With Rail Safety Week recently celebrated around Australia and New Zealand for the 15th year running, messages of rail safety flooded inboxes, intranets, and social media, demonstrating the rail sector’s wholehearted embrace of such an initiative. Leaders at the highest levels joined the conversations with video messages, including Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack and state transport ministers, while organisations engaged the services of community figures, such as local rapper Lisi, who spread the message on behalf of Queensland Rail.
A similar expression can be seen on Rail R U OK?Day, which reached the highest number of people ever despite COVID-19 in 2020, its sixth year in a row. While messages around physical safety, mental health, and wellbeing are common now, it is important to note how far the industry has come. As Mostapha Kourouche, health advisor at Sydney Trains noted, things looked a bit different only a few years ago.
“Six years ago we got involved with Rail R U OK?Day. It was a great initiative, launched by TrackSAFE with a number of different rail organisations, but I felt that our initial presence just didn’t seem like it was hitting the mark. It was very corporate; it was very executive, and it didn’t really hit our front-line employees like it probably should.”
Sydney Trains, with a staff of over 10,000 people, is an extremely diverse organisation, and combined with NSW Trains stretches from the South Coast, to the Hunter and beyond the Blue Mountains. Having 17 years of experience within such a broad environment, Kourouche reached out to the R U OK? organisation to see how the initiative could be evolved.
“I wanted see what we could do, and ask, ‘This is what I’m thinking, do you think it can work?’ We collaborated with the team at R U OK? and our very first big Rail R U OK?Day came in 2016 when we had an event at Central station and we drew about 1,000 people across the business to that event. We had an all-day barbeque, we had our whole executive leadership team there, we had the R U OK? team turn up as well and have conversations with people and say, ‘G’day’.”
Beyond the day itself, Kourouche has become a Workplace Champion for R U OK? at Sydney Trains. In such a highly distributed organisation, looking to methods beyond a traditional sausage sizzle has enabled all members of the organisation to get involved.
“We have an internal social media that we use, so we encourage people to share their stories and experiences and fill it with colours of yellow. We encourage different sites to host local events as they know what their people are like.”
In addition to these bottom-up initiatives, senior executives at Sydney Trains and Transport for NSW have been able to share their stories with staff, something that Kourouche sees as vital to getting all individuals to start having conversations with each other. Over the years, these programs have grown Rail R U OK?Day within Sydney Trains to encompass the entire organisation.
“Last year we had events up as far as Narrabri and down in the Southern Highlands, the South Coast, and the Blue Mountains,” said Kourouche. “We’re reaching the whole of our network and people are taking on the message and really encouraging people to talk.”
In a recent Rail R U OK?Day tour of the Sydney network, Kourouche had one interaction that drove home how important these conversations can be. Pulling into a station, a staff member there asked what Kourouche was doing. Kourouche described the aim of Rail R U OK?Day which prompted the staff member to ask, “What if I’m not ok?”
Kourouche explained that he was there to have a chat and see how he and the wider Sydney Trains support network could help.
“He said, ‘Well I’m not ok. I’ve got so many things going on in my life, my mum is struggling with mental illness, she hasn’t been receiving the support that she needs. I’m a shift worker, I’m not speaking to my brother and sister, I’ve got to manage my family and try to look after my kids and not talking to my brother and sister doesn’t help me with looking out for my mum.’”
Kourouche put the staff member on to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which can provide counselling and support for Sydney Trains staff, but then Kourouche noticed the man looking at the bright yellow question mark that Kourouche was holding.
“He said, ‘What’s this yellow thing that you’re holding?’ and I said, ‘It’s Quentin the conversations starter.’ and he said, ‘Oh ok, what do you do?’ I said, ‘You give it a shake, like a Magic 8-Ball and it’ll give you a challenge to do and you take on that challenge and you have a week to do it.’”
The staff member’s challenge was to say thank you to someone’s who’s made a difference in your life. The staff member then turned to Kourouche and said, “Thank you”.
“I said ‘That’s really kind, but, mate, this is the first time that I’ve ever spoken to you and we’ve probably have an interaction of five or seven minutes.’ He said, ‘You’ve taken the time and stopped and spoken to me and I just want to say thanks for doing that.’”
A week later Kourouche was travelling past this station and saw the staff member. Getting out of the train, the staff member said, “I owe you a coffee”. Since the last conversation, the staff member had spoken with the EAP, they got a plan in place for his mum, taking stress off him, and allowing the relationship with his siblings to start to be patched up.
“I meant it when I said thanks,” the staff member told Kourouche, “because this is going to make a big difference to me and my family.”
Although just one conversation, the experience reinforced to Kourouche the power that being open and speaking with colleagues can have.
“I just truly believe that the message is one that works and that conversations do change lives.”
According to a Sydney Trains spokesperson, the success of initiatives such as Rail R U OK?Day depends upon the help of ambassadors such as Mostapha and is one of a number of initiatives to support employee health and wellbeing.
“We have a range of initiatives to support the health and wellbeing of our employees. These measures include: a Mental Health Program for frontline leaders to better identify and support employees who may require help, Mental Health Awareness Sessions with psychologists, Resilience Programs, Mental Health First Aid, a Train Crew Peer Support program, network-wide R U OK?Day and Rail R U OK?Day events, and our free and confidential Employee Assistance Program delivered by qualified clinicians.”
Although many industries have issues when it comes to mental health awareness and accident prevention, the scale of change in the rail industry is one that Kourouche is happy to see.
“I certainly can see that there has been a shift and a change. Although we’re still predominantly male, our average age is about 47 or 48 and the service life of our staff is around about 14 years. If you’ve got people who’ve been in and around the organisation for quite some time, it’s very hard to change your way of thinking. But, if we’re able to embed this into the organisation and have people recognise that it’s ok to have conversations and it’s ok to not be ok and ask for help if you need it, that really makes a significant difference.”