International volunteering

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International volunteering presents a number of opportunities for the NHS. Those who engage in overseas projects can gain new skills, experience and knowledge to enhance their professional development and often return to the NHS with fresh perspectives and new approaches to their work. 

What are the benefits?

Voluntary work contributes to developing countries, helping them to become more sustainable, and benefits our own health sector by providing the opportunity to engage in global health issues. As such, the government recognises the value of NHS staff participating in international health projects and has sought to evidence the benefits to partner organisations/countries and to the UK healthcare sector.

Engaging in global health: the framework for voluntary engagement in global health by the UK health sector provides information and advice to those working in the health sector about the opportunities and benefits of international volunteering.

Global citizenship in the Scottish Health Service is a policy report by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow on the mutual benefits of international volunteering by Scotland’s health service workers.

Why should I support my staff to engage in international volunteering?

Encouraging staff to take up volunteering opportunities has a positive impact on health and wellbeing and helps employees achieve a good work-life balance.

The experience of international volunteering can also be personally rewarding, allowing individuals to feel they are contributing towards the health outcomes of those in low and middle-income countries, or offering additional support in times of crisis.

Supporting staff to volunteer is also advantageous for you as an employer. It encourages staff to have a positive view of their employer, and to feel proud to work for them. It can expose staff to a much wider range of tasks than they may get in their day-to-day work, give them an opportunity to lead projects, and have responsibility for motivating others.

Volunteering can have an impact on retention within the NHS, helping to reduce the loss of trained and experienced staff that may otherwise consider leaving. The desire to have career fluidity and view themselves as global citizens have been identified as key character traits of millennials and those in generation Z, meaning that supporting international volunteering for staff spanning these age groups may have an even greater effect on efforts to retain these workers.

How can I support my staff?

Staff considering overseas work with aid agencies or working abroad in another capacity should be made aware of certain factors and encouraged to plan carefully. They should:

  • discuss, and agree in detail with their line manager and the HR department, their options for unpaid leave, return to work, and any retraining they may need
  • recognise the need to raise some or all of their own expenses, depending upon which agency they are working / volunteering with
  • check the agency they hope to work for before signing up or handing over any fees or money, and look carefully at insurance options for the type of work and country they are going to
  • check the situation in the country they are going to, including politics, cultural differences and travel - see the Foreign Office website
  • check that the break in employment won’t result in the suspension of membership of the NHS Pension Scheme - see the NHS Business Services Authority website
  • see whether they need to take out separate medical malpractice cover
  • be aware that in the wake of a natural disaster, aid agencies usually don’t require extra emergency staff but rely on their own relief workers and local recruitment.

Additional employer considerations

While supporting staff to take up international volunteering opportunities can contribute to improved staff retention, it is important that in the short-term staff cover is appropriately managed.

As an employer, you should consider how you can provide equal access to international volunteering opportunities to all of your staff. Often, volunteering is seen as an elitist activity and can be limited to more senior staff who have greater social capital, are more used to international travel and confident about their professional abilities. However, it is important to recognise that multi-professional approaches to volunteering often work best and students and junior staff can be very effective in supporting the needs of the host country.

Occasionally, staff may wish to undertake a longer-term project, which could involve taking unpaid leave or a sabbatical. This type of activity has larger cost implications for you as an employer in terms of replacing staff, recruitment and other related costs. When considering the options for supporting a member of staff, careful planning and thought needs to be given as to how the organisation will manage the process and what the impact will be on the staff still in post. There is also a risk that staff who have taken leave to volunteer may not return. Viewed positively, however, the situation can offer other staff the opportunity for temporary promotion, the chance for a team to try new ways of working, and the chance for new staff to join your organisation.

Reserve armed forces

Although members of the reserve armed forces are not volunteers in the correct sense of the term, the positive contribution this can make to their work and the commitments required are similar to volunteering. Employees who volunteer as reservists can bring back to their organisation military discipline, skills and knowledge that may not be present in the civilian workforce. There is a wealth of information available on the NHS Employers website relating to the employment of reservists.

Where can I find out more?

The Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) website has a number of case studies and health worker profiles, which emphasise the benefits of involvement in international health volunteering. On the THET website, you can also access information on the Health Partnership Scheme which funds institutional partnerships between UK health institutions and their counterparts in low and middle-income countries.

While more directly applicable to supporting domestic volunteering efforts than overseas, NHS Employers have produced two guides which you may find helpful:

This Employer-supported volunteering guide produced by the CIPD provides further information about how to design a volunteering programme which meets both the needs of you staff and your organisation.


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