Role and Deployment of Volunteers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Volunteers are important members of the care team for clients receiving hospice palliative care. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, data indicated a large decline in the number of hospice palliative care volunteers.  For example, a multinational survey of hospice palliative care providers in April – July of 2020 found that 78% of organizations that deployed volunteers prior to the pandemic had a reduction in use of volunteers during the pandemic.  This reduction was related to both volunteers deciding to reduce contact with others due to the pandemic and organizations implementing policies to restrict in-person contact between volunteers and clients.  Additionally, new volunteer opportunities arose during the pandemic that led to some volunteers switching volunteer roles or organizations with organizations that traditionally rely on substantial volunteer contributions, such as hospice palliative care, being impacted most.

Walshe and colleagues (2022) conducted a survey to understand the roles and deployment of volunteers in hospice palliative care services as these services have adjusted to the impact of COVID-19.  The specific research questions included:

  1. How has the deployment and/or roles of volunteers within specialist palliative care services changed, and what has been the impact of any changes?
  2. What factors contributed to any changes in the deployment and/or roles of volunteers within specialist palliative care services?
  3. What have been the challenges and opportunities associated with any changes in the deployment and/or roles of volunteers within specialist palliative care services?

This descriptive, multi-national study included an online survey of providers of specialist palliative care services that deploy volunteers.  Services included in the study included hospices, palliative care units, palliative day care centres, palliative home care teams and palliative support teams.  The study was promoted through multiple channels including by the European Association for Palliative Care.  The person responsible for deploying volunteers within an organization was invited to complete the survey.

Complete survey responses were received from 210 organizations across 35 countries.  Most organizations cared for primarily adults (60.9%), were based in Europe (80.3%) and provided in-patient palliative care (62.2%).

Exposure to COVID-19

Participating organizations had differing degrees of experience with COVID-19.  This experience was through caring for people with COVID-19 or staff and volunteers being infected with COVID-19.  Typically, volunteer infections were due to community transmission and not associated with their volunteer deployment.

Changes in Volunteer Deployment

Most organizations made substantial changes in their volunteer deployment.  Close to 50% of organizations changed how they deployed volunteers.  Of these organizations, 40% said they were deploying volunteers less, while 9% said they were using volunteers more.  European organizations were less likely to change volunteer deployment.  Generally, volunteers deployed were younger than pre-pandemic.

There were several reasons for the reduction in use of volunteers:

  • Organization policy decision to stop or reduce use of volunteers
  • Some volunteers were considered vulnerable due to age or existing conditions
  • Area that volunteers were deployed were stopped due to external regulation (eg. retail)
  • Volunteers indicated that they preferred not to volunteer
  • National policies preventing deployment of volunteers
  • Volunteers no longer available
  • Organization lacked resources to support volunteers

Changes in Volunteer Training

Overall, the amount of training provided to volunteers decreased.  Training shifted online, including real time and asynchronous e-learning.

New or Changed Volunteer Roles

Only 17% of organizations indicated that they had created new volunteer roles, while 35.5% of organizations indicated that they used virtual volunteering.  Changed ways of working for some volunteers included support for patients and families (including virtual support, transport, deliveries of groceries), organisational support (including remote administrative and fundraising roles, gardening or kitchen roles), some COVID-19 specific roles (such as delivering PPE, or managing access or lateral flow testing).

Impact of Reduced Volunteering

Over 50% of respondents indicated that the reduction in volunteers had and impact on their organization and/or the care provided to clients and families.  For patients they perceived reduced support, and increased isolation and loneliness, affecting the patient experience.

A reduction in volunteers meant less support for staff, reduced quality of service and a negative change in the work atmosphere.

The authors conclude by suggesting that the reduction in volunteer deployment is likely to have a continuing negative effect on care provision.  Organizations should consider how to attract a younger volunteer demographic through new opportunities. Virtual or remote volunteering can be further developed in inclusive and equitable ways.

Source: Walshe, C., Pawłowski, L., Shedel, S., Vanderstichelen, S., Bloomer, M. J., Goossensen, A., … & Scott, R. (2022). Understanding the role and deployment of volunteers within specialist palliative care services and organisations as they have adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic: A multi-national EAPC volunteer taskforce survey. Palliative Medicine, 02692163221135349.