Blog: A new look at volunteering after the pandemic

Sally Dyson, Voluntary Services Manager and East Anglian Hub Chair for the National Association of Voluntary Services Managers (NAVSM) talks about the impact of the pandemic on volunteering and responding to the challenges of Covid-19.

Our service is exceptionally busy with hardly a minute to think and we’re always on the go.  We like to think that we’re innovative and have set up some really excellent services with volunteers active in every corner of the hospitals, meeting and greeting, collecting patient feedback, engaging with older people and patients with dementia, providing holistic end of life care, helping in ED and supporting those being discharged… all of which we’re very proud.

However, the pandemic gave us a slight pause and an opportunity to rethink what we deliver. It has enabled us to think about how we can rebuild volunteering around the patient – what would make the biggest difference to their experience in hospital and after they leave us?

When I think about it, the need for change had been building for a while with younger volunteers wanting a totally different approach to volunteering.  Our ‘baby boomer’ generation of volunteers were prepared to commit large chunks of their time and turn up on a weekly basis, probably much like the working lives they had left when they retired.  Now we are recruiting younger people with a different approach which is a trend reflected in the workplace as well.

In normal times we have over 600 volunteers and juggling all the recruitment, training and new service development keeps us very busy.

Suddenly, the pandemic brought us to an abrupt halt with the majority of our volunteers unable to continue with their normal roles.  Our older cohort of volunteers were at higher risk from Covid-19 and the hospital was minimising the number of people on site to limit infections.

Under the circumstances, we had to suspend most of our activities and you would imagine people would understand why, but that would be to under-estimate the sheer drive and determination of our volunteer workforce who really wanted to carry on helping us.  As soon as our service was paused, they were approaching other community organisations.  Even a pandemic was not enough to prevent them getting out there and helping others.

We maintained a core of around 35 volunteers throughout the pandemic, predominantly made up of our drivers who were helping to deliver medication to the community and chemotherapy to our relocated cancer services at the Spire Hospital.

There were also innovations during the first wave, with recently retired nurses helping to support at mealtimes and with end of life care, replacing some of our usual volunteer activity.  The Trust also introduced local fire fighters who helped with mask fitting for clinical staff and an influx of working age volunteers which gave a new perspective.  In the second wave, our vaccination centre delivered over 60,000 jabs with the help of a whole range of people, local authority staff, retired NHS staff and others.  It really showed us what we could do in a crisis.

Managing everyone’s expectations in the pandemic was very difficult and it felt like a very long time before we could start to bring volunteers back on site in the summer.  Of course, everything had changed and we had to retrain everyone about the rules for infection control, mask wearing and one-way systems.

Sadly, a number of our volunteers have decided to call it a day and enjoy their much deserved retirement and this was to be expected.  We spent many hours supporting those volunteers who were finding it difficult to cope with the lock downs.  Volunteering was the activity that gave them a reason to leave the house and meet others and without that social contact, many have lost the confidence to return.

Having said that, some of our older volunteers have become a real whizz with new technology through participating in our digital coffee mornings and quiz sessions and this has enabled us to create new digital virtual roles which volunteers can carry out in the safety of their own homes. Roles such as collecting patient experience or making welfare calls to newly discharged patients will provide valuable feedback and safety netting information.

Looking at the positives, the pandemic has really put volunteering in healthcare on the radar for lots of new people and there is also enhanced recognition from our staff that volunteers have been able to add real value to the workplace. This is a great opportunity for us to grow and I feel we need to grab it with both hands.

Moving forward, we are planning a more patient centred holistic model of service, aimed at making their stay more comfortable and helping them to think ahead of their needs post discharge. During their stay volunteers will offer a whole range of services from bedside companionship, reading aloud, iPad activities, hand massage, a visit from a PAT dog or support from our chaplaincy volunteers, then we’re aiming to follow the patient’s journey home, expanding our driver and settle in service to provide enhanced volunteer discharge support. Volunteers can drive a patient home, unpack bags, make a cup of tea, do some shopping and follow up with welfare calls which can identify any community signposting needs.

It’s been a hard year but we’re ready to meet the next challenge with a new and improved Volunteer Service – watch this space!