What we learnt from our coronavirus befriending service

Cheryl Garvey, 15 June 2020

This week (15-19 June) is Loneliness Awareness Week, and this year it seems particularly important to highlight the issue of loneliness as people in our communities continue to be isolated from friends and family.

Many of the support networks usually available have also been forced to close or change during the coronavirus crisis, cutting off a vital source of interaction. Other people have just felt, and continue to feel, too anxious to leave their home and use the networks and services that are operating.

At Bournville Village Trust we quickly identified the need to ‘check in’ on those members of our community who we thought would be most at risk of being disproportionality affected by the pandemic, regardless of where they lived.

We launched befriending service on 25 March and initially contacted over 1,000 people to offer initial reassurance that someone was there for them, and to see if they needed access to services provided by us or the community organisations we work with. Now several weeks on, we still regularly call nearly 300 people who have asked us to stay in touch. While demand for the service has started to slow as lockdown restrictions are eased, we have learnt a lot from providing it.

Here are three things we learnt.

1.    Don’t assume loneliness impacts older people the most

Many people think loneliness is an issue that only affects older people, but that’s not the case.

In a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, almost a quarter of adults have experienced loneliness because of coronavirus, with the most affected group aged 18 to 24. Loneliness is also not a ‘tenure issue’ – we found that leaseholders and freeholders often felt more isolated and alone than the renting residents we spoke to. There were also people who lived with others and had children but felt cut-off and anxious.

Loneliness is a complex issue spread across different ages, genders, ethnicities, tenures and living arrangements, and it’s important to take all this into account when developing programmes that aim to improve the health and wellbeing of people.      

2.    Let ‘back room’ colleagues shine

To resource the befriending service we needed to recruit staff across the organisation and not rely solely on frontline colleagues like housing and community officers. Many members of our finance team volunteered to make calls. These teams don’t usually interact directly with members of the community but they found it hugely rewarding, and their support meant we could adequately staff the service.

Launching and managing a brand new service quickly didn’t come without its pitfalls and making sure everyone was contacted consistently was a challenge at times. However, as we look at developing our work around community building, we want to continue to engage staff right across the business, not just those in traditional customer facing roles, to actively help build strong and inclusive communities.  

3.    Keep partners engaged

While we were able to identify many residents, leaseholders and freeholders who needed our support, there were some that were more difficult to identify and reach out to. This is why partnership working was so vital.

We quickly linked in with other groups and organisations to ensure we were aware of each other’s services, which led to referrals to our befriending service we may never have been able to reach. We were also able to make sure the people we befriended were referred to our partners, meaning that individuals were able to access a wide range of support – from food, assistance with prescriptions and counselling services, to even providing hearing aid batteries for people isolating.

We hope that by sharing our experiences others who are thinking of setting up a similar service can learn from what we found. We are also keen to hear others’ experiences of developing programmes that improve the health and wellbeing of people so that we can learn from you so please reach out if you would like to talk about this further.