Nursing Times Award Winner

Why must it be so hard to volunteer in your local hospital?

I can only imagine how demoralising it must be to take the trouble to ring your hospital's volunteer department, to freely offer your time and talents, and get an answerphone message telling you that the Trust is not accepting volunteers at the moment. I have listened to several messages that say just that, without any obvious enthusiasm or any effort to say that they would absolutely love you to leave your name and contact details so that they can get back to you, at the first possible opportunity, to follow up your generous offer.

Instead, the message often tells you to contact them again later in the year, or to look out for information on their website. I suspect that most people never ring again.

Why isn't there a policy for volunteer managers everywhere to contact everyone who takes the trouble to ring in? If they are too busy, it would be worth asking one of the existing volunteers if they could undertake this job. It would be so rewarding to constantly speak to enthusiastic local people who want to offer their time to help others. Thanking them for their kindness and taking a few notes about their areas of expertise or particular interest, would help create a fantastic database of information. It would also encourage that person to keep in touch.

Good communication should be key to the department. Buckets of enthusiasm and energy are also vital ingredients. Volunteering adds so much value to the quality of care of any hospital. Local people who offer to 'give back' can also gain so much from the experience. Often these are people who have been touched by something they have read, or seen or experienced and it is so important to maintain the momentum of that feeling.

These days there can be numerous checks that have to be done before a volunteer is considered to be 'safe' enough to be allowed near a patient. Interestingly, there is no consistency. Some hospitals require volunteers to complete several courses, others only one. Of course, I can see why it is so important that hospitals take care to ensure that everyone who volunteers has had the appropriate checks and has the patients' best interests at heart. But, must it involve several trips to the hospital when some can organise it in a day? These trips take time and cost money in petrol, car park fees etc.

And, so many volunteers feel demeaned by the process. It doesn't seem to matter what age, what experience or what what motivation you have, there is often a feeling conveyed that you are simply not good enough or worse, under suspicion, until those checks have been completed. Many people say that the application process makes them feel that they are guilty until proved innocent. Many take offence and a staggeringly high percentage do not complete that process. I don't blame them. They feel as if they have been snubbed.

It can also take so long and demand a significant amount of time. Induction days nearly always seem to take place during the day. Many people have full-time jobs and can't come. Yet, there is often no attempt to run them in the evenings or at weekends. I have queried this concept and been told it isn't convenient for the hospitals to run the courses outside normal working hours. What sort of message does that send? Surely these courses should be run at a time convenient to the volunteers.

And once you've completed the course, some hospitals don't offer people the chance to volunteer outside working hours. This eliminates a huge percentage of people who are keen to give something back to their local community when they are not at work.

When we first started Kissing it Better, my colleague and I visited the volunteer department at Aintree hospital under the management of Terry Owen and her amazing team. We were both immensely moved by how much the volunteers felt appreciated...all the time, and not simply at an annual recognition ceremony. The 800+ who were on their books at that time, and the staggering amount of hours they were contributing, were a testimony to the fact that those volunteers enjoyed their work so much they want to keep on coming.

I have met some wonderful volunteer managers across the Hospital Trusts where we operate. Some are more obviously valued by the senior management than others. Fear of litigation means that volunteer managers often work hard within rules that are sometimes quite suffocating. In short, some come across as almost agressive because they fear that if any potential volunteer hasn't understood every single rule and regulation, there might be repercussions for them and their department.

As I say all the time, there are too many rules, often poorly applied throughout hospitals. Often when someone asks why the rule exists, no one can find anyone who can answer the question. Sometimes, the way a rule is applied has become a bit of folklore. And, when challenged, the answer is usually that it is 'better to be safe than sorry' - easier to say 'no' to something. This attitude has a devastating effect on a potential volunteers and, if that volunteer is then discouraged from pursuing an application, it is a loss to the patients within that hospital.

Once again, the source of much of this angst comes, not from the hospital, but from further up the tree. In theory, targets, health and safety, safeguarding etc. are all rules designed to make things better for patients.

Poorly applied, they make things much worse.


Jill Fraser

Jill Fraser

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