Redesigning volunteer training at North London Hospice to focus on emotional intelligence

Categories: Education.

At North London Hospice, like many other hospices, volunteers provide a range of support services but we were concentrating our training on those in more obvious emotional support roles, such as bereavement.

We wanted to enable all our volunteers to be emotionally confident, so they would be able to comfort patients and carers, wherever they come into contact.

A simple solution would be to provide a training to all volunteers, so there is a cross-organisational baseline in emotional competence. This would have to be accompanied by structural changes to delivery and management of volunteering.

Reality is different. Change is a hearts and minds process – oil tankers come to mind. Perhaps, like bereavement, it takes at least five years before people can really begin to feel change.

The way we now deliver training:

  • encourages volunteers to establish bonds with one another
  • predisposes them to form relationships with others in the organisation
  • helps them to be self-reflective and resilient and support one another
  • increases self-awareness, decreases dependency on busy staff
  • extends beyond skills of ‘active listening’ to identifying and owning feelings
  • makes managing them easier and more creative – less time addressing ‘complaints’ and more working collaboratively.

Within the safe space of the training room, volunteers identify their own potential for vulnerability and identify coping strategies.

The Oyster foundation to volunteering

We have banded our volunteers into four levels (A, B, C, D), relating to the level of involvement they have with patients and carers, and the emotional competence required for their role – this is illustrated in the Oyster diagram.

We have assigned colours to each band – Amber, Blue, Crimson and Damson – a friendlier, less ‘clinical’ description which has now become part of the language of our hospice.

Training is delivered in a modular structure, building appropriate emotional competence for each band.

Amber training, delivered to all volunteers, is a 90 minute session which explains the work of the organisation, and the people we come across, and invites participants to reflect on how they can see themselves being involved.

As a result of this session, which challenges preconceptions about hospices, participants may reconsider their involvement and choose to volunteer at a different band, and some may decide it is not for them at all. However, our rate of attrition has dropped and people who do continue to volunteer are more engaged and likely to stay for longer.

Blue training is delivered to volunteers who will come in to regular contact with patients and their family members, such as front of house and ward volunteers. It is a day and a half, delivered over two weeks, where participants are invited to reflect more deeply on why they have chosen to volunteer within a hospice setting, how it may impact on them and how it fits within their core values.

Time is spent reflecting on attitudes to death and dying and how this may impact on their role. There are exercises in active listening and opportunities to explore case studies from real events. This is co-designed and co-delivered by volunteers in roles similar to those which will be undertaken by participants so there is plenty of opportunity to ask ‘what if’ questions.

Crimson training is for volunteers who will be spending one-to-one time with patients and family members. This is delivered as a four-hour session and covers issues such as lone working, record keeping, boundaries and beginning and ending of relationships. This is also co-delivered by volunteers who bring in their own experiences for others to learn from.

Damson level training is for volunteers offering professional services, such as complementary therapists. We have recognised that a professional qualification does not necessarily prepare people for a hospice setting.  Therefore, this group are required to undertake all the levels of training in order to ensure that they have this emotional competence.

Our corporate induction day – which includes safeguarding, spiritual care, dementia friends and following a patient’s journey through our service – occurs at the end of the Oyster training. So by the time volunteers meet staff for the first time, they will have reflected on their potential role and reasons for choosing hospice volunteering, will have confidence in their emotional abilities, and a shared meaning of what it is to volunteer here. Staff and volunteers learn together in the corporate induction as colleagues.

The Oyster training is one element of the volunteers training programme which also includes online corporate training and a service specific induction.

The oil tanker

The revised training programme is just one part of organisation-wide changes to the way volunteering is managed.

Each well described volunteer role is attached to a particular service, with a lead staff member and a written protocol for each service that describes the relationship between staff and volunteers.

Service leads meet regularly to ensure there is cross organisational consistency, to co-develop volunteer-involving projects and learn from one another’s practice.

Similarly, volunteers have regular meetings with a reflective element, enabling them to remain emotionally attuned as well as supported in their role.

We’ve had most success when all the elements have come together. Most notably our front of house role (formerly reception) has transformed with positive feedback to match. Key elements have included:

  • Moving the leadership from a centrally based volunteering co-ordinator role to the facilities manager.
  • The facilities manager having a clear vision of what good hospitality should look like and respect for the role of volunteers.
  • The facilities manager working with the volunteering engagement lead in consulting volunteers about the role; from which developed the role description, protocol for the service and the service specific training.
  • All the volunteers taking part in the Oyster training.
  • The re-development of the reception area in to ‘The Living Room Space’, removing the desk and replacing with chairs facing the entrance, from which volunteers rise to greet and say goodbye to all visitors.
  • A staff role to oversee and support these volunteers, as well as those on the inpatient unit.
  • A preparedness of staff and management to give real time feedback to volunteers, as well as addressing their concerns.

Good leadership and prioritising this approach to volunteering will enable us to complete the journey we are on.

For further information about Oyster training, you can contact Debbie at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *