"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,"


The poet John Donne wrote these words in the 17th Century and it seems we need to heed them now as much as ever.

The UK has recently appointed Tracey Crouch, as Minister for Loneliness as loneliness has been recognised in this country as an issue.  Indeed it is thought to affect more than nine million people in the UK who say that they often or always feel lonely, according to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.  The UK is not alone in this situation; the United Arab Emirates have appointed a Minister for Happiness and newspaper reports in Canada and the USA note similar incidences of loneliness in the community.

People feel lonely because of many different reasons and at different stages of their lives, but whilst the elderly seem to suffer most from loneliness it is certainly not just a problem in later life.  Often loneliness can be triggered by a big life event and Michelle Mitchell, charity director general of Age UK, has identified poor health, illness, money, children moving away, teenagers starting University far from home, feeling cut off from family and friends and the community, friends or partner dying, a lack of access to transport, redundancy or career problems or divorce as key points.

Social changes have also had an effect; the number of solo dwellers has doubled between 1973 and 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics. In addition family members are working and living further apart, meaning that families are unravelling at a faster rate than ever before, through no fault of their own.

So it seems as if modern life is conspiring to make us lonely, so what can we do about it?

Research on the best ways to tackle loneliness is scarce but scientists seem agreed that isolation is part of the problem.  Just getting out of the house, perhaps to visit a local park to admire the daffodils may reduce the feeling of being lonely.  Taking a neighbour with you and having a chat along the way might help even more.  ‘Happy to Chat’ and ‘Start a Conversation’ are slogans emanating from the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.

In a recent article Phil Hall spoke of his work and how much he enjoys his role with the public.  Phil tells us that camaraderie, from store manager down, is unbelievably close and incredibly affectionate and this is rolled out to the customers as well.  Such is the customer satisfaction that 80% of the store’s customers are regulars and this provides an ideal opportunity for the staff to address some of the causes of loneliness.  So how does Phil, and his co-workers, go about this?  Well, on re-reading the longer article Phil submitted there are some obvious clues.

Phil believes that he must know 50% of his customers by name, including the children; not only that but he is ‘Happy to Chat’ (work schedules permitting).   Taking an interest in people makes them realised that they are noticed and seen by others, they are not invisible and inconsequential.

“I know so much about so many customers; their health, their family, their likes and their dislikes.  I even ask them how is little Danny now, is your mum getting better, how is your dad and did you enjoy your holiday in France?  Over the years I have developed my own style of greeting, “Good morning my lady, good morning kind sir”. I didn’t set out to develop ‘my style’ it just evolved over time and it is received with such wonderful grace and beautiful smiles by all my customers. And when I greet Muslim ladies with “Assalamu alaykum” and as they reply “Wa-allaykumu as-aslam” their faces light up”.  

“And then there are the kids. Most of them are charming and so cute; an absolute delight to meet.  I often greet the little girls with “Good morning Princess”, which brings a big smile to their faces and the boys with “Good morning young man”. And I love to guess the age of babies in pushchairs. I look at their eyes, their teeth, their response to me and their general sense of spatial awareness. And I surprise many a mother when I tell them their ages almost spot on.”

Of course Phil admits that not everyone reacts positively to his style, so what does he do?  Just smile sweetly, let it go over his head and carried on as if nothing had happened, but enough customers appreciate him that he has customers who search him out to serve them.  

“An elderly lady came in one day with a long face and a pained expression, which gave out the message “I don’t want to be here”. I greeted her in my usual polite manner and asked her how she was. She said to me, “Where shall I start”? Fortunately she was the only person to be served at that moment and I am pleased to say that by the time I had finished with her she left as bright as a button. She was so pleased I had pulled her back from a deep, depressive mood that she went out of her way to find the store manager and tell him.”

The store manager obviously appreciates Phil’s work and he is often “mentioned in despatches” even to the point that at one of the recent morning staff meetings the store manager said that the Customer Satisfaction Target (CST) returns were down – but not to worry, Phil is back in today.  One customer wrote on her CST return, “Philip is such a lovely person he should have his own dedicated queue”.

Whilst Phil is out there trying to make other people’s lives better, he is the first to admit that there is little in life that can be more rewarding than making someone happy.  So it is a win-win situation with everyone feeling better.  Of course Phil has the perfect platform for his efforts, but is there anything we can all do on a day to day basis?

The MP Rachel Reeves, who co-chaired the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, has argued that the weakening of trade union, church, local pub and workplace ties have left a disconnected society and that there needs to be a cultural shift so that people are more concerned about the welfare of those in their communities.  Hopefully this article can be a first step for all of us to consider the issue of loneliness and think about what we can do about it.  Even if it is only smiling at people as they walk past us on the street or starting a conversation about the weather with a stranger, every little helps, to borrow a slogan from Phil’s rival store.

Phil Hall and Linda Caswell