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Volunteers in NHS hospitals: developing the infrastructure to support them is a win-win


It’s not news to say that volunteers make an invaluable contribution to the NHS. Our latest work exploring the role of volunteers in hospitals reinforces this, but also highlights why there is still work to be done to increase support for volunteering.

Recent initiatives to increase the number of volunteers in hospitals sit against a backdrop of well-documented pressures on the current NHS workforce which are affecting the quality of care patients receive. Time is a resource staff are constantly short of, and it is a central part of the contribution volunteers make to the NHS. As someone new to the world of health volunteering, I was therefore surprised at how little existing research had focused on the views of the members of staff working alongside volunteers.

Previous work by the King’s Fund found that at least 78,000 volunteers give their time regularly to England’s acute hospitals – likely an underestimate. For our latest report we asked NHS hospital staff to tell us about their experiences working with volunteers via an online survey and interviewed 20 people working in a variety of frontline roles across England.

Staff clearly value the role volunteers play in hospitals. Non-clinical tasks can take nurses and other staff away from their work on the wards, and a nurse told us about the ‘little things’ that get missed when the ward is short-staffed, like having a chat with patients or making them a cup of tea. Volunteers provide ‘an extra pair of hands’ to pick up these kinds of tasks – things as simple but important as delivering medicines from the pharmacy or keeping a patient company. A doctor told me about how the pastoral care volunteers provide on his ward boosts the morale of medical staff and enables them to focus on their clinical work.

In these ways, volunteers free up staff time to provide the clinical and specialised tasks only they can carry out. This enables staff to maximise the efficiency of their work, with more spent time on tasks at the ‘top of their license’ – working at the top of their game to deliver high quality care.

'It's really nice to have someone there to focus just on the patient, rather than focus on the clinical aspects of the patient. It's really important. They also take the pressure off frontline staff and allow us to go back to the values of the NHS.'

Infrastructure support staff, large acute trust, Midlands and East of England

We need to be mindful, however, of the limitations of volunteering. While volunteering might help to reduce pressures on staff, there is a risk that this could tip into volunteers doing the work of paid staff. Staff we spoke to were not worried about volunteers replacing their roles but were more concerned about their services becoming dependent on volunteers who are not obligated in the same way as paid staff. Staff also had different views about the roles volunteers might get involved in. Some were keen for volunteers to take on more patient care such as feeding patients, while others were concerned about volunteers getting involved in tasks they don’t have suitable expertise for.

The context plays a role here – such as the level of support different patients might need and the training a volunteer receives. Perhaps the most important part is that in any particular setting, both staff and volunteers are clear about the support it is appropriate and safe for a volunteer to provide. However, the main challenge staff highlighted in our research was a lack of clarity around volunteer roles. Despite recent guidance on managing volunteers published by NHS England, there is clearly still work to do embedding this in hospitals.

This guidance is also aimed primarily at frontline staff and managers. However, if volunteers are intended to play an increasing role in the NHS, trust level leadership also needs to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support staff working with volunteers. This means formal strategies as well as the resources to back them up.

Our report clearly shows the value volunteers can bring to staff and patients in hospitals. Doing more to support them is a win-win and is something that deserves more of leaders’ attention.