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Bringing volunteers back to hospitals – blog by Mark Lever, CEO Helpforce

6th September 2020

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Volunteer managers in the NHS have told us that thousands of their volunteers who were asked to stay away from hospitals in March are still waiting to restart their roles. Some hospitals are reporting a reduction of 90 per cent across their services. Helpforce is now urging senior leaders in the NHS to work with us to address this shortfall.

Many trusts and volunteer managers are doing excellent work under difficult conditions, but without volunteers giving their time and skills, healthcare professionals have less time to focus on their jobs, and patients in hospitals are losing valuable companionship.

Vital role of volunteers

The emerging data and impact from our Helpforce NHS volunteer projects shines a light on the many ways that volunteers play a vital role in the smooth running of a hospital. From meeting and greeting patients, helping at mealtimes, to encouraging patients to take exercise, and helping with discharge volunteers play a key part in improving staff morale, whilst increasing productivity.

It isn’t just staff that benefit from volunteers. Hospitals are tough places at the best of times, and without volunteers patients lose out on vital human contact, and the comfort of having someone to sit with them to ease their anxiety and loneliness. Exciting new research, we are publishing later this year, includes new data showing how volunteers create better health outcomes for patients and communities, ensure the wellbeing of the healthcare workforce, play a key role in future proofing our health services, and build capacity in the workforce.

The wider benefits of volunteering, and giving back to the community, are particularly powerful in reducing feelings of isolation. Volunteering has a double benefit, improving the wellbeing both of those supported and the volunteers themselves. For many people, knowing that they are contributing to the NHS, improves their sense of self-worth.

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Volunteers create better health outcomes for patients and communities, ensure the well-being of the healthcare workforce, play a key role in future proofing health services, and build capacity in the workforce

Through the Helpforce “future of volunteering” project, we are working with volunteer managers to address the challenges they face in bringing volunteers back to hospitals. We are also helping them identify new roles to support staff and patients in these difficult times. Volunteer managers are increasingly worried that their dedicated volunteers will tire of waiting and find new volunteer roles. Our research shows that they are facing barriers on different fronts:

  • Delays in decision making at an executive level.
  • In a recent Helpforce survey, only 36 per cent of volunteer managers told us they have seen a positive shift in attitude from management teams and healthcare professionals towards volunteers.
  • An inconsistent approach to risk assessments which puts the brakes on volunteers returning

The strains on our health services are huge. As Niall Dickson says in the recent report from the NHS Confederation “The NHS after covid-19.”

“There are enormous challenges facing a system in which a significant proportion of staff are exhausted; which is facing an unprecedented backlog of treatment; and which is attempting to resume services with the spectre of further outbreaks and with restrictions around social distancing and infection control, which severely reduce productivity.”

This is why we are encouraging senior leaders at NHS trusts to include volunteer services in their plans to help face these challenges. With generous funding from the National Lottery Community Fund to support our work with volunteer managers, Helpforce is working with NHS trusts to strengthen their volunteer services and support the development and growth of covid-19 related volunteer activities to make a positive difference for patients, volunteers and NHS staff.

The evidence shows that when senior leaders do include volunteering in their planning there are big gains in productivity and patient care. The trusts are better placed to respond to the changes brought on by the pandemic with new volunteer roles and faster recruitment and on-boarding of volunteers.

They can bring most of the processes online or through telephone, such as interviews, references, and occupational health checks. This helps services get volunteers started within days, instead of months as was the norm pre-covid. Faster onboarding processes are strengthened by the growing power of local community groups, and better engagement with them through digital platforms which enables micro volunteering.

Innovative hospitals are working more closely with the voluntary sector, sustainability and transformation partnerships, and integrated care systems, putting volunteers in a better position to support patients across their pathway and with different organisations, especially in care homes or GP practices.

Examples of excellent practice include:

  • Salford Royal Foundation Trust – volunteer drivers and volunteer responders deliver medications and distribute personal protective equipment.
  • Northampton General Hospital – volunteers help patients to communicate with their loved ones via electronic devices and distribute donations.
  • East Sussex Healthcare Trust – volunteers act as Safety Station Champions helping with PPE and hand sanitising at entrances which is crucial to infection control.
  • Leeds Teaching University Hospitals Trust – volunteers support the bereavement service, writing cards to bereaved families who couldn’t be with their loved ones at the end, share their condolences and invite them to contact the trust’s specialist bereavement nurse to give them details of support and counselling.
  • West Hertfordshire Hospitals Trust – response volunteers help with a variety of tasks, such as refilling food and drinks supplies for staff, delivering letters to patients, distributing PPEs and donations.

The volunteer drivers and responder roles are particularly important in light of the recent Care Quality Commission inpatient survey which found that a majority of patients were positive about their hospital care but a significant minority experienced problems on discharge.

A third of respondents to the CQC survey, who were frail, said the care and support they expected when they left hospital was not available when they needed it. Three in 10 frail people said they had not had discussions with staff about the need for further health and social care services they might require post-discharge.

Professor Ted Baker, the chief inspector of hospitals, said: “This year’s results indicate that people are facing longer discharge delays and reveal continued concerns around the quality of information provided when they are ready to return home. It is particularly worrying that for people who self-report as being frail, the difficulties in accessing support after leaving hospital were even greater.”

Helpforce is developing a programme of work with the NHS, local authorities, the voluntary and charity sector to bring volunteers back so that they can play an integral part in the patient journey, we will be in a stronger position to face the challenges ahead.

Now is the time to look at ways volunteers can play a bigger role in providing high impact support. If married with a long-term commitment by NHS leaders to integrate volunteers into the patient pathway, we can look forward to more volunteers once again playing a supporting role in hospitals as well as in communities.

To find out how we can help you bring your volunteers back, email us on