ health (12%). Wilson  claims that volunteering is not only able to improve one’s health, but also is able to preserve good health and keep healthy volunteers healthy.
The present research adds to the current knowledge base by enhancing understanding of burden experienced by volunteers from different facilities: community, hospital and public health centres. The burden experienced was statistically significant between groups, with hospital based volunteers experiencing higher levels of burden than the community or public health centre based CHVs, when adjusted for the confounding effects of age and employment status. One explanation for these differing levels of burden may be that volunteers at hospital based centres serve clients who seek medical support from broader regions around the hospital and may not be local residents. The clients may also have more serious health issues. Our findings also reveal that volunteers who served in a rural area experienced a lower level of burden than volunteers who served in an urban area. This finding is in direct contrast to the finding of Freeman at el. , who found that rural volunteers had high levels of attrition due to high levels of burden and difficulty in meeting continuing education requirements. The difference between the study contexts and different sampling techniques may account for the disparity. However, as large numbers of people live in urban areas, it could be argued that there is a greater demand for health promotion and monitoring activity in urban areas.
Most studies of community volunteers argue that when volunteers experience greater satisfaction and perceive more relative benefits from their role, they are likely to remain actively involved for longer periods of time [16, 32, 33]. Unfortunately, this study shows that the longer a person has volunteered overall the more s/he felt burdened. This result may indicate that more experienced volunteers are expected to take on more responsibility, manage more people, and oversee the work of other volunteers, which may increase their level of burden.
This study had several limitations in relation to methodological and sampling issues. First, the study sample was drawn only from community health services in the Northern regions of Taiwan. CHVs in other areas may have different results. In addition, the demographics section did not ask the volunteers about the number and ages of their children, and the age of their parents. Further, the design was cross-sectional rather than longitudinal, so it only offers a snapshot in time that does not allow causative conclusions to be drawn. In addition, because volunteers who had left the service were not interviewed, survivor bias could be present.
CHVs have an important role that adds significantly to the health workforce and provides many services that would otherwise be unavailable because of funding cutbacks. In this study, 435 participants completed the BCHV questionnaire. The overall mean of the volunteer burden was low on average. However, several items of the BCHV revealed areas of higher burden that need to be addressed in the future to prevent further attrition of community volunteers. The results of the multivariate adjusted regression analysis revealed significant differences in overall volunteer burden depending on the number of people served on average per week, marital status, and whether or not volunteers worked as health promotion volunteers. Volunteers who served many hours, and who perceived their own health as not good, felt more burdened than other volunteers.
Community Health Promotion Development Centre
Community Health Volunteers
Content Validity Index
Human Research Ethics Committee
Institutional Review Board
The authors would like to thank Dr Liz Tynan who assisted with the final revision of the manuscript. In addition, the authors would like to recognise the contribution of the staff and volunteers at the Community Health Promotion Development Centres in north Taiwan. The study received financial assistance from James Cook University, Australia.
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