Community engagement is central to strategies to promote health and well-being and reduce health inequalities in many countries, particularly interventions which focus on improving health in disadvantaged populations. Despite the widespread use of community engagement approaches, however, there have been relatively few attempts to review the evidence on the impact that participation has on the lives of individuals involved. Drawing on a wider review of evidence carried out on behalf of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), this article reports on a rapid review of evidence of the effectiveness of initiatives which seek to engage communities in action to address the wider social determinants of health, to explore individuals' subjective experiences of engagement. The rapid review process was guided by NICE's public health methods manual, adapted to suit the diversity of the evidence. A total of 22 studies were identified containing empirical data on subjective experiences of community engagement for individuals. The findings of the rapid review suggest that the majority of 'engaged' individuals perceived benefits for their physical and psychological health, self-confidence, self-esteem, sense of personal empowerment and social relationships. Set against these positive outcomes, however, the evidence suggests that there are unintended negative consequences of community engagement for some individuals, which may pose a risk to well-being. These consequences included exhaustion and stress, as involvement drained participants' energy levels as well as time and financial resources. The physical demands of engagement were reported as particularly onerous by individuals with disabilities. Consultation fatigue and disappointment were negative consequences for some participants who had experienced successive waves of engagement initiatives. For some individuals, engagement may involve a process of negotiation between gains and losses. This complexity needs to be more widely recognised among those who seek to engage communities.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.