Dixon, Liz (2017) ‘I’m only a volunteer’: unravelling the complexities of the mundane in roles undertaken by volunteers. In: SCUTREA 2017, 4-6th July 2017, Edinburgh University.

This paper draws upon qualitative data from an ethnographic study into the lived experiences of hospice volunteers. The research is being carried out in a hospice and I have immersed myself in the setting, ‘being there’ (Trondman 2008), over an extended period, undertaking observation, shadowing volunteers and attending meetings and events at the hospice. The ethnography has been extended to include additional data collection tools including interviews and supported focus groups with both volunteers and paid staff and consideration of visual and textual artefacts. The research, whilst seeking to find out about the lived experiences of individual volunteers through an ethnographic approach, is also seeking to understand the institutional and cultural processes which shape that experience. In addition to the ‘skills-set’ of volunteers, are there institutional practices or assumptions which limit or encourage the contribution and learning of volunteers? Opinion is divided amongst hospices with regards to the training of volunteers, recognizing the delicate balance of professional socialization and the risk of undermining the added value that volunteers bring if training is too extensive (Help the Hospices 2012).
Hospice work is by its very nature, challenging, demanding and emotionally laden. The hospice volunteers may work independently and alongside paid staff in all areas of the setting. Many of these roles such as reception duties, providing refreshments, gardening, driving, and administrative duties may be considered to be low skilled and in other workplaces usually low paid. Indeed one of the recurring themes when speaking with volunteers is: ‘I’m only a volunteer’. However, positioning such roles within a hospice setting serves to highlight the hidden complexities of ostensibly low status roles in the workplace when the emotional component inherent in care is overlaid. Benozzo and Colley (2012) refer to the reproduction of the Cartesian split, described as a de-emotionalized workplace in which ‘head work’ comes before the ‘heart work’ and emotion comes after knowledge. The nature of volunteers’ learning is complex and difficult to classify and this paper discusses the extent to which emotional labour (Hochschild,1983; Benozzo and Colley 2012, Colley 2006) and invisible learning (DeVault 1994) characterise the work and learning of hospice volunteers.
The data shows that some of the more visible aspects of volunteers’ work associated with skills and knowledge for a specific role are made explicit within formal induction, role descriptors and training provided within a hospice. Aside from those clearly defined aspects of work however, there are less visible and arguably complex aspects of the volunteer role which are associated with enculturation of the hospice. As part of the hospice team, the study has found that volunteers acquire culturally transmitted knowledge about death and dying and find themselves needing to learn about palliative care, forming relationships and dealing with the unexpected. This learning is situated and contingent upon the culture which exists within the hospice setting. The nature of that experience is complex and difficult to classify but this ethnography is enabling me to see examples of ‘invisible work’ at first hand.
Based on the data already gathered, the paper concludes that roles undertaken by volunteers within hospices, which are often perceived as low skilled and mundane, are complex and unpredictable and that those aspects of the role often remain hidden and unacknowledged by both paid staff and the volunteers themselves.

Presentation to 2017 SCUTREA Conference
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Paper published in 2017 SCUTREA Conference Proceedings
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