Vicky Thurston works for the Information Line here at Action on Hearing Loss. After starting at the charity as a six week temp, she has now worked here for the last 6 years. In this blog post, Vicky tells us how all about the information line and how important it can be to those calling in.
When did you start working on the Information Line?
I started six years ago this coming June, originally as a six week temp to cover a shortage – one thing led to another, I was made permanent and now it’s been six years!
That seems like a good length of time! You must like it?
Yes I do like it because every day is different, you never know what’s coming and it’s nice to know that you’re helping people.
Who else is on your team?
Rachel is the team manager, she’s been with the charity for nearly 14 years. There’s Jess, Fiona, Yvonne and our administrator Sarah. We’re also supported by two volunteers. We’re a relatively small team – often people think we’re bigger than we are. One of our volunteers expected to come into a massive call centre and was quite surprised to see it was just us!
That is smaller than I’d expected! Do you often have calls waiting in the queue?
Sometime, but there’s usually always someone free to talk. More and more people are choosing to access the service online, so there are sometimes one or two live chats waiting while you’re on the phone.
What do you like best about your job?
For me, it is being able to help somebody who would’ve really been stuck had they not found us.
For instance, I’ve just finished a live chat with a lady who initially came through looking for tinnitus support. It led to her to telling me about her experience with her GP, where she had experienced a real lack of support. She was told to go away and learn to live with it. I was able to provide her with some literature on tinnitus, so she could go back to her GP and ask for a second opinion. Initially, she was quite distressed – but she left the conversation armed with knowledge and able to have a more proactive discussion with her GP.
The people we speak to feel less alone and are empowered to take action. From the start of the call to the end, you can tell you’ve made a difference. We share information with people on a daily basis – there are many people who just don’t have access to information, and you can change lives by sharing it.
What sort of things do people call to ask?
It’s varied – it can range from someone who’s just been diagnosed with hearing loss and wants to know how to get a hearing aid, or what benefits they might be entitled to. We sometimes speak to ex-services people or those who’ve worked in industrial workplaces, whose hearing loss was caused at work. Some people are interested in where they can learn sign language, or to Iip read. Others want to know what products there are for hearing loss or tinnitus – in some areas AOHL can support, or we also offer impartial signposting to Local Authority sensory services team. One question tends to lead to several more.
It’s a lot of information! How do you keep track of it all?
When we have a new starter on the Information Line, they go through an intensive 3-4 week training programme where they learn about the organisation and the work we do – for example, our campaigns and biomedical work – as well as all areas of deafness, hearing loss and tinnitus. The training also involves learning 60 factsheets and 11 leaflets, shadowing and role playing.
A new starter may learn about something during their initial training which they then might not get a call about until a few months later, so we need to sometimes relearn information and do a lot of Q&A Sessions amongst the team. We work very closely with our in-house Audiologist, Biomedical team, Regional Information offices and Community Support offices and many other departments across the organisation to ensure we are always well informed.
Of course if we don’t have the answer we will always try to investigate it where possible, or sign post the caller to other organisations for information and support.
As a team, we share information between us to keep on top of our knowledge too.
I expect some of the calls can be quite emotional…?
The most emotional calls are often relating to tinnitus. Sometimes, we speak to people who express feelings of loneliness, depression, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts through our ‘Tinnitus helpline’.
It’s one of those things every individual experiences differently. Some people can cope, while others find it really debilitating – their family life / marriage is breaking down, they’re not going to work –and there’s no cure. Some products can help – tinnitus relaxers/ pillows for example, but with tinnitus not all therapies and products will work for everyone. Stress and anxiety have a massive impact on how people experience tinnitus, so it is important for us to inform people on what help is out there and to listen and support them.
Although as Information Line officers we’re not medically trained, nor qualified counsellors, we do provide an emotionally safe environment where callers can share their feelings. We receive specialist training from the Samaritans on how to support vulnerable callers, so we’re well equipped to deal with sensitive and difficult situations.
That sounds really tough for those experiencing tinnitus, and it must also be quite emotional for you and the team sometimes too. How do you cope with some of the more emotional calls?
We speak to other members of the team, or even have a little cry when we need to! It helps that we are a close knit team. A lot of the time, other team members may have dealt with similar calls, or even may have spoken with that person before, and it’s helpful to be able to share your experiences on the phone with each other.
What would you say to someone who had questions about hearing loss?
That’s exactly what we’re here for – to provide information. Having knowledge can make you feel empowered. Don’t feel worried about picking up the phone or sending an email. If we can’t help, we will find someone who can. Reach out – we’re here for you.