Neighbour Day Research – What we’ve learnt over the years

Jan 26, 2022 | Blog

Neighbour Day Research 2016 – 2022
By Claire Fisher, Senior research and projects officer, National Office January 2022

Relationships Australia has been the custodian of the Neighbour Day campaign since 2014. Much has changed in the world since then, and with that, the needs and desires of our communities. These changes are reflected in the variety of campaign evaluations we have conducted across the years. This year, to celebrate Neighbour Day Connecting Communities for 20 years, we are looking back at our past research and reflecting on the lessons we have learnt. Additionally, we will outline our new research approach, as Neighbour Day continues to support Australians to build the communities they want to live in, one relationship at a time.

Neighbour Day began in recognition of the sad news of Mrs Elsie Brown and the impact loneliness, and lack of social connection has on an individual, as well as their community. Relationships Australia has grown the day into an ongoing, year round social connection campaign. When the Neighbour Day campaign found a home at Relationships Australia, we recognised the need to begin formally evaluating the impact this campaign was having on communities.

In 2018, we commissioned Swinburne University to supplement our existing internal evaluation with a qualitative account of the lived experience of hosting Neighbour Day events. We were especially interested in understanding how, why and when hosts got involved in Neighbour Day, what happens at an event, and the ongoing effect the campaign was having on the community. We found that Neighbour Day was supporting people to create, renew and deepen relationships with their neighbours. We also found that many had been running events for some time, and as these gained traction, neighbours started to organise and take ownership over the day. However, it was difficult to assess the exact changes brought about by Neighbour Day, as hosts were already highly involved in their communities. In order to assess changes to social capital, social inclusion and wellbeing, we felt it necessary to connect with all involved in celebrating Neighbour Day, including the attendees.

With this in mind, in 2019 we shifted our evaluation to include anyone who had connections to the campaign. Conducted by the Australian National University, the 2019 research led to a publication in the Journal of Social Science & Medicine (Fong et al., 2021). By employing longitudinal methods, the evaluation demonstrated that involvement in Neighbour Day leads to a tangible and sustained reduction in loneliness. We found that Neighbour Day leads people to feel more satisfied with their neighbourhood and a greater sense of belonging. Following these exciting findings, and Relationships Australia’s growing involvement in the mental health sector, we felt it was important to further interrogate the relationship between place, community, mental health and loneliness.

Then, of course, in 2020, mental health, loneliness and social connection became one of the leading stories. As the pandemic took hold and people were confined to their neighbourhoods, the importance of local communities became more prominent. For many, this was the first time they took the opportunity to engage with their local community. In response, Neighbour Day launched the concept of #CreativeConnections, to encourage people to creatively reach out while remaining physically distant. While the ways in which people celebrated Neighbour Day changed, the core need for connection did not.

Despite the rapidly changing situation, the Neighbour Day evaluation continued. This research had fortuitous timing, as the first survey was conducted in February 2020, with another in April and a third in September. This allowed us to conduct a longitudinal study with the same group of people, pre and post initial COVID-19 public health measures. This resulted in fascinating findings.

Although respondents reported a decreased sense of mental wellbeing and an increased sense of loneliness between February and April of 2020, there was also an increased sense of neighbourhood satisfaction. During nationwide lockdowns, increased time at home meant people were better able to identify with their neighbourhood, which led to improvements in mental health and wellbeing. Partly, this occurred because neighbours felt more able to access each other’s support than ever before. Getting to know your community and having an opportunity to support your neighbours in tangible ways reduces loneliness for all involved. Six months on from the initial Neighbour Day celebrations, people were feeling less lonely than in February 2020. Our findings show that despite the enormous challenges of 2020, the opportunity to connect with local networks and meet neighbours, some for the first time, led to greater and persistent resilience.

With this in mind, while planning our 2021 Neighbour Day campaign and research, we were especially mindful of the need to capture relationships in our evaluations, as these had become an integral part of the fight against loneliness, exacerbated by the challenges of the ongoing pandemic. Since 2018, we had noted that the reasons participants cited for getting involved in Neighbour Day had shifted from more individualised benefits such as for fun, enjoyment and celebration, to community benefits such as raising the awareness of the importance of neighbours, creating strong communities and showing support for neighours (Cruwys et al. 2019, 2020). Neighbour Day was shifting from a simple celebration, to a social and public health campaign.

2022 and beyond

As the pandemic continues and we see increasing environment crises affecting communities across Australia, Relationships Australia sees the continued need for a society that is socially connected and resilient, where individuals and communities have the capacity to create and maintain respectful relationships.

The pandemic has incited a flurry of research into social connection and relationships and the strain caused by the ongoing public health crisis. Relationships Australia has appreciated the opportunity to be involved in a variety of research projects exploring these issues. However, with four years of research proving the effectiveness of the Neighbour Day already under our belt, we found ourselves asking, what next?

In 2022, we will be working with local government area Councils which have not previously been actively involved in Neighbour Day. They will act as case studies, to explore the process of implementation and promotion of Neighbour Day in that area. This will allow us to measure the effectiveness of the Neighbour Day campaign in a new and localised area, empowering new and diverse communities to connect. Local Governments are at the frontline of community development and wellbeing in Australia and we believe that Neighbour Day serves as a helpful resource in council toolkits.

Through our continued work with Councils and community organisations, we aim to reach as many individuals and communities as possible across Australia. The Neighbour Day campaign helps us strive towards a society that is empowered to support those experiencing loneliness and social isolation. In addition, through our campaign, individuals facing these obstacles, are able to pursue empowerment to access localised supports and services. No one should feel alone in their loneliness. The community we all need is at your doorstep. Let’s shift the tide of loneliness and build the Australia we all want to live in: one brimming with respectful relationships and connected communities.

Cruwys, T., & Donaldson, J. L. (2021). Neighbour Day: ANU Evaluation Supplementary Report March 2021. The Australian National University and Relationships Australia.

Cruwys, T. & Fong, P. (2020). Neighbour Day in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic: A Special Report 2020. Relationships Australia and The Australian National University.

Cruwys, T., Fong, P., Robinson, S. & Mance, P. (2019). Neighbour Day Evaluation Report 2019. Relationships Australia and The Australian National University.

Cruwys, T., Stevens, M., Donaldson, J. L., Cárdenas, D., Platow, M. J., Reynolds, K. J. & Fong, P. (2021). Perceived COVID-19 risk is attenuated by ingroup trust: evidence from three empirical studies. BMC Public Health, Vol. 21(869).

Fong, P., Cruwys, T., Robinson, S., Haslam, A., Mance. & Fisher, C. (2021). Evidence that loneliness can be reduced by a whole-of-community intervention to increase neighbourhood identification. Social Science and Medicine. Vol 27.

Long, K. & Lim, M. (2019). Evaluating the impact of Neighbour Day on the community. Swinburne University of Technology on behalf of Relationships Australia (National).