“I am so privileged to volunteer for the Peer Support Line”

Ziggy Shah, who has volunteered for the AOP’s Peer Support Line since it opened five years ago, explains how his role has changed throughout the pandemic


What’s your background within the optical sector?

I've been qualified as an optometrist for 26 years, and still greatly enjoy my profession. You can learn so much by engaging with the general public, and customers and patients can instantly tell if you are genuinely interested in them and whether you can create a rapport or not – a skill that I think many newly qualified optometrists need additional support with. 

What initially made you start volunteering for the Peer Support Line (PSL)?

At university I volunteered for Student Nightline – a confidential phone service for students. Recently, I have had training to become a university student mentor at City University. People have commented that I'm a good listener and can build rapport. I thought I should utilise my skills in a way that hopefully helps others by sharing my knowledge, experience, and empathy.

The PSL volunteer training allowed me to listen more effectively – this helped with supporting callers.

A doctor friend of mine said to try to find ways of helping people in your daily life, and I hope in a small way, I’m able to do that. I am so privileged to volunteer for the PSL.

You’ve volunteered with the PSL from the beginning. With COVID-19 and the challenges it has caused, have the nature of your conversations changed?

Yes, definitely. I began volunteering in 2017. Before the pandemic, most of the calls were about work colleagues, work stress, and clinical situations. Generally, the caller and I would discuss an action plan, where the caller felt that they could take some sense of control.

In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, I noticed an increased number of colleagues being challenged by other stress issues: anxiety, insecurity, economic and financial issues, and often loneliness. Some callers lacked social support networks, and were very uncertain about the future. Calls that would previously have lasted about 30 minutes could now take up to 90 minutes.

On the PSL Helpline, volunteers are trained not to tell callers what to do, but to give them options, as we are not professional counsellors

Some callers were seeking support on inadequate sleep and relationship issues, stating that relationships had become difficult, as it was increasingly hard to meet anyone. Marital problems were mentioned by some callers.

Other callers expressed anger and irritation that bereavement support was not available. Some optometrist colleagues were under additional work stress due to increased clinical obligations with staff shortages, and felt harassed and pressured at work. They wanted solutions to these issues and would become frustrated if I couldn’t give them specific answers.

I would also get asked if I was recording the conversations or would pass on information to others, to which I assured him no, it is all confidential.

On the PSL Helpline, volunteers are trained not to tell callers what to do, but to help them explore their options, as we are not professional counsellors. However, as a volunteer also facing some of these uncertainties during COVID-19, it was often a challenge to do this.

Is there a certain demographic that tends to use the PSL more than others?

Generally, there do seem to be more female than male callers: this probably reflects the increased ratio of female to male optometrists. And most optometrists do work for multiples, so again that is a definite trend.

My callers range from younger, pre-registration and newly qualified optometrists, to more experienced and older colleagues – all with different issues, including bullying, working conditions, clinical demands, colleagues, disability issues, race issues, clinical concerns and occasionally carer issues.

People are nervous and worried when calling, but I would reassure colleagues that everyone’s personal experiences are important, and no one is more of an expert than anyone else

My youngest caller told me she was 21; the eldest was an 88-year-old male. I think the typical caller is a female optometrist, qualified four to six years, around 26-38 years old. These details come up in conversation or are apparent when they discuss their career in optometry.

On the PSL, volunteers don’t ask for the callers’ name, age, race, ethnicity, gender, or religious beliefs, but we do listen to everyone with impartiality.

Are there any groups that you find do not contact the PSL? What would you say to encourage these groups to speak about issues they are facing, if they are nervous about doing so?

That’s a good and tricky question. I don’t actually know for sure. The PSL is open to all optical colleagues, however, it is usually optometrists that call. I haven’t had many calls from reception staff, optical assistants or dispensing opticians – perhaps they have their own networks, or are unaware. Multiples often have a helpline for employment issues.

Of course, people are nervous and worried when calling, but I would reassure colleagues that everyone’s personal experiences are important, and no one is more of an expert than anyone else. Talking can take a lot of courage and trust.

The helpline is called Peer Support, and all of the volunteers are optometrists who have had extensive training in listening, confidentiality, and empathy skills.

Above all, please do call. You’re not alone. We can’t offer solutions, or instant fixes, but we hope that callers can trust us. Discussing your problem can be a step towards a less stressful situation. The line is confidential, and free, and the conversation can take as long as you like.

In what circumstances would you refer callers on for other support, whether that’s to other areas of the AOP or to outside organisations?

The AOP has many areas and departments where volunteers can sign post callers – legal and employment are the biggest two, particularly with working conditions or disciplinary issues.

Charity organisations, such as Mind, offer great resources.

We suggest callers contact their GP for health conditions, and we always ask if they have a support network of friends, family, or partners.

In April 2022, PSL volunteers had a training session on safety, suicide prevention and recognising self-harm, and how to ask relevant questions for these circumstances – difficult and emotional topics to discuss, but very useful. I’ve only ever had to ask one caller if he felt suicidal at that particular instance: fortunately, he replied that he absolutely did not.