Making the most of volunteering in hospitals

Shilpa Ross profile picture

20 December 2018

Shilpa Ross
Senior researcher
The King's Fund


There is growing interest in how volunteering can play a part in helping both patients and staff at the 'front line' of care. Volunteering is expected to feature in the forthcoming long-term plan for the NHS, highlighting how staff, patients and volunteers can benefit from volunteering initiatives that are well coordinated. 

Previous research by The King's Fund has shown volunteers can help shape people's experiences of care – for the better, often by offering time that paid staff can be hard-pressed to do. More recently, The King's Fund has published some more research – commissioned by Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce – this time seeking to understand what frontline staff think about volunteering in hospitals. The report was published just after the launch of a major campaign run by Helpforce and the Daily Mail newspaper (and backed by NHS Providers and numerous British celebrities) to boost the numbers of people volunteering their time to make a range of contributions to the NHS. At the last count, more than 23,600 readers had signed up to be part of the Helpforce 'army', pledging over 1 million hours of help and support between them.

Volunteering is expected to feature in the forthcoming long-term plan for the NHS, highlighting how staff, patients and volunteers can benefit from volunteering initiatives that are well coordinated.

Shilpa Ross    Senior researcher

Notably the Daily Mail campaign appeared to divide public and policy opinion, with some agreeing that volunteering offers a great opportunity for people to 'give something back' to the NHS, whereas others feel 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. To be clear, The King's Fund and others argue strongly that current NHS workforce shortages are at a critical level and should be addressed as a matter of urgency. However, it is also important to get insight into what it is like for staff at the moment – and whether they think volunteers make a contribution or not. Taking staff views into account can help NHS trusts make the best of the time that volunteers are willing to give.

To be clear, The King's Fund and others argue strongly that current NHS workforce shortages are at a critical level and should be addressed as a matter of urgency. However, it is also important to get insight into what it is like for staff at the moment – and whether they think volunteers make a contribution or not.

Shilpa Ross    Senior researcher

Almost 300 members of staff completed our survey and 20 people took part in interviews to offer more detailed information about their perceptions and experiences. Nurses, support staff and doctors are feeling the pressure created by the significant operational and workforce challenges that face acute hospitals. This means there is little time left for staff to undertake certain aspects of care that are not strictly clinical (but no less important), such as simply making conversation with patients to provide some distraction and 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.

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.

Shilpa Ross    Senior researcher

Our survey shows frontline staff think the main contribution made by volunteers in hospitals is bringing human kindness into busy hospital life (58%), followed by increasing patient satisfaction by providing vital non-medical support on wards (39%). Volunteers can help improve patients' experience of visiting or staying in hospital by offering social and practical support and reducing the amount of time spent waiting for refreshments or 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% of nurses or midwives report they enjoy working with volunteers 'all of the time', indicating relationships between staff and volunteers are mainly positive.

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% of nurses or midwives report they enjoy working with volunteers 'all of the time'.

Shilpa Ross    Senior researcher

The research has given us a good sense of how much frontline staff value the contribution of volunteers in hospitals and how it can be positive experience. NHS managers can play a key role in making the most of volunteer-staff relationships in hospitals by paying attention to the main concerns and suggestions staff have about working with volunteers: 

 

  • The main challenge is a lack of clarity regarding role boundaries between the roles of staff and volunteers 
  • The impact of volunteers could be strengthened through having better information about the role of volunteers and how to access their support 
  • Better training and greater joined-up working between staff and volunteers could also help make volunteering more impactful 
  • Valuing volunteers' contributions can help with the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

Our report sets out key recommendations for NHS trust managers, whilst NHS England's guidance on recruiting and managing volunteers sets out what best practice looks like.

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.

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Shilpa Ross profile picture

Shilpa Ross
Senior researcher

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