With NHS staff in Bristol being overworked to the point of illness, hundreds of volunteers are helping reduce the load.
Photos: Matty Edwards and UH Bristol NHS Trust
”I’ve had years of going to hospital to see my parents decline so I knew that, with the best will in the world, the hospital staff couldn’t engage with patients on a more friendly level, didn’t have the time or were very rushed.”
Linzi James is an NHS volunteer who befriends patients on the liver ward of the Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI). She took up volunteering two years ago after 30 years as a secondary school teacher.
As a befriender, her main job is to chat to people, from reminiscing with older patients about their youth to listening to music or playing a game of cards with younger ones.
“Sometimes at first it’s not obvious that someone wants to chat, but then they open up,” she tells the Cable. “I think they quite like that idea that you’re not family or official staff, so you talk about all sorts of things.
Linzi is one of 240 volunteers at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trust who do various different roles, including befriending patients, being dining companions, meeting and greeting at A&E, helping discharge patients and giving tours.
For around every 40 members of paid staff, there is a trained but unpaid volunteer giving up their free time to ease pressure on the NHS.
“After 30 years in another part of the public sector, you know exactly how difficult life can be. It’s a very supportive environment, but the professional staff put up with some remarkable stuff in here”
The Cable has this week revealed that NHS staff in Bristol are being worked until they’re sick with stress, with huge rises in the amount of time staff are taking off work due to stress-related illness.
When I meet Linzi, she is sat by the bed of an elderly man, who she has only just met. They are talking warmly over a cup of tea.
“From what I can gather, he doesn’t have visitors. He didn’t know why he was in the ward. You could see his shoulders going further and further down, but when I offered him a cup of tea then all of a sudden you see a lift,” she says.
“It’s just lovely going home knowing you’ve made a tiny little difference to someone’s day. It makes you feel good if you make someone smile,” she adds.
On why she chose the NHS, she says: “After 30 years in another part of the public sector, you know exactly how difficult life can be. In this particular ward, there can be some quite challenging behaviours, but being a teacher for decades I’ve seen quite a bit before. It’s a very supportive environment, but the professional staff put up with some remarkable stuff in here.”
The Cable investigation into stress among NHS workers revealed that at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trust there has been a 70% increase in working days lost to stress since 2011.
But are NHS volunteers appreciated enough? “I don’t know I’d say we’re undervalued, but I think it’s one of those things that people don’t necessarily know they can do.”
She thinks people are more likely to help out than previously, from the growing awareness of the homeless crisis to helping NHS workers get to work in the snow.
“I think it’s quite pivotal time in the community, as people are beginning to be more open to volunteering and helping others, because I think people have got fed up with the ‘me me me’ thing.”
‘They nearly bit my hand off’
Sometimes, personal experience can be the driving factor behind the desire to volunteer. Katherine Grafton-Green, 53, works full-time as a civil servant, but has been volunteering for over a year on a ward at the BRI of mostly elderly people with dementia.
“This came about because my stepfather, who sadly passed away four years ago, had Alzheimers, dementia and Parkinson’s,” she tells the Cable.
After taking time off work to look after her stepdad and help her mum get back on her feet following his death, Katherine had Fridays free so decided to help at the hospital. “They nearly bit my hand off,” she says.
As a mealtime volunteer, she helps elderly patients with their lunch once a week. She had just attended to an elderly woman who wanted some water and Vaseline.
“Sometimes it’s just a bit of human contact – sit down with them, have a cup of tea or a bit of a chat about their background – you try to get them to remember things,” she says. “Even if you get just one smile in a three-hour shift, you walk out of here knowing you’ve made someone happy, which means an awful lot.”
“Everyone is so incredibly busy that they just want an extra pair of hands. Anything to lighten the load of the team here really.”
One of five sisters, who have all worked in the NHS at one time or another, Katherine particularly enjoys spending “girly” time with the women, who are chattier than the men. “You can get some really juicy stories from them, particularly stuff about the war times – I love all those stories – how they used to shelter under the coffee table.”
“It takes a lot of effort to get here on a Friday, particularly after a busy week at work, but my spirit definitely lies in social care, so for me it’s a really nice work-life balance. I find it incredibly rewarding and if I could afford to I would do this full-time, but it doesn’t pay enough for the mortgage and bills.”
However, the role can be emotional as well as rewarding. “I helped care for my stepdad for over 10 years. That was particularly difficult because of the emotional connection. Sometimes here I have got upset, like at the Christmas party, when we’ve all been singing along,” she says.
“I do get attached to the patients but also once you’re finished, you’re finished, whereas with my stepdad it was always at the forefront of my life.”
Another mealtime volunteer on the ward aiming to do just that is Matthew O’Connell, a 21-year-old sociology student at UWE, who took up NHS volunteering as part of his studies.
He tells the Cable he feels like he is making a genuine difference by helping patients with dementia eat their lunch, which feels good despite the challenges.
Crucially, he has noticed increased pressure on the NHS. “It’s really important at the moment to volunteer in the NHS because everyone is so busy. I’ve come here some days when staff are running around and they just need someone to even sit in a bay and keep an eye on everyone,” he says.
With NHS staff being overworked to the point of exhaustion and patients waiting for hours in corridors, it would appear that any help can end up being valuable.
Even over just the period of a year, the increased pressure is noticeable: “Now it’s a lot more busy on this ward compared with when I did this last year – when they seemed to cope better. There’s a lot more strain now than last year.”