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The role of volunteers in the NHS Views from the front line: Views from the front line

Authors: Shilpa Ross, Deborah Fenney, Deborah Ward and David Buck

Interest in developing the role of volunteering in hospitals is increasing, however the perceptions of frontline staff on the issue have been largely overlooked. This research has been commissioned by Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce and seeks to address this gap. The research was undertaken independently by The King’s Fund and explores the views of staff who interact with volunteers in hospitals through an online survey and interviews, as well as a non-systematic literature review.

The key intended audience for the report is senior managers in NHS acute care trusts to help them make the most of volunteer–staff relationships at the front line of patient care.


• Frontline staff recognise the broad range of activities carried out by volunteers in NHS hospitals. Frontline staff describe a diverse range of roles for volunteers in hospitals. Volunteers undertake practical tasks such as picking up medication from the pharmacy, escorting a patient around the hospital, and running tea rounds. They can comfort and support patients, providing companionship for those who don’t have other visitors. Volunteers also support staff by freeing up their time to prioritise clinical care and by acting as an extra pair of hands or eyes.

• The overwhelming majority of frontline staff agree that volunteering in hospitals adds value for patients, staff and volunteers. Over 70 per cent of the different staff groups agree with the statement that volunteering in hospitals adds value for patients, for staff, and for volunteers themselves.

• The majority of frontline staff enjoy working with volunteers, with some variation between different staff groups. The majority of survey respondents report that they enjoy working with volunteers (however, the number of doctor respondents is low), although there is some variation between different staff groups. The high level of enjoyment is largely attributed to volunteers’ positive attitudes. Volunteers can also improve staff morale and help staff feel they are providing a better service to patients.

• The main challenge for frontline staff is a lack of clarity regarding role boundaries. According to frontline staff, the biggest challenge in working with volunteers is the lack of clarity around boundaries between the roles of staff and volunteers. Similarly, they felt the impact of volunteers would be strengthened through better knowledge about the role of volunteers. There is an appetite for volunteers to get involved in more aspects of hospital work. Frontline staff felt volunteers would have more impact through better training and greater joined-up working between staff and volunteers. They also emphasise the need to value the contribution volunteers make.