Volunteers can help to tackle NHS staff burnout

Mark Lever, CEO of Helpforce, explains how volunteers can be a helpful addition to the NHS workforce

The findings of NHS England’s latest annual staff survey are stark. Nearly three-quarters of NHS workers (73.6 per cent) said there aren’t enough staff at their organisation to do their job properly. Almost a fifth (17.3 per cent) said they will leave the NHS as soon as they find another job. Substantially less than half (42.9 per cent) said they’re able to meet all the conflicting demands on their time at work.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and a decade of cuts, the nation’s public sector health professionals are completely, and understandably, burnt out. With 124,000 vacant posts, including over 40,000 vacancies in nursing, and an unprecedented wave of industrial action over pay and conditions, morale is extremely low. The pressure on staff, however, remains unabated, with 7.2 million people waiting for routine operations at the last count.

Volunteers as a solution
Volunteers are one part of the solution to this huge problem. They can relieve the pressure on staff and give them some breathing space by providing non-clinical care to patients. At Helpforce – a charity that partners with health and care organisations to transform the delivery of volunteer services – our work on-the-ground proves that volunteers are hugely beneficial for both healthcare staff and their patients.
Our Back to Health campaign aims to help one million people obtain more support in hospitals, their communities and at home, with the help of volunteers. Through the campaign, volunteers have already supported just under 40,000 NHS staff and nearly 60,000 patients. Statistics from the campaign provide strong evidence that volunteers free up clinical staff’s time. In fact, our research shows that 79 per cent of the NHS staff involved in this campaign believe volunteers improve their working lives.

Variety of tasks
Volunteers can help at every stage of a patient’s health and care journey and therefore, can relieve pressure on frontline staff as a result.

They provide practical support at home to people on waiting lists through giving them check-in phone calls, sharing with them useful information to prepare for their treatment, so that their appointments at the hospital can go smoothly. In hospitals, they can do pharmacy runs, deliver lab samples, help patients to move wards or stock up PPE cupboards, all can help staff from leaving their posts so they can focus on their patients or have breaks. Our research shows that by carrying out these in-hospital tasks, volunteers could save staff significant amounts of time – up to 93 minutes per interaction. As a result, 94 per cent of staff agree that volunteers support them to feel less stressed when they’re busy.
Moreover, volunteers can also free up staff by helping patients with their meals and hydration needs. By ensuring they have enough food and water, they can help them recover more quickly. They are also able to offer companionship to patients who don’t have their own support network. By adding value to patients’ care in this way, volunteers help reassure clinical staff that patients and their families have the right support, giving them peace of mind. Meanwhile, they can focus on other priorities.  

Back to Health campaign
For the Back to Health campaign, Helpforce has partnered with 45 organisations to design innovative volunteering roles that not only make a big impact on patients, but also on staff. These include Emergency Department Response Volunteers, Falls Prevention Volunteers, Hand Holding Volunteers, Restraint Debrief Volunteers, Baby Clinic Volunteers, Dementia Volunteers and many others.
When it’s time for a hospital patient to go home, volunteers are especially useful. They can pick up people’s medication, help get them home and settle them back into their surroundings. Our research shows that their support speeds up the discharge process by 44 minutes. This undoubtedly eases pressure on staff.
Post-discharge, they can knit people into their community, by connecting them with local services, like physiotherapy or speech therapy. If patients receive support at home, they’re less likely to experience loneliness and social isolation, which could put them at greater risk of cognitive and physical decline. Emotional wellbeing is critical to physical recovery. Indeed, loneliness, in conjunction with living alone and poor social connections, is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also linked to heightened risk of hospital admission, which means volunteers can help patients to avoid being readmitted – once again reducing the pressure on NHS staff.  

Volunteer to career
Trained and experienced volunteers can also end up becoming NHS staff members, helping to fill vacancies and ease staff shortages. As a case in point, we run the Volunteer to Career programme, as part of our Back to Health campaign. It helps NHS recruitment and staffing levels by identifying pathways for volunteers to develop their careers in health and care. What makes the programme stand out is that the volunteers receive focussed support from workforce and clinical leads. They not only benefit from first-hand experience of working in the health and care environment – but also the right clinical, wellbeing and career support. Emerging results from the programme have shown that 73 per cent of volunteers who took part in the programme secured a paid job or accessed further education in health and care.
Clinical staff consistently tell us that they value volunteers’ contributions. As just one example, Muna Abdullahi, the lead pharmacy technician in Clinical Services & Operations Pharmacy Department at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, said, “We can’t thank the volunteers enough for everything they have and continue to do. I want them to know we value and appreciate them and consider them part of our team.”  

Positive feedback
After the successful implementation of the Response Volunteer service, Kristine Davies, head of Voluntary Services at the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, commented: “Within the first seven weeks of the service we can already see what an impact the Response Volunteers are having. We couldn’t have made this happen without the engagement from our clinical staff to help us to design the role and to train and support the volunteers. The staff are extremely grateful for the volunteers’ time and have felt that the volunteers have made a significant impact and are part of their team.”

Call to action
As NHS England’s staff survey attests, our public healthcare workers are at breaking point. While renowned for their high standards and compassionate care, the NHS’ professional health and social care teams are now stretched to their limits. Record staff shortages are a burden they are struggling to bear. Morale is declining. An alarming number of essential staff are considering leaving to find less stressful employment elsewhere. We must do everything we can to stop this happening. We need to turn this situation around.  
Healthcare staff’s stress and workloads could be eased by volunteer assistance, allowing them to focus on more urgent clinical care. In health and care, volunteering is a proven, yet massively underused, asset. Embedding volunteers into NHS services makes them more effective and resilient. And the will is there. As was demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, local communities are keen to support their NHS trusts. They want to help and many services stand to benefit.

What is stopping us from realising this potential?
We need the government, local authorities, health and care leaders, charities and community organisations to work together to put in place well-designed and properly managed volunteer initiatives. Only then will we unlock the huge potential of volunteers for people across the UK – and make a significant difference to reducing the incredible pressures on our NHS staff.