Unlocking the proven power of volunteering will help get the UK back to health

Mark Lever profile picture

16 March 2022

Mark Lever
Chief Executive

The NHS has faced one of the most difficult periods in its history since the start of the pandemic. But a shining light has been the amazing contribution of volunteers, who have supported clinical staff by going above and beyond to help patients around the UK. As part of this, over 100,000 volunteers gave 2m hours of time to help ramp up the vaccination programme in 2021 – undoubtedly saving many more lives.

Now we need a change in mindset, so that volunteering is prioritised across all health and care settings, far beyond the vaccination effort. With incredibly hard-working staff and services being stretched to the limit, we must harness the support of trained volunteers to help the NHS combat huge challenges. Volunteers will help us all to recover faster from the immense challenges we face.

Working alongside medical staff, volunteers can provide additional support to make treatment more effective, efficient and personalised – or even reduce the need for it. There are a wide range of volunteer roles already available to tackle urgent concerns. For example:

  • Our research shows that volunteers can free up almost 30 minutes per nurse per day, and they can speed up patient discharge by 44 minutes. NHS staff consistently tell us that they value the contribution of volunteers – with 71% of nurses telling us that volunteer support helps them feel less stressed.

  • Volunteers can provide practical and emotional support to people on waiting lists, minimising anxiety and providing companionship to people who are concerned about their treatment. With 6 million people currently on waiting lists, and delays often meaning heightened patient worry and the need for more complex surgery, there is a huge opportunity for volunteers to help.

  • 40% of older adults suffer a debilitating fall within six months of discharge from hospital, putting major strain on individuals and services. Volunteers can help by keeping patients active as they settle back into their homes and communities, improving their strength and balance – and in turn reducing the likelihood of falls and readmission.

  • Volunteers can provide specific support for people moving people back into their own homes after receiving treatment from mental health services, helping them to feel more at ease and reassured.

  • Patients with volunteer support are more likely to recommend the hospital they received care in. And people supported by volunteers after their discharge from hospital report improved levels of social contact, confidence and happiness.

  • Helpforce has helped seven trusts to establish their end-of-life care volunteering services from 2019-2021. By July 2021, the programme supported at least 1,275 patients/families and carers. Volunteers at Watford General Hospital spend a few hours every week providing patients with support such as reading, holding hands and making sure they are comfortable.

But while there are some great examples of volunteers being used to improve outcomes for patients and staff, volunteering isn't being prioritised or properly integrated across anywhere near enough trusts or community settings – and this is a major missed opportunity. The volunteer response to the pandemic has already demonstrated that there is an extensive resource of skills in our communities. We cannot afford to squander that potential.

We need volunteering to be prioritised at the top table for every health and care organisation – so it is seen as an essential component of health and care, not a 'nice to have'. We need to ensure that there are high impact roles across the UK ready for volunteers to step into. And we must take a more joined up approach which integrates volunteers across trusts and community services, to ensure that volunteers can support people before they come to hospital and after they leave.

Helpforce's Back to Health campaign is a movement to use the power of volunteering to get support to many more people over the next three years. Partnering with health and care leaders across the UK, we will work together to create high-impact volunteering opportunities and design new volunteering roles to tackle urgent challenges.

Of course, tackling the myriad challenges the NHS faces needs multiple solutions – and resources are extremely stretched. But creating high impact volunteering roles doesn't have to be costly. A relatively small amount of investment in volunteer management and administration can make a big impact.

Volunteers improve outcomes for patients, staff and the system as a whole. If volunteers were a medical treatment, they would be hailed as a breakthrough. Prioritising volunteering will help us all to ensure the best possible future for our NHS.

For more information, visit https://helpforce.community/

About the author

Mark Lever profile picture

Mark Lever
Chief Executive

Mark Lever has been chief executive of Helpforce since 2019. He has an in depth understanding of health and social care and is determined to help increase the number of opportunities for volunteers across the NHS. In 2021, he was awarded an OBE for his services to volunteering. Mark was previously chief executive of the National Autistic Society for 10 years.