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Fifteen years of Listening Friends — support and understanding for real life

By Alan Nathan

In this article, Alan Nathan, co-founder and chairman of the Listening Friends support helpline for pharmacists, marks its first 15 years and gives an overview of what it is and how it operates


Stress — the word has become increasingly common in pharmacy in recent years, yet the views expressed by pharmacists in the pharmacy press and on internet forums indicate that they generally feel that the pharmacy representative organisations have done little to address it. On the other hand, there is one service that has, for some time, recognised the problem and has been doing something to help.

The Pharmacist Support Listening Friends stress helpline was established in 1995 and, in January 2011, will have been operating for 15 years. During this time it has provided support to thousands of pharmacists, students and preregistration trainees.

Although most pharmacists are probably aware of the existence of the scheme, they may not know exactly what it offers, how it operates or even how to access it. The aim of this article is to fill in those gaps, as well as to explain a little of the scheme’s background.

Listening Friends was essentially the brainchild of Sue Sharpe, now chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee. During the 1990s Mrs Sharpe was the director of legal services at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Through reports from the Society’s inspectors, she was identifying situations where pharmacists were failing to meet professional and legal obligations, not through wilful dishonesty or neglect but because they were unable to cope with demands of work, and sometimes domestic, pressures. She wanted to find a way to help these pharmacists meet their professional commitments rather than to discipline them.

I was at the time a member of the Society’s Council and chairman of the committee that oversaw its disciplinary functions, and I had a deep interest in membership welfare issues. Mrs Sharpe broached her idea to me and together we formulated the outline of a stress support scheme, operated by volunteer pharmacists, which we developed with Beverly Nicol, the manager at that time of the Society’s Benevolent Fund.

Wide scope

Listening Friends is one of the services provided by Pharmacist Support, an independent charity formed in 2006 out of the Society’s welfare arm, the Benevolent Fund. It offers free, non-judgemental and confidential listening services to pharmacists, preregistration trainees and pharmacy students suffering from stress.

People do not need to be members of the RPS, nor do they need to be on the General Pharmaceutical Council’s Register to use the service (they could, for example, be retired from the Register, taking a break or have been removed for whatever reason). The helpline provides the opportunity to talk to a pharmacist trained to listen and to offer support regarding the particular pressures that apply to the pharmacy profession.

The service is not restricted to work-related problems, but offers support for a variety of stressful situations such as ill-health, family issues, bullying and bereavement.

Making that first difficult call can take a lot of courage, but at Listening Friends we have made it as easy as possible to do so. To access the service callers telephone the free automated helpline number (0808 168 5133) and leave their name (just a first name or pseudonym if preferred), a contact telephone number and a convenient time to be called back.

They may also specify if they would like to speak to a “listening friend” of a particular gender or ethnic group. Concerned colleagues, family members or friends may also use the service. Messages are picked up daily by one of the scheme’s co-ordinators and contact details are passed on to a listening friend, who will normally telephone the caller within 24 hours.

During the first conversation, the caller will be asked to outline the problem or situation causing the stress. Generally, no limit is placed on the length or number of calls — the listening friend will be available for as long and as often as the caller needs. Sometimes people find it difficult speaking to someone at their place of work, or even someone close to them about the problems they are experiencing.

But for many callers a chance to get a problem off their chest to someone who understands the pharmacy background and can empathise is all that is needed.

Other callers need support over several calls before finding a way to solve their problem, and although a listening friend might suggest possibilities to consider, he or she will never try to solve the problem for the caller.

Where necessary, listening friends can signpost callers to sources of specialist advice, for example, on financial, legal, employment or family matters. They can also put callers in touch with the charity’s Health Support Programme, which helps pharmacists who have problems with alcohol, drug, or other types of dependency.

Calls to the Listening Friends service cover a range of issues and generally fall into two main areas:

  • professional, including employment issues, stress at work, discrimination and harassment
  • domestic and social issues covering family matters (such as relationship breakdown, divorce and bereavement), financial problems and addiction

In many cases, however, it is difficult to separate the two: often people call regarding a particular problem they are struggling with at the time, but during the conversation, or over a series of conversations with the listening friend, other issues begin to surface.

In the past few years, preregistration training issues have increasingly featured in calls, with problems including struggling to cope with the stress of an upcoming examination having failed a previous attempt, lack of support from tutors or employers, workplace bullying and financial worries.

Other issues have included pharmacists dealing with family illnesses, experiencing problems with work colleagues, or facing unfair dismissal. Calls have been received from retired pharmacists living alone without family support and struggling with depression.

Calls have also come, including from relief or locum pharmacists, about having to cope in a pharmacy with inadequate staff and other resources.

An understanding ear

There are currently around 30 listening friends, who provide their services without remuneration. They come from all branches of the profession, from all the main ethnic groups working in pharmacy and from all parts of Great Britain. Their ages range from 20s to 70s.

Many have counselling, psychotherapy or similar qualifications or experience, or both. For example, some have worked for the Samaritans and similar services, or have encountered serious problems or tragedies in their own lives, and want to use what they have learnt to help others.

All applicants are carefully vetted, (including a Criminal Records Bureau check) before being accepted for training. They then receive initial training before starting to take calls, and thereafter attend twice-yearly training weekends.

The day-to-day running of the scheme is in the hands of four co-ordinators. They are all practising pharmacists with counselling or psychotherapy qualifications and extensive experience in these areas.

The co-ordinators are responsible for training new recruits and planning and running the biannual training weekends. They also act as mentors and advisers to listening friends between training.

What motivates Listening Friends volunteers is perhaps best illustrated by some of them in their own words:

“I get a satisfaction from volunteering, helping people who may just need a friendly voice to talk to and who find the anonymity helpful. Pharmacy can be a lonely profession, particularly in community where you have little or no peer contact. It’s often difficult to explain problems to friends and family, however well meaning, as they do not have direct experience of the role.”

“I had spent two years learning and working towards basic counselling qualifications after going for counselling when I was suffering from depression and did not want to take medication. It gradually changed my life and I hoped I might be able to help others when they were going through a difficult time. Being a listening friend gives me an opportunity to support others for a short time usually, but for as long as they need me and I can be of help to them.”

Perhaps the most rewarding part for the volunteer is the feeling of having helped someone, simply by offering a little time and an understanding ear. These things do not cost a penny and yet they can be extremely valuable to the person on the other end of the phone, as former clients have testified:

“No words can describe how much I have appreciated your help.  I know I can turn to you anytime and you are always there for me.”

“It is good to know that I am not totally alone in my times of difficulty.”

Sharing real-life stories

As a confidential service, with callers often preferring to remain anonymous, it can be difficult to obtain feedback. The charity is keen to hear from anyone who has used the service over the past 15 years, to confirm that the support that they have received has been useful and effective.

It is also important, wherever possible, to share experiences, in order to highlight, through real-life stories and people’s own words, the assistance that is available. These stories can remind others that they are not alone and that there is support available to help them through any difficult times they may face.

Feedback can be provided anonymously (if the caller prefers) through the website, or by contacting the charity directly (see Details below).

Listening Friends is a charitable service run by Pharmacist Support. It is financed through the generosity of pharmacists and donations are always welcome. They can be made via the website or sent directly to the charity by post.

Details of the charity’s volunteer roles and any vacancies are posted on the Pharmacist Support website.


To speak with a listening friend call 0808 168 2233

For further information on Pharmacist Support and its services

Pharmacist Support is registered in England under the charity number 221438.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11050945

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