There are 1.6 times more suicides in the rail industry compared to other sectors and more than half of all workers have experienced poor mental health.
Organisations within the rail industry and train operators are taking steps to try to improve this situation.
The Elizabeth Line is supporting front-line staff and managers to learn more about mental health and wellbeing to improve their welfare and reduce the risk of incidents.
One of the ways they’re doing this is by running Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training and Non-Technical Skills courses for colleagues.
Here, Imran Chaudhry, Head of Driver Projects and Assurance at Elizabeth Line, shares his experience of doing the training and explains why they’re taking this approach…
Why did you want to implement Mental Health First Aid training in your organisation and how does it fit in with wider work you’re doing around wellbeing?
As train operators we are involved with a number of incidents, which unfortunately can include people being hit by trains.
We’re relatively well accustomed to looking after people following these types of incidents, at least in the immediate aftermath. We have support systems in place, such as driver helplines, help for colleagues on platforms, etc, and processes for reintroducing people back into the business after such an incident.
However, when we looked at our operational profile, we noticed that when we have incidents, such as people making mistakes at work, they were often connected to staff welfare issues.
As part of that journey, we started looking at our competency management system, which is the way we work with drivers to maintain their competency for doing the role. We started to introduce some welfare aspects into that and realised we needed to upskill our driver managers in this area.
We began working with The Mental Wealth Company and put team members through their Non-Technical Skills Course. They recommended that we also undertake MHFA training with Andy.
A few of us did the course to understand how it could work in the business, and we came away genuinely impressed by it.
The most interesting part for me was the non-judgmental listening skills, and how powerful it can be to just allow someone to talk – and having the confidence to know when to act and when to step back and listen.
It helps you to spot the signs that someone might be struggling, and how to help them open up and start a conversation about how we can help as a business before we get to the point of an individual having an operational incident.
MHFA is a core element of what we want to deliver for our front-line driver team managers and area depot managers.
How did you find the course?
It really helped me to reflect on the experiences I’ve been through during my career – things you shrug off as ‘part of the job’, but they really aren’t.
I’ve been to around seven incidents where someone has been hit by a train, and that never became a normal day at the office for me; it’s always a very difficult thing to be involved in.
I realised on the course, just how little support the industry currently gives to front-line managers. We have an established chain of care and support structures in place for drivers returning to work, but when I was doing the driver manager role and attending those incidents, there was no support and you’d be back at work the next day.
How did you find Andy as a trainer?
Andy is very clear at the beginning of the course that there will be difficult topics to talk about and it might bring things up for students and you can sit out any bits that you need to, which is really reassuring.
I really like Andy’s approach. He’s the most laid-back individual I’ve ever come across, but he has a depth of knowledge and what he’s talking about isn’t just something he’s regurgitating, it comes from his lived experience.
He understands the impact some of the topics on the course can have on people and he has a really good way of making delegates feel supported. He knows how to read the room, so he knows when to offer extra help or when to lighten the mood.
Even though the course tackles some dark topics, we were able to have fun – which was useful to defuse these serious subjects.
What did you learn on the course that really stood out to you?
The non-judgmental listening skills were the biggest take-away for me. Practising these skills during the break-out sessions was really useful to learn when to sit back and listen and ignore the urge to jump in with advice.
It’s so powerful to let someone explore whatever’s going on for themselves in their own way, while you support by listening.
I’ve definitely used these skills already as a line manager. Using a pause, different types of language, and allowing silence has been very interesting during incident and accident explorations.
I’ve also used the listening skills in my personal life when a friend and colleague was having some issues. I just gave him space to get things out in the open in a way he hadn’t felt able to before.
Why is MHFA training so important in the rail industry?
We, and other train operators, need to support our driver managers to learn people skills, such as listening to others, putting yourself in their shoes, understanding you don’t have to fix the problem – which is particularly tricky for those with a technical background, etc.
If drivers go on to become line managers, having these skills is key for two reasons. One, helping us spot any welfare issues before they potentially lead to an incident so that we can intervene earlier, rather than dealing with the aftermath. And two, making sure our drivers have someone they’re comfortable opening up to.
Of course, we’re also still a male-dominated industry at the moment, so anything we can do to help our staff to build more human relationships and make it easier for everyone to have those conversations, has got to be a good thing.
It sounds like an industry-leading project to combine MHFA training and Non-Technical Skills course as such an integral part of the way you operate, why is this so important to you as an organisation?
We want to support people in the right way. Things going wrong shouldn’t be the norm and while we can’t prevent that from happening all the time, we want to try our best not to miss any opportunities to support our people.
Making sure our male-dominated workforce knows how to reach out and say ‘I’m struggling’ is so important. Normalising this process is also important for us.
And while we are a mainly male workforce, there are more women joining the rail industry who might have different expectations and needs, and they need to feel supported by their managers too, which these courses will help to achieve.
Do you recommend MHFA training for other rail operators?
Absolutely, I would recommend it to anyone regardless of whether you think you’re going to be in a position where you will need to reach out to anyone or not.
The listening skills, regardless of how you deploy them, are so valuable.
I also think learning about the mental health statistics and details about conditions helps to destigmatise and break down barriers. So, there’s huge value in the course regardless of whether you think you’re going to become a Mental Health First Aider.
It’s not just something you use in your working life, it’s also really useful for supporting family and friends.
How would you rate Andy as a trainer?
He’s 5/5. Andy seems completely unshakeable, and he has a story for every scenario. He has a good sense of humour but he’s also sensitive, so he can pick up on how you’re feeling and will put a figurative hand on your shoulder to check that you’re okay with what’s being talked about. He’s very good at supporting people through what can be quite challenging material at times.
If you’d like to talk about running a course with Andy in your organisation or taking it as an individual, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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