Published: 03/02/2005, Volume II4, No. 5941 Page 36

Volunteers tend to still have a bit of an image problem, sometimes being ridiculed as interfering busybodies. The government designated 2005 as Year of the Volunteer in the hope of laying such stereotypes to rest.

Health secretary John Reid has thrown himself behind the campaign, using a speech last November to criticise 'preconceived notions of [volunteers] as tea ladies and blue-rinsed fundraisers'.

During January, the Year of the Volunteer focused on the untapped benefits volunteering could bring for the NHS and the physical and mental health of the volunteers.

A 1991 study credited volunteers at 270 GP surgeries with cutting the prescriptions bill by around 30 per cent and hospital appointments by 35 per cent.

That would be a£6bn saving on the nation's drugs bill if applied across the NHS as community service volunteers - one of the groups co-ordinating the year's activities - pointed out.

Although half the population already participate in some form of voluntary activity, CSV and its partner organisations claim that 11 million more are ready and willing. CSV's executive director Dame Elizabeth Hoodless says: 'They could lengthen and strengthen our services in many ways. And almost 50 per cent of volunteers report that it improves their physical health and fitness. Research shows that volunteering helps to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels.' The organisations also claim that volunteering can help solve NHS recruitment difficulties - by introducing potential new recruits and improving retention rates. Research on the latter is patchy, but the organisation points to a 2003 study of British Gas call centre employees which did find a positive link.

CSV argues that both employers and employees can benefit if staff are encouraged to do something positive, such as helping a child improve their reading skills. This is more rewarding, not to mention more dignified, than traditional 'team-building' away days.

Dame Elizabeth said: 'Employers have a critical role: offering employees the chance to volunteer improves skills and reduces staff turnover. What are now needed are many more flexible opportunities. The key is to ensure the public sector opens its doors.' She was speaking against the background of a report published to mark the special year's 'health month'.

Published by the National Association of Hospital and Community Friends, the report urges NHS managers to recognise the benefits that volunteers offer.

NAHCF chief executive David Wood would like to see volunteers made to feel part of the team: 'If managers integrate training opportunities for paid staff and volunteers, and consider their personal development alongside employees we can improve volunteer retention and the subsequent recruitment of former volunteers.' Helen Caton Hughes, who wrote the report, adds: 'Patients, other service users and carers will often speak more freely to a volunteer. They want to be seen as more than just their symptoms and they appreciate the informality of the volunteer culture. Volunteers help create a calm environment and free up healthcare professionals to focus more fully on their duties.

'Volunteering is also a way for people to extend their skills, developing the healthcare professionals of tomorrow.'

To find out more, go to www. csv. org. uk/campaigns

'I was never his advocate, just his friend'

Kirsty Brant, nurse with West London mental health trust Kirsty, a general nurse in London, signed up with the CSV Allies project five years ago. The scheme matches independent visitors with young people in the care system.

Kirsty was asked to become the 'ally' of Altin, a 15-year-old Albanian asylum seeker.

'I am a general trained nurse but I wanted to work in mental health and the best way to go about this was to volunteer. Some 'allies' of young asylum seekers became really involved in their cases but my relationship with Altin was less heavy.

'I was never his advocate, just his friend.

He didn't speak about his background; I think it was just important for him to have a person take an interest in him who wasn't paid to be there.' Having watched Altin grow into a confident 20-year-old, Kirsty still sends Christmas and birthday cards.

A key motivation for Kirsty was gaining useful experience for working in a mental health environment. Although she has not become a registered mental health nurse, she is now working in the field.

'I now work in adolescent mental health and getting to know a young person who had gone through the trauma of being separated from his family taught me a lot.'

It is better to give

The health benefits of volunteering:

47 per cent of volunteers claimed volunteering improved their physical health and fitness.

48 per cent said they felt less depressed.

52 per cent of volunteers aged over 65 said they felt less stressed.

A quarter of regular volunteers say the activity helped them lose weight.

Source: ICM poll of 600 adults who volunteer

Commissioned by CSV