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“Covid-19 reminds me why I do what I do”

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7th September 2020

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Written by Sarah Rogers, Volunteer Service Manager at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

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We took the decision to stand down our volunteers on the 17th March, six days before the Government announced lockdown measures. It wasn’t easy, but we knew we had to act fast and decisively to protect the safety of our patients, staff, and volunteers.

However, within a month, we brought some volunteers back as the Trust realised that we needed their support for vulnerable patients, who were heavily affected by social isolation. With visiting suspended we recognised that our patients and their loved ones were struggling and it could have a lasting impact on our patients’ recovery journey. Therefore, with the wider Patient Experience team we explored ways volunteers could step in to help.

New opportunities

Through discussions with various teams within the Trust, such as Patient Experience, Estates and Facilities, Bereavement teams and our charity Leeds Cares, we came up with a variety of new initiatives that could be delivered or support by volunteers.

It was agreed that volunteers could support by delivering letters from patients’ loved ones, distributing ipads and ipods to the wards so patients could have video calls with their friends and families, and setting up a drive though property collection service for bereaved families. Volunteers also helped the Charity team to distribute donated items to staff, such as foods and drinks, to help boost staff health and wellbeing.

To run these initiatives, we needed a central area to coordinate volunteering activities. After hearing about the Volunteer Hub at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust through one of Helpforce’s live chat sessions, I was inspired. Although I wasn’t sure if we could do it, I suggested it to the Trust and it was agreed that we would be given space to have two Volunteering Hubs at two of our largest hospital sites. This was a game changer as we had places to centrally coordinate activities for volunteers, and they could always come back after finishing a task and take a break.

Keeping our volunteers safe was a priority. Using the hub helped us check in with them frequently so they could share concerns and feedback. We kept our numbers low, maintaining a low footfall around the hospitals and avoiding all clinical areas. We took advice from our Infection Prevention Team and ensured PPE was available. Volunteers also had access to testing, thankfully all of our volunteers have remained healthy whilst volunteering with us. Our volunteers have always been able to access psychological support the same as staff but we really tried to make sure that anyone who might want this was encouraged to.

There is one activity that I hope we will carry on – volunteers writing cards for bereaved families who lost a loved one since March. Inside the card, volunteers share their condolences with the family, invite them to contact our specialist bereavement nurse and provided them details of where they can get support and counselling if they needed. We received lots of positive feedback for this initiative as families felt grateful that someone took their time to write to them and show them kindness at these difficult times in their lives.

What enabled us to respond as we did as is Better Impact, a volunteer management system that we purchased last year, thanks to the support of Helpforce. When we first had the software, we weren’t confident we would fully utilise all of its features and our times scales for rolling it out to volunteers was Autumn 2020, but this pandemic has really shown us how technology can help us work more efficiently. It allowed our volunteers to pick any shifts that they wanted. They could clock in and clock off, which enabled us to record how many hours they gave. This is up to 1,590 hours, carried out by 31 volunteers! Most importantly, we used Better Impact to communicate with all of our volunteers and keep them up-to-date with changes across the Trust. Better Impact also allowed us to fast track our recruitment process as we were able to do ID check and DBS checks online. Recently, we carried out an evaluation exercise and realised that before Covid-19, on average it would take 108 days for volunteers to start, whereas now, it only takes 17 days. That’s a huge difference!

New approach to volunteering management

Although Covid-19 has put an important project on hold (with Helpforce and RVS) that sees volunteers support patients with mobility, nutrition and hydration, we have been able to use the principles from that project for our current initiatives such as asking: “What difference do volunteers’ activities make to patients and staff? How do we know a difference has been made? How do we capture the data to show that we meet our objectives?”

We have used these questions to monitor the wider impact of our volunteers. So far, 1,900 letters have been delivered by volunteers and more than 500 cards have been sent to the deceased patients’ families. The figures not only boosted our morale, but helped us raise our profile within our Trust. We have started receiving interest from different teams and people have approached us to ask for volunteers’ help. However, we refrained from saying ‘yes’ to all requests as we wanted to ensure volunteers’ support would make a real difference to patients and staff.

This approach has changed my view on the importance of demonstrating the impact of volunteer led initiatives and enables me to design and organise projects successfully and sustainably.

Bonding with our volunteers

Before Covid-19 happened, I felt I was very distant to our volunteers as the location of our office meant I was physically removed and had very little connection with them. However, in our response to Covid, I had the opportunity to spend more time with them at the hubs, share jokes with them and get to know them better.

I saw how important volunteering is to our volunteers. It plays a big part in their life and it is an important way for them to show their commitment to their local community. Our team enables them to do this, and makes sure they are enjoying their roles. More than ever, I am enjoying my job and the new challenges. I feel satisfied that I have done my best and feel very lucky to support our volunteers in the job I have.

Reflections and looking ahead

It would be wrong to say that the experience has been easy. From the beginning, not only I, but the whole team felt very anxious and for a while we were in limbo.

I also felt a huge responsibility to make sure our volunteers were well looked after during this critical period. I’m grateful that I was able to get help with this by attending webinars and online events organised by the Helpforce Network and the invaluable support I received from Helpforce’s regional lead for the North, Roz Tinlin. Having discussions with colleagues from different Trusts, I realised we were not alone in this journey and that help was always at hand.

The months ahead won’t be rosy as we all are preparing for the possibility of a second wave of the outbreak and winter pressures, but I’m confident that with all the hard work that we are doing and the help available to us, we will be able to weather the storm.