Financial woes in the health and social care sectors “risk undermining volunteering”, a think-tank has warned.
A new report by The King’s Fund highlights the “sufficient value” that volunteers give to the NHS, health charities and social care organisations but states that the current economic climate creates a “challenging environment” for volunteers.
The report states that the financial squeeze in the NHS and cuts to local authority budgets could have a significant impact on the nation’s army of volunteers.
It says that when employees are concerned about the future of their jobs, tensions could rise between volunteers and paid workers.
“At a time when people in all sectors are being asked to work harder, when job security is poorer, and when funding for many services is under pressure, the role of volunteers becomes a very sensitive and at times divisive issue,” the report states.
It also highlights that if there is a reduction in staff there is a risk that volunteers could be used to “fill the gaps”.
“In an environment where organisations are required to make daunting productivity improvements, there is a risk that the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate roles for volunteers will come under increasing pressure,” the report adds.
“Recent reductions in the number of nursing and administrative staff for example could create an environment where volunteers are used to fill the gaps.”
The report highlights the vital role played by the three million people in England who volunteer in the health and social care sectors. People assist with mealtimes in hospitals, providing support for bereaved families and befriending older people in care homes, among many other tasks.
“In some hospitals, volunteers are increasingly being seen as an integral part of the care team,” the report states.
The authors of the report said that service providers must “think strategically about the role of volunteering” adding: “The health and social care system will find it increasingly difficult to meet its objectives without doing so.”
Chris Naylor, fellow at The King’s Fund, said: “There are huge opportunities for volunteering to help transform health and social care services and bring about real improvements for patients and the wider public.
“However, for this to be realised service providers and commissioners must take a much more strategic approach to volunteering, with clarity of roles and clearly articulated objectives. Volunteering should be used as a means of improving quality rather than reducing short-term costs, and this vision needs to be communicated clearly.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “There is potentially a very important role for volunteers to play in complementing the work of professional staff.
“As the report says, this needs to be managed carefully. Done well, it can make a huge difference to the experience of people receiving care. That is why we are looking to support best practice through the Centre for Social Action.”