At no other time in living memory have so many people been so isolated from one another for so long.
Social isolation even at the best of times is damaging to our mental and physical health – one study found loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with people who are chronically lonely being 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely.
Isolation during a pandemic can be even more anxiety-provoking – especially for the elderly or those with health conditions who are being asked to shield and so cannot leave their homes at all.
But there’s a difference between choosing to spend time alone and being thrust into loneliness – and something as simple as a phone call can help people who cannot meet their friends and family feel connected and stave off the worst effects of social isolation.
Unite retired members are doing just that through a new Unite Phone Buddies initiative. It was the brainchild of the Unite Retired Members Glasgow Branch and interest has since spread to other branches and regions.
The idea was a simple one – retired member activists volunteered to contact 10 to 20 other retired members in their local area to check up and see how they were coping. While the branch developed an initial script, which asks members about the level of support they have now and the level of support they might need, the branch discovered that most people were well supported with logistical needs such as shopping and medication – but all were grateful to have someone else to connect with.
“We do not follow the script because most members are so pleased to hear from us that they just want to talk,” said Unite Glasgow Retired Members branch secretary Mick Rice.
Mick explained how his branch set up the Phone Buddies system.
“We downloaded the membership database for the branch and then sorted it so that we just retained those members who had registered a phone number with Unite. We have nearly 2,400 of these in our branch. We then grouped these members by a postcode sort to get them listed on a neighbourhood basis,” he said.
“It seemed to me that being able to sort out the phones listings on an area or neighbourhood basis, would mean that whichever volunteer phoned our members would either live near or even know the person they’ve called so there’s that sense of instant connection.”
Mick noted that the retired members they have contacted often will simply just want to chat about, for example, their working days or when they were younger.
“In other instances where there have been issues, the phone buddy will escalate it up to me – in one case I had to phone up the police to check and see if there was an issue at a particular address. And they did.
“We also have people beginning to ask questions about union services, for example Retired Members Plus or accessing a death grant they are entitled to as a member after the death of their partner or spouse which can be quite complicated. We are also using the exercise to try to get email addresses so that we can contact more of our members by email,” he said.
“Everyone I spoke to wanted to take down my telephone number for future reference should they need it. All our members without exception were delighted that the union branch had bothered to contact them to see how they were coping.”
While the Unite Phone Buddies system is now only a retired members initiative, Mick believes the idea could expand to become a unique and vital communication tool for Unite – one that’s organised by rank and file members for the benefit of all members.
“Given that during this pandemic, we will have a substantial number of our members at home, unemployed, with a massive recession looming in the future, we need to find new ways to keep in contact with our members. What often happens is when people lose their jobs and are unemployed, they will simply just drop out of the union.
“If you are able to open a new way of communicating with these members, then all sorts of possibilities arise. The strength of our union has always been determined by the resilience of rank and file organisation. Unite Phone Buddies, as we’ve already seen, is a two way communication – the union can use it to communicate their latest information, and it can also become the ears of the union. Feedback direct from the members will ensure our leadership stays focused.”
During Mental Health Awareness week this week, the theme is kindness, and Mick says kindness – of which the Unite Phone Buddies initiative is a brilliant example – is now more important than ever before.
“Human solidarity, which is what kindness essentially is, is the key to civilisation,” he said. “If we are going to beat this pandemic and we want to emerge stronger, it’s about people recognising that they’ve got to work together in harmony. And not just in their local area, but nationally and internationally as well.”
By Hajera Blagg