Shilpa Ross on new research that shows how volunteers take the pressure off frontline staff and provide an additional human touch to patients

The recent campaign run by the Daily Mail to get readers to sign up as volunteers in the NHS with Helpforce has polarised views. Some believe volunteering offers a great opportunity for people to “give something back” to the NHS, whereas others believe the government should be doing more to boost staff numbers on the frontline instead of relying on the goodwill of people who aren’t paid.

Workforce shortages are now a greater threat to health services than funding pressures. To be clear, volunteers cannot fill the gaps by substituting for paid members of staff. But “an extra pair of hands” can provide valuable support and free up time for staff on the frontline – and help meet the social, emotional and practical needs of patients.

Interest in the role of NHS volunteers has grown in recent years, and volunteering alongside other forms of social action, is expected to feature in the NHS long-term plan due to be published this month. As The King’s Fund’s previous research has shown, volunteers make an important contribution to people’s experiences of care – offering an additional “human touch” that can be challenging for hard pressed staff to provide.

A survey

To build on what we have already learned about volunteering, we recently undertook some new research – commissioned by Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce – to understand what frontline staff think about working with volunteers in hospitals. Almost 300 members of staff completed our survey – the first time frontline staff have been surveyed about their views on volunteering – and 20 people took part in interviews to offer more detailed information about their perceptions and experiences.

Staff emphasised that volunteers’ contributions should be in addition to the care and treatment they are trained and paid to do and not instead of it

Given the huge operational and workforce challenges facing acute hospitals, it is not surprising that the doctors, nurses and support staff we spoke to said they feel they are under a great deal of pressure and there is little time left for the things that are not strictly clinical (but no less important), such as providing comfort and reassurance or simply making conversation to help pass the time.

In the main, staff described how volunteers help “take the pressure off” and free up staff time to focus on clinical care 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.

Our survey shows frontline staff think the main contribution made by volunteers in hospitals is bringing human kindness into busy hospital life (58 per cent), followed by increasing patient satisfaction by providing vital non-medical support on wards (39 per cent). Volunteers can help make hospital stays or visits a better experience by offering social and practical support and reducing the amount of time patients have to wait for refreshments and information.

Staff emphasised that volunteers’ contributions should be in addition to the care and treatment they are trained and paid to do and not instead of it. More than 80 per cent of nurses or midwives report they enjoy working with volunteers “all of the time”, indicating relationships between staff and volunteers are mainly positive.

Room for improvement

There is room for improvement, however; nearly half of survey respondents feel there is a lack of clarity about volunteers’ roles and three quarters think better knowledge about roles would strengthen the impact of volunteering. 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.

Doing more to support volunteers is a win win and is something that deserves more of leaders’ attention

Just like paid members of staff, retaining volunteers is important for NHS trusts. Volunteers are not contractually obliged to turn up to their shifts, so what can senior NHS managers do to make the best use of the volunteers’ time?

Best practice is already outlined in NHS England’s guidance on recruiting and managing volunteers. Whilst this guidance is primarily aimed at frontline staff and managers, 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.

Our report recommends that all acute trusts put in place a formal and adequately resourced volunteering strategy that aligns volunteering with the trusts’ ways of working and holds board members to account for delivering it. Trusts should empower and train staff to have supportive working relationships with volunteers and ensure clear lines of communication are in place between volunteer and frontline staff teams.

Board and senior managers also have an important role to play in ensuring volunteers are recognised for the unique contribution they make and thanked for their gift of time.

If the growing interest in volunteers in hospitals is to translate to practical success on the ground, it is vital that boards listen to staff and take volunteering seriously. Doing more to support volunteers is a win win and is something that deserves more of leaders’ attention.