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Seeking out ‘the hidden workforce’ – volunteers in the health sector

Workforce development seldom features the important contribution which volunteers play in many organisations, and policy sometimes muddles volunteers (ie individuals) with the role of voluntary sector organisations, which often work through both paid employees and volunteers.

It was to understand this field better that Skills for Health commissioned us to undertake scoping research into the role of volunteers in the health sector – the so-called “Hidden Workforce”. Quantifying volunteers’ contribution is difficult, because there is no national data, and only a few local studies to act as a guide – but we concluded that the role of volunteers is substantial.

In a variant of Charles Handy’s shamrock, we pointed to the three-part nature of the workforce in many employing organisations in the health service: an employed core, a contracted fringe running catering, cleaning, maintenance and other services, and volunteers – who turned out to be a major group in some places, with close to 400 volunteers in one large Foundation Trust in London.

We also explored some of the workforce development implications, including the central role of the person who manages volunteers, and the opportunities to develop that role.

The Hidden Workforce report