Volunteers reduce pressure on frontline NHS staff

Volunteers in hospitals play a vital role in improving the experience of patients and relieving pressure on frontline staff, according to a new report from The King’s Fund. 

The report, commissioned by Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce, is based on a survey of nearly 300 hospital staff in England including nurses, doctors and support staff – the first time that NHS frontline staff have been surveyed for their views about volunteers.  

It finds very strong support for volunteering among frontline staff, who report that hospital volunteers provide vital practical help such as picking up medicines and doing tea rounds, as well as companionship, comfort and support to patients – ‘bringing human kindness to a busy ward’. This frees up time for pressurised frontline staff to prioritise clinical care, improving staff experience as well as the patient’s experience of care. 

Key survey findings include:  

90 per cent of staff believe volunteering adds a lot of value for patients and 74 per cent said they also add value for staff  

a third of respondents said volunteers provide essential reassurance and company to patients 

almost  one in three frontline staff felt volunteers free up their time to focus on clinical care   Volunteers reduce pressure on frontline NHS staff, report finds  

82 per cent nurses stated they enjoy working with volunteers   

a high proportion of frontline staff interact with volunteers regularly – half had done so in the past week. 

The report follows the recent announcement of a partnership between Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce to explore how to scale up the number of volunteers in the NHS to ease pressure points. 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.  

The authors also identify a number of challenges hospital staff face when working with volunteers, the biggest of which is a lack of clarity regarding the boundaries between the roles of staff and volunteers. Some staff raised concerns about the potential to rely on volunteers too much in services that are increasingly under pressure. Staff also felt volunteers would have more impact if they themselves were provided with better training and better knowledge of the role of volunteers. 

The report makes a number of recommendations to NHS trust leaders to help them maximise the impact of volunteers in their hospitals, particularly those at board level with a strategic responsibility for decisions about volunteering. It calls for all NHS acute hospital trusts to have an adequately resourced volunteering strategy and to ensure frontline staff are trained and empowered to develop supportive working relationships with volunteers.  

Richard Murray, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund said: ‘Despite the growing focus being placed on the value of volunteering in NHS hospitals, we still have much to learn about how frontline staff feel about volunteers. Understanding this is critical if the welcome step-change in health policy and support for volunteering is to translate to practical success on the ground. We found that frontline staff clearly appreciate the human kindness volunteers bring into busy hospital life, provided they are not being used as a substitute for paid staff. We encourage NHS bosses to sit up and take note of the critical role their staff say volunteers play in enhancing patient experience.’ 

Catherine Johnstone CBE, Chief Executive of Royal Voluntary Service said: ‘Our volunteers have been gifting their time to support the NHS since the very beginning. We know the difference they make, from improving patient experience to allowing more time for doctors and nurses to concentrate on clinical care. But the perceptions of frontline NHS staff on the issue have, to date, been largely overlooked. The report highlights both opportunities and challenges, which we need to embrace and tackle if we want to successfully scale up voluntary service in hospitals. Supporting Trusts to develop effective volunteering strategies, providing greater clarity around the role volunteers can and should play, providing the right training to help volunteers perform those roles and developing bespoke service offerings to get more volunteers on to wards, are all areas where we can add significant value.’ 

Sir Tom Hughes-Hallett, founder of Helpforce said: ‘This is a very important report from The King's Fund. The findings show what we have long suspected, that staff in hospitals find great value in having teams of trained volunteers ready to support them in a greater number of roles. As the needs of our ageing population grow, and the NHS is asked to provide more care for more people, it is vital that NHS leaders take the role of volunteers seriously, invest in them, and integrate them into the heart of their organisations. I hope this report will galvanise the executive level support necessary to create a step-change in volunteering in our NHS.’ 

Anna Chadwick, Lead Dementia Nurse at Mid Cheshire Hospitals, which manages Leighton Hospital said: ‘The support Royal Voluntary Service offers people on the wards of our hospital is greatly valued by all involved - staff, families but most importantly patients in our care. The impact of volunteers giving their time to offer meaningful support to people who are unwell and often lonely and frightened, is immeasurable. The hospital environment can be overwhelming and a friendly face and chat can make the world of difference to a person’s experience. More recently, some of the volunteers have undertaken additional training to assist with supporting people at meals times and also to use the Reminiscence Interactive Therapy Activity (RITA) unit with people on the wards who might benefit. Staff too greatly value the input that Royal Voluntary Service volunteers provide which further improves care and outcomes. They regard them as an important part of the ward team and miss their presence when they are not there. Family members who have met volunteers have also given positive feedback about the difference their input has made to their loved one.’