It’s Volunteers’ Week, and this year has seen more people volunteering to help the NHS than ever, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Community Engagement’s Valerie Breck tells us how they’ve helped NHS boards get the support they – and those volunteering for them – need.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Scotland, thousands of people stepped forward and volunteered to support the NHS.
This came from a really good place – a human desire to help those in need – but that overwhelming response left the small volunteer management teams in some NHS boards struggling to cope with the demand.
Who did they call for help? The Volunteering in NHS Scotland Programme, a team based within our new Community Engagement directorate, here at Healthcare Improvement Scotland.
The team consists of two people, Alan Bigham and Lisa Taylor, while I provide management support and oversight.
What do NHS Scotland volunteers do?
In normal times, more than 6,000 people volunteer across NHS Scotland, undertaking a wide variety of roles, from visiting, helping at mealtimes and supporting new mums with breast feeding, to driving people to and from appointments and taking time to listen to them.
No matter what they do, volunteers aim to improve the experience of people in a health and care setting – and they get a lot out of it too, as the case studies on our new Community Engagement website demonstrate.
Along came COVID-19
Since 2011, the team have been working to help NHS boards develop sustainable volunteering programmes; ensuring a safe, supportive and positive experience for the volunteers themselves.
“The success of the programme means it’s always busy. In 2019/20 the team fielded an average of 32 requests for volunteer development support each month. Suddenly, along came COVID-19 and the impact it had was incredible. In March 2020, 75 requests for volunteer development support were received.”
Working with Scottish Government, the National Group for Volunteering in NHSScotland, and local volunteering leads and managers, the team have developed a network of support which shares good practice, innovative ideas, and provides leadership and strategic direction.
The success of the programme means it’s always busy. In 2019/20 the team fielded an average of 32 requests for volunteer development support each month. Suddenly, along came COVID-19 and the impact it had was incredible. In March 2020, 75 requests for volunteer development support were received.
What happened next?
When the impact of COVID-19 became apparent in Scotland the team contacted each NHS board to establish what actions they had taken in their volunteering programmes.
We knew that many of the 6,000 NHS volunteers fell into the ‘at risk’ category, were volunteering in patient-facing roles and relied on public transport, so we had to act quickly to assess what actions health boards were taking to protect volunteers and their families.
Discovering a mix of approaches, we rapidly agreed a series of recommendations with the national group, including assessing those most at risk and reinforcing the need to update risk assessments. From this, all boards either stopped all or some of their volunteering activities or ‘stood down’ the most vulnerable volunteers.
We also planned and delivered a series of webinars to reduce duplication and spread good practice rapidly. The sessions included advice on how to identify volunteers at most risk and shared tools and guidance on managing volunteers in a pandemic.
Recognising that there remained a place for volunteering during the pandemic, we used the learnings from an ongoing improvement project to produce guidance to help speed up the volunteer recruitment process (typically 14 weeks on average) and reduce common delays.
Included in the suite of tools, recommendations and guidance was an online induction module, swiftly developed through a collaboration between NHS Education for Scotland and Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s wider Community Engagement teams.
Reinforcing good practice
Early on in the pandemic, volunteering took on a new perspective in the public eye, as the response to volunteer recruitment campaigns showed.
At the same time, there were suggestions that volunteers could be used in communities in a way that put them at risk; such as driving people to get tested for COVID-19.
Combined, these two things reinforced the need for close reference to the good practice the programme team promotes. Volunteer roles should be developed in partnership, using the Developing Volunteering Toolkit and Checklist. They should be risk-assessed and, perhaps most fundamentally, workforce gaps should be addressed through the recruitment of paid staff.
What happens now?
Some of the existing volunteers are finding new ways to support people and patients through internet, phone and letter writing. They continue to support the people they’ve been involved with – just in a different way.
Boards have developed individual roles for volunteers, such as delivering medicines, taking personal items from families to patients in non COVID-19 wards, and being runners for staff – picking things up from around the hospital and saving them time.
Alongside a reduced core programme (some things clearly had to be paused), Alan is advising Scottish Government on the proposed implementation of Emergency Volunteering Leave (part of the Coronavirus Act 2020) whilst Lisa has been fielding the majority of the advice and support calls.
The next priority is to adapt our planned volunteer engagement activity into something suitable for the socially distanced world we now live in. There remains a risk, perhaps even greater now with demands on volunteer managers, of volunteers feeling unsupported and becoming disengaged.
“Boards have developed individual roles for volunteers, such as delivering medicines, taking personal items from families to patients in non COVID-19 wards, and being runners for staff – picking things up from around the hospital and saving them time.”
Meanwhile, Alan and Lisa continue to keep the Volunteering in NHS Scotland Programme up and running – supporting boards to support thousands of volunteers across the country during one of the most challenging moments in our life time.
Valerie Breck is Engagement and Equalities Policy Manager with Healthcare Improvement Scotland – Community Engagement.