Published: 03/06/2004, Volume II4, No. 5908 Page 23

Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, says Tim Higginson in national volunteering week

The NHS is our largest employer in local communities. In striving to understand the needs of those communities, the insights and skills many staff gain through work they do outside the NHS may be overlooked. Those who serve in the Volunteer Reserve Forces, help safeguard our communities as part-time firefighters or special constables, support our justice system as magistrates or our schools as governors work alongside a broad range of local people from varied backgrounds.

All these activities develop skills of value to the NHS. Their training is specific and rigorous and creates a sense of service and loyalty to colleagues and communities. Those who take up these challenges will be able to make decisions in difficult circumstances and be able to analyse complex information. NHS staff who fulfil these roles not only bring their other talents into the NHS but also take NHS experience to these activities, creating the variety and diversity so important to public service in modern Britain.

Because they work with a broad range of people, all have opportunities to tap into new sources of potential recruitment for the NHS. School governors, in particular, have the chance to influence young people about the range of careers in the NHS.

Bishop Auckland Hospital fertility services co-ordinator Eileen Graham, North Bristol Healthcare trust anaesthetist David Lockey, and Sandwell and West Birmingham trust recruitment co-ordinator Linda Randall are all officers in the Territorial Army. Their military experience gives them qualities they can use in the NHS: self-confidence, effective communication, leadership, team work and broad personal and professional horizons. For her part, North Hampshire Healthcare trust chief executive Mary Edwards values volunteers' skills and their ability to motivate others.

Alison Mackay, a health visitor at Spennymoor Health Centre, is also a magistrate in County Durham. She has a good knowledge of the community she serves and singles out the analytical and decision-making abilities she has acquired 'sitting on the bench'. This helps her support patients in making decisions about their care.

I am a governor of two schools in south London and would like to think I have contributed to both. I am clear about the benefits to me: I have a better understanding of communities in the area and have tested my leadership skills in an environment equally challenging but different from the NHS.

Most NHS employers provide time off for these activities in our special leave policies, but how many of us do so grudgingly, without thinking of the benefits to our staff, our organisations and our patients? It is time the skills and experiences staff acquire in community service of this sort were recognised in the knowledge and skills framework and given credit in personal development plans. The Department of Health is bringing together contacts and examples of best practice, but managers need to give a lead and respond to the challenge.

Tim Higginson is director of personnel at Guys and St Thomas' trust. Send him your experiences at tim. higginson@gstt. sthames. nhs. uk. Improving Working Lives: the value of supporting staff who volunteer. www. dh. gov. uk/assetRoot/04/08/18/70/04081870. pdf