Volunteers are a vital part of the NHS’ past, present and future

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Mark Lever, Chief Executive, Helpforce, discusses the importance of volunteers throughout the NHS’ history and for its future

The NHS, one of the nation’s most loved and most important institutions, turns 73 today. While the past year has been one of the most challenging in its history, a shining light has been the amazing work of NHS staff and volunteers, who have gone above and beyond to support patients around the country.

The anniversary of the NHS is a good moment to consider what will help the service continue to provide outstanding care to patients, and how to support its brilliant workforce – both right now and in the future. Indeed, now is a good time to reflect on its genesis and remember one of the principles that underpinned its creation. One of the central principles of the Beveridge Report, which led to the creation of the NHS and the wider welfare state, is that the state “should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual”.

This room and encouragement for voluntary action is a powerful reminder of how important trained and committed volunteers are to enhancing the impact of NHS services. With NHS staff and resources under immense pressure just to deliver the core medical treatment people desperately need, volunteers can provide crucial additional support to patients and staff. When volunteers are built into the design of primary care from the beginning, they can be transformative.

Yet despite significant public interest in volunteering and its proven positive outcomes, volunteers are still an untapped resource across many health and care settings and roles. A survey we conducted with over 100 NHS trusts in March this year, for example, showed that 44% of respondents felt their senior leaders had a low understanding of the impact of volunteers. This has to change, and fast, so that more patients, staff, communities and volunteers can reap the benefits.

One of the most enjoyable parts of my role is visiting the many projects that Helpforce is supporting across the NHS and seeing first-hand the huge impact that volunteers are having for patients and staff. Whether it be accompanying patients from home to hospital, providing reassurance during surgery, helping frail patients to eat during mealtimes or taking time to settle people back at home following a hospital stay – the part that volunteers play alongside staff is inspiring.

Volunteering health benefits

Volunteering has proven benefits for patients, health and social care services, the volunteers themselves and the community as whole. 91% of patients supported by a volunteer say it improves their mood, while 78% say that volunteers helped to reduce their anxiety. When volunteers support patient mobility, patients are less likely to be re-referred to physiotherapy. And 71% of nurses say that volunteer support helps them feel less stressed.(1) Volunteers can help support hard-working staff and ensure that patient care is as personalised and effective as possible.

Making full use of volunteers in hospitals and other patient settings helps to strengthen the bonds between those institutions and the communities they serve. People supported by volunteers after their discharge from hospital report improved levels of social contact, confidence and happiness. For the volunteers themselves, it can give a sense of real purpose and belonging – with many people telling us that it gives them a meaningful role in their area.

Of course, tackling the challenges the NHS faces needs multiple solutions – and NHS budgets 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. Research shows an average return on investment in volunteering of at least 11 times the actual cost. Achieving the full benefits of volunteering across England will involve leadership, commitment and investment in recruiting, training and mobilising volunteers – but these are limited costs with huge returns.

The ingredients for change are in place. The NHS Long Term Plan has already committed to double the number of volunteers in the NHS by 2030 – and the pandemic has catalysed people’s desire to help others. There is a huge pool of people who stand ready to volunteer.

Our treasured health service faces both the immediate recovery from the Covid crisis and longer-term considerations around its future. We must ensure that volunteers are front of mind for all healthcare leaders, as part of providing the best possible present and future for our NHS.



(1) Volunteering Innovators Programme Insight and Impact work, November 2020


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