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Caring for and supporting volunteers


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    Helen Goldsmith

‘Unprecedented’ has very much been the buzz word for 2020 and while it certainly has been a year of firsts, there’s another word that has taken on even greater significance for me as a Samaritans’ branch director and that’s ‘wellbeing’. At Samaritans, our vision is that fewer people die by suicide and we are here – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – for anyone struggling to cope. As Samaritans works towards realising this vision during a global pandemic, our volunteer wellbeing has been paramount. We have prioritised both the immediate and the long-term wellbeing of our volunteers so that they can continue to support our vulnerable callers. But how have we gone about this?

Ensuring immediate wellbeing

  • Being safe and feeling safe. As an essential service, our volunteers need to feel comfortable coming into the branch to deliver our core service. This has meant adapting our premises to ensure that they are Covid secure and introducing social distancing measures such as new procedures for entering and leaving the branch.

  • Embracing virtual working. This was particularly challenging for new volunteers as our training course is designed to be very interactive and we discuss difficult issues such as supporting people who are suicidal. To do this in a safe and meaningful way online, we reduced the size of our training groups and have shorter but more frequent sessions. We introduced online breakout groups and our trainers now phone the trainees at regular intervals during the course to encourage constructive two-way feedback.

Ensuring long-term wellbeing

  • Adapting and innovating so we still connect and support each other. We’ve lost the soft everyday interactions we used to have over tea breaks, etc, so we’ve needed to build this human contact back in. I now use the phone much more when contacting volunteers and we’ve introduced a support system for our shielding volunteers. We have introduced regular online socials as a way of reaching out to all our volunteers.

  • Showing appreciation. Now more than ever we must let volunteers know how much we value them. It’s time to stop thinking it and begin saying it.

We have a long winter ahead and fatigue and lack of motivation may kick in. It’s essential we support the mental health of our volunteers and promote resilience. At Samaritans, we have a Volunteer Care Team on hand as a safe place for our volunteers to talk and we’ve recently had some resilience training from an external trainer. We’re also looking at other initiatives such as online ‘cake and chat’. But, as well as the challenges, we need to remember the opportunities presented this year. We’ve had to problem solve and work more closely together than ever before and we’re a stronger team for this – and we know as we work though the coming months that Samaritans has made a positive contribution in this time of national uncertainty, with our volunteers providing emotional support 1.2 million times during the first six months of the pandemic.

What could others learn from our experiences?

  • Much of life seems out of control at the minute, so take control where you can and be proactive about helping people to feel safer – we started contingency planning for winter back in August.

  • Embrace diversity. This is a new situation for us all. People are responding in different ways and that’s ok. Leaders need to hold these various views in tension when decision-making.

  • Structured, regular communication is essential. In times of uncertainty, knowing what to expect helps us to feel in control.

  • Small changes can have a big impact, eg, using pronouns like we/our/us in written communications creates a sense of togetherness and connection.

  • This is an exciting opportunity to adapt and innovate to make lasting change. Let’s grasp it.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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