For many, the Post Office is not just a place to pay a bill or to post a letter, but it is the heart of the community, a central hub to see a friendly face. The 11,500 Post Office branches across the country play a vital role connecting people with essential products and services, but they also provide positive social contact that can alleviate feelings of loneliness, and signpost customers to initiatives that can help to provide long term sustainable solutions to address social isolation.
The genuine supportive relationships Postmasters and their staff develop with their customers often mean they are the first to know if someone is feeling lonely. Customers regularly tell Postmasters that they are the only person they have seen all day, or even all week.
Julia McDonald and her husband Aidan run the Bruton Post Office and Church Bridge Stores, based in Somerset. “We know our customers well, if someone is feeling down, we notice, often before they tell us they are feeling lonely.”
The branch offers a face-to-face personal service which has been important to communities throughout the past year, providing social prescribing for their customers as well as vital goods and services.
As an essential service, Bruton Post Office and Church Bridge Stores remained open throughout the national lockdowns. With people in the community self-isolating and having limited access to online shopping, the branch set up a delivery service with the help of the Bruton community to take online food orders from their customers. These orders would be delivered to the branch and the team would then drop these groceries to customers at home. The branch was given a High Sheriff’s Special Recognition Award for their contribution to the Bruton community through Covid-19.
Aidan and the delivery team were regularly told that their visits were the only social contact people had, these door-step chats became a lifeline.
Julia added that when people think of those who experience loneliness, they often think of older people living on their own, but they weren’t the only ones feeling disconnected. She said: “Even people who lived with a partner said they felt lonely, or were too scared to leave the house.”
The past year has been incredibly tough for lots of people, and the team have seen many customers struggle with either mental or physical health, leading to greater social isolation. Aidan said: “Shielding has meant that some of our customers have not only had their mobility deteriorate but also their social confidence. We are working to help people gain their confidence back and encouraging customers to pop into the shop when they feel ready, a quick in and out visit to the store can help to ease some of those confidence issues and see a familiar face for a quick chat.”
The physical presence of a branch is not the only way Post Offices can help to ease loneliness. Over the years, Julia and Aidan have formed a strong relationship with their community and know the social infrastructure that holds the Bruton community together.
“We know our customers well, if someone is feeling down, we notice, often before they tell us they are feeling lonely” Julia said. That’s why the branch is so active in social prescribing, signposting people who are feeling lonely to organisations and initiatives in the Bruton community such as the Thursday Walk or the Saturday Coffee Morning which bring people together.
Julia added “We want people to know they can come into the Post Office and ask for help. We know our communities and the social structures in place to help alleviate feelings of loneliness.”