10th May 2020
3 Min Read

Tackling loneliness with The Co-op. Campaign Director Paul Gerrard on how businesses benefit by taking on the big issues.

Kate Went
Kate Went
Culture & Change


As part of our 2020 World Changers report, a key issue discussed was the growing loneliness epidemic. With the gulf of disconnection expanding, despite a veneer of digital collaboration, we see risks on the horizon for businesses who don’t take steps to close the gap and encourage genuine meaningful relationships and communities in their workplaces.

The mental and physical health impact of loneliness costs the economy a reported the £2.5 billion annually through lost productivity. With such a huge financial cost, as well as the wider-reaching implications on society, it’s essential that business leaders put strategies in place to support the people in their organisations who may be slipping through the cracks.

One company way ahead of the curve in tackling loneliness head-on is the Co-op. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I spoke with Paul Gerrard, Campaign and Public Affairs Director, who has led the Co-op Loneliness Campaign for the last four years. We discussed his experience of tackling a huge social issue, the surprising impact the campaign has had internally at the Co-op and his advice for businesses, both for tackling loneliness and for championing the causes close to their people’s hearts.

Paul, how and why did the Co-op identify a need to tackle this issue?

The short answer is, ‘The members told us to.’

The Co-op has a long tradition of campaigning on social issues. We can trace it all the way back to 1846 when we were probably the only organisation to allow women a vote. We’ve since campaigned on issues including women’s suffrage, pensions, working hours, slavery, crime and mental health.

Back in 2015, we asked our membership of 4.6 million to tell us which issues they felt most passionate about. Resoundingly, they told us we should campaign on loneliness.

Being member-owned makes the process interesting. It isn’t the executive board or the CEO setting the campaign agenda and it’s not a marketing or PR stunt. It’s the national members council, made up of 100 members elected by their fellow members to represent them, who make the decision.

Even with the members behind you, taking on such a big issue isn’t easy. What challenges did you face with the campaign when you started out?

I thought about this recently when I saw the PG Tips ‘Cuppa Together’ TV advert. It starts by saying that 9 million people are lonely. That’s our statistic.

Four years ago, loneliness just wasn’t being talked about so openly. Not only that, but the way it was framed was either as an ’older person issue’ or it was trivialised as feeling ‘a bit sad’. I think the biggest challenge at the start was getting people to look beyond these two fairly narrow assumptions and see loneliness for the significant public health issue it really is. Now our work is forming a foundation for these discussions.

And now?

If I look at back over the course of the campaign, I can see two very significant achievements

First, we’ve busted long-standing myths about exactly who is lonely, by exploring the link between loneliness and life transitions; from new jobs to divorce, relocation, bereavements or losing friendship groups when leaving education, it’s about stage not age. Our research report Trapped in a Bubble showed that the some of the loneliest people in our society were young new mums who didn’t know where to turn to get help and resources.

Second, through research like we commissioned from the New Economics Foundation who showed a £2.5 billion economic impact through lost productivity, we’ve been able to definitively badge loneliness as a genuine and serious public health issue.

In partnership with the British Red Cross, we’ve published a canon of research on the impact of loneliness, individually and economically. It had a great deal of influence at government level and I believe that if it hadn’t been for that work, we wouldn’t have seen the appointment of the first Minister for Loneliness, or their resulting strategy – A Connected Society published in October 2018 - to tackle the issue.

Raising awareness is only one part of effecting change though. We still wanted to do something tangible to show it’s an issue that can be tackled. Alongside the British Red Cross, Co-op colleagues helped raise £6.7million to fund vital work and outreach in communities. It was one of the biggest social prescribing interventions I can recall in UK history.

A lot of the campaign focuses on local communities. How did it also benefit Co-op employees?

When we launched the loneliness campaign in 2015, the Co-op was going through a rough patch and there was a lot of uncertainty in the business and some terrible coverage in the media. The launch of our loneliness campaign really was an important turning point that helped to galvanise our colleagues into action, helping rebuild a sense of purpose and pride.

Co-op colleagues were seeing a lot of that negative comment in the media. But the campaign meant we were able to tell another story; one of community cohesion that empowered colleagues and rebuilt a lot of confidence.

As a business we punch massively above our weight on issues and colleagues could see the direct impact of their work in their own communities. It reminded everyone just what the Co-op can do.

We also took a really good look at our own business model and asked ourselves what we do on this issue. A simple but effective change we made was to link our own Employee Assistance Programme to the British Red Cross’ Community Connectors to enable referrals for our own colleagues.

What impact has the campaign had across the business since it launched in 2015?

Reaffirming a sense of pride was a big impact. Beyond that, it’s given us the confidence to go after other big issues. We started our anti-slavery campaign back in 2017 and were the first British business to ever win the global Thompson Reuters Stop Slavery award. We’re also campaigning on crime, both in store and in communities, and looking at mental health because, in part, of the confidence and capability we got from the loneliness campaign.

So, now the campaign has wrapped up and the final report has been released, what does the future look like for Co-op in how it tackles loneliness going forward?

I think when businesses and charities team up, with the business being a true advocate, not just a chequebook, governments really take notice. But, there’s only so long a business can do that before it becomes part of the furniture on that issue. What we always aimed to do was make it a public health concern and make it a core part of the agenda. We achieved what we set out to do.

But loneliness has been at the heart of our work for the past five years and has had a huge, deep and wide-reaching impact. We’ll always champion it but now it’s time to pass the baton on to others to continue the conversation.

For other business taking up that mantle, or wanting to become advocates of other social issues, what lessons do you think can be taken from Co-op’s work on the campaign?

Businesses have got to accept that it isn’t about competitive advantage or a branding and marketing opportunity. If that’s the motivation, it very quickly becomes obvious. If a business does it because it’s the right thing to do – and can set aside its organisational ego – then it will achieve good things, but it has to be truly owned by the business and its senior leaders.

Secondly, you have to be in it for the long haul. These are issues that take time to tackle. We’re a retail business and a campaign of this length and span is almost counter intuitive to the agile nature of our business which is used to making head-spinningly fast decisions.

Finally, partnerships are so important. You don’t get anywhere with these issues if you go it alone. Alongside the British Red Cross we also sought expert advice and advocacy from bereavement charity Cruise and Home-Start, a charity that supports young mothers.

What we’ve also seen with the loneliness campaign is that if you can build partnerships with other business, even competitors, you can drive real social change. Absolutely, partner with charities and academic experts but don’t discount other businesses. If you can lose the ego, you can achieve truly remarkable things.

And what would be your advice be to leaders, HR and IC teams looking to tackle loneliness in their organisations?

It’s about doing due diligence to truly understand the issue. Do your research, read reports such as our Trapped in a Bubble. I’d also go and meet people who suffer from loneliness, so you can understand the issues both intellectually and emotionally.

It’s about being aware of those transitional trigger points and putting in place the right processes to support people, as well as continuing to make people aware of the support that’s on offer.

Consider your business model and the employee lifecycle, from onboarding to retirement, and look at those at risk, such as remote or part-time workers.

And finally, Paul, what positive story from the campaign stands out for you?

Last summer, I went to a conference where Andrew Gwynne, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Jon Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Health spoke about loneliness and how it affected them.

A week later, both the Minister for Loneliness, Diana Barran, and Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, spoke on the issue. Five years ago we wouldn’t have seen these conversations from such senior political – either in Government or the Opposition - representatives. I remember my colleague Holly, who has been a key part of the team on loneliness since the start, saying that she knew there’d been major change.

What really hits you is meeting people who describe their personal experience with the campaign and it’s like night and day to see the difference it’s made in their lives. I spoke with a lady who came to this country and became isolated after the birth of her baby. It had a devastating impact on her mental wellbeing. Now, to see that she’s built a network of friends and is thriving is amazing. She was able to do that because of the tools our campaign could give her and that’s just one of so many stories.

This interview was inspired by our look at 'A Lonely Workforce', one of ten trends covered in our 2020 World Changers report

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