Little Interview

Isolated operator in his 60s gains a friendly lifeline

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Billy Spong with M&B colleague Caroline Davies after LTC awards win in 2017
Billy Spong with M&B colleague Caroline Davies after LTC awards win in 2017

Related tags: Ltc

The Morning Advertiser, in association with the Licensed Trade Charity, is exploring the help available to those in the trade who are facing various issues. In our first piece, M&B employee relations manager Billy Spong explains how he's helping an isolated licensee in his 60s.

Recent research by Greene King identified that nearly two thirds of people admit they sometimes feel lonely. The Licensed Trade Charity is working to minimise the impact of this on isolated former pub and bar workers by ensuring that many of them receive a weekly call from one of its team of volunteer telephone befrienders.

In the first of a series of spotlights on the volunteers giving up their time to help the charity look after former workers who are feeling isolated, The Morning Advertiser​ spoke to Billy Spong, employee relations manager at Mitchells & Butlers.

Find out how he makes a difference, what you should do if you are feeling lonely, or wish to help others in that situation.

What is your connection to the licensed trade?
I began working in the licensed trade when I turned 18. I got a part time job in my local Mitchells & Butlers business and loved it.

I worked all through university and when I graduated, decided to go full time as I enjoyed it so much.

I have been in HR for 10 years now and my role of employee relations manager is really rewarding as I am helping people every day.

Why did you choose to become a telephone befriender, and how did it come about?
I first heard about the telephone befriender programme because of the links between M&B and the Licensed Trade Charity.

We replaced our employee assistance programme with the Licensed Trade Charity’s free service and started to really promote it.

One of the services I became aware of was the work of the charity’s telephone befrienders.

This is something that my line manager promotes through our comms to all employees every year, and something that I have always been interested in but hadn’t got round to.

I expressed an interest in becoming part of the team who do that, was told all about the role and had an interview.

It intrigued me even more so once I met the criteria and checks, I underwent training and was paired up with someone to talk to.

Who do you talk to, and how often?
The person I befriend is called Andrew. He is in his 60s, and lives in the south west. His background is pubs and clubs.

He began by opening his own club which still trades today under new ownership.

He then branched out and bought a pub – it was really run down, and needed a makeover. He spent a month doing it up, introduced his own menu and would go from the club on a Saturday to work in the pub on the Sunday and then throughout the week.

I speak to Andrew every week where possible.

What is Andrew’s situation in terms of becoming isolated and needing support?
Andrew openly explains that he took his eye of the ball and this caused a massive impact on the business.

He says he lost everything, and once it all went, all of his friends seemed to disappear around him also.

At a similar time, both his parents passed away and he found himself even more isolated.

As a result this took a massive toll on his mental wellbeing and he suffers with anxiety and depression.

He rarely goes out and when he does he has to be very careful as every penny really does count now as he is unable to work.

He is therefore very isolated and only has one real friend that he sees regularly, who unfortunately is also struggling with their own health.

How does your call help Andrew?
I’d like to say I have a magic wand that I can wave and make everything better, but unfortunately I do not.

What I do have though is half an hour to an hour every week to pick up the phone and call Andrew.

He always seems pleased to hear from me and we just talk and talk.

Sometimes we talk more than other times, depending on what has been happening. I think the calls help as it breaks up his day and week, and gives him someone else to talk to and to discuss the world around him, how he is feeling and what he has been up to.

Quite often Andrew hasn’t been out, so I will tell him about what I have been up to or I ask him questions about his businesses. 

What changes have you seen in Andrew since the start of your befriending?
At first, he wouldn’t really open up about his past problems, but now he seems more accepting of them.

He can now talk to me about how he cannot change his past, and I think he has accepted that and talking about it is enabling him to look forward.

He recently said to me how grateful he is for the position he is in now, he has somewhere to live, his health is improving, his debts are sorted and he feels better. He genuinely seems more positive about his situation.

What do you get out of it?
It is very rewarding for me. I don’t do anything special, I just talk and also listen.

I genuinely look forward to the call as I want to see how Andrew is – it is like talking to a relative long distance, it’s as simple as that.

I think sometimes in everyday life you do just go through the motions. You talk to your friends and sometimes you’re not really listening, you’re thinking about work, or your to do list, but with Andrew, I switch off from these things and I am focused on him for the whole time.

I think that is good for me. Life is short and it is good to be in the moment sometimes and just listen.

How has it changed you and your outlook?
It has made me realise that life is short, and sometimes things do go wrong – but Andrew has demonstrated to me that you can genuinely pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on with life – whatever that looks like, it is unique to each and every one of us.

It is not about material things, but about who you have around you and I am glad that I can support Andrew in my own little way.

What tips would you give to someone feeling lonely and isolated?
Get involved in the local area. Go for walks, join local clubs, get on committees.

Everyone has skills that can be very useful – even if it is making tea at a local fete, or doing the weeding at the local church – and with this comes people, people from all walks of life, all with a story to tell – and that’s where you will begin and then build up your friendships.

I appreciate that the thought of even getting involved can be daunting, but trying is just as important, even if it takes time.

You could even let them know that you are a bit nervous or shy – my experience is that people genuinely want to help!

What advice would you give to someone wondering what they can do to help others?
Simply, try. If you have an hour a week to talk and listen, then you can do it.

I was nervous when I started as I was worried what I would speak about but we talk about anything, the latest TV series, the weather, the garden, or what’s in the news.

I now find myself saying ‘oh I must remember to tell Andrew about that this week’.

If befriending isn’t quite right for you, then please spread the word about the befriender programme to others so they can get in touch with the Licensed Trade Charity and be matched up with someone who would appreciate a weekly chat.

The LTC

The Licensed Trade Charity helps current and former pub, bar and brewery workers with a range of issues from health to housing, and money problems to education.

If you are feeling lonely or isolated ​and would like to discuss having a regular call from a befriendee, or would like to know more about joining the team of volunteers who make the calls, contact the Licensed Trade Charity’s 24/7 helpline on 0808 801 0550.

Related topics: Health & safety

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