“Nobody else matters, only the next caller”

The AOP Peer Support Line was launched in May 2017 to provide a confidential support service to help optometry professionals during times of worry or stress. One of its optometrist volunteers speaks to OT  about the aims and benefits of the service

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I am a retired optometrist and feel myself lucky to have been surrounded by colleagues who I could talk to throughout my career.

Thinking back, I must have encountered a host of issues either in those around me or myself – complaints, bullying, staff disagreements, bereavements, family problems.  However, talking to colleagues, friends or family is not always the best approach because they may be too close to the situation or have their own agenda. Sometimes only an anonymous person will do, and only someone with professional knowledge can really understand.

I saw becoming a Peer Support Line volunteer as a way of staying in touch with the profession and doing something worthwhile with my time. A successful optometrist has got to be good at talking to strangers and that skill should not be wasted in retirement.

On the phone

Many of the calls that I have taken have been from recently qualified optometrists who have perhaps encountered situations that they want to talk through, such as a patient complaining about them or a difficult manager. Others relate to optometrists who are considering a change of job and want to talk about their options. 

Previously there has been a spike in call numbers around the time pre-registration students have their first assessments. This made me feel a little sad that perhaps their supervisors might not always be as supportive as they could be.

Sometimes only an anonymous person will do, and only someone with professional knowledge can really understand


Our training helps us to deal with callers who find it hard to talk about their problem, but I usually find this is not the case. More often, they have been bottling something up and want to get it off their chest.

Some callers expect us to be able to solve their problems, give advice or tell them what to do. While it is very hard not to, we are not in a position nor are we qualified to do this. The beauty of the relationship we have with the caller is that we are only considering their side of the story. We are trained to listen and be non-judgmental, and encourage them to find their own course of action. Some people just need reassurance that they are not the first or last person to have that problem, or that they can find a way out.

We sometimes signpost callers to the AOP legal or employment services for advice, and then spend the rest of the call, which is as long as they want, empathising with their situation. For many callers this is so valuable, just talking to someone who understands.

Then there are calls which start simply on one small issue, but we uncover underlying unhappiness by just asking ‘Is there anything else?’ It makes me think back to the patients who only tell you about that floater as they are going out of the door…

Our training helps us to deal with callers who find it hard to talk about their problem


A problem shared

I find my days on call quite therapeutic. Why would I want to listen to other people’s problems, you might ask? For one day per month I put my own worries aside and keep my brain in a good place. Climate change, Brexit, terrorism, natural disaster, my hubby’s dental appointment – they can wait for tomorrow. Nobody else matters, only the next caller.

During a call I am giving the person of the other end of the line total concentration for as long as they need. And at the end of a call I make a cuppa and go in the garden to reflect, often feeling sad that I will never know if or how I have facilitated any improvement.

It is actually a shame if no calls come through when I am on duty; I guess it is an anti-climax.

I would encourage everyone to give the Peer Support Line a ring if they have anything that troubles them. No problem is too big or too small – if it concerns you then we want to listen. Maybe we will be able to guide you to a solution or maybe it will make you feel better just by telling someone.

Remember, the conversation is confidential and anonymous so you are safe to raise difficult issues – if we know the caller we must end the conversation and ask another volunteer to take the call instead. Nobody is going to judge or criticise you. We are open-minded and ready to listen so you have nothing to lose.

Image credit: Getty/Leontura