Conversations

“A conversation can change a life”

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.”

TrackSAFE appoints new executive director

TrackSAFE Foundation has appointed a new executive director, Heather Neil.

Neil has begun with TrackSAFE as of May 4, 2020.

The industry-funded foundation, which works to reduce collisions, injuries, and fatalities on the rail network in Australia, recently facilitated Rail R U OK?Day with attendance figures higher than ever.

Bob Herbert, chairman of TrackSAFE, highlighted Neil’s previous achievements as CEO of RSPCA Australia and as a director of the Community Council for Australia.

“Throughout her career, Neil has been actively involved in advocating for and delivering improved legislation, policies and practices across a wide range of issues,” said Herbert.

TrackSAFE facilitates Rail R U OK?Day alongside the R U OK? suicide prevention organisation in April each year and works year-round with telephone crisis support service Lifeline. Herbert noted that Neil will be strengthening these connections.

“A key role for Neil will be to engage with all sectors of the rail industry and TrackSAFE’s partners, both Lifeline and the R U OK? charities. We work in tandem with both these bodies,” said Herbert.

In addition to the ongoing situations that rail workers are exposed to, restrictions and behaviours surrounding coronavirus (COVID-19) have increased pressures on the mental health of those in the rail industry, said Herbert.

“All too frequently rail employees are exposed to traumatic incidents due to suicides, level crossing accidents and through the untoward behaviour of trespassers on the rail network. Now, added to that COVID-19 is having its impact on employee well-being and mental health. Never before has there been such a strong need for the role TrackSAFE plays.”

Pacific National

Pacific National ramps up mental health peer support

Pacific National has today announced it will be increasing the size and scope of its mental health support for employees.

With more than 3,500 employees and terminals, depots and sites across Australia, Pacific National has been running a peer support program for a number of years. The organisation has been working on re-invigorating the initiative since late last year.

Chief people officer for Pacific National, Heidi Beck says their Peer Connect program ensures that important conversations about people’s mental health happen every day, not only on Rail R U OK?Day.

“Our program is somewhat unique in that it has been ongoing for some time, but it is very much led and driven by our employees and, increasing the size of the program was something that was requested by employees.

“Our Peer Connect program is aimed at raising mental health awareness and building a peer to peer support network every day. Our Peer Connect Champions are a point of contact for employees needing support,” she said.

To mark Rail R U OK?Day, the company has more than doubled the pool of peer support champions so that employees will have an identified peer to speak to if they need to have a confidential chat, either in person or via email, to one of their colleagues within the business about any difficulties they are facing.

“Every one of our Peer Support Champions will undergo the TrackSAFE Mental Health First Aid training in person and we will be looking to start this as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.

“In the meantime, our new Peer Support Champions will receive in-house training and resources so they can start to prepare themselves for their new roles,” explains Beck.

During the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, check-in conversations with each other and openly talking about our state of mind have become a crucial way of life for all.

The training program itself is specifically designed for the rail industry and focused on the issues those working within the rail industry may face. It has been developed by Mental Health First Aid Australia and is facilitated by TrackSAFE.

“I have completed the program myself and it reminded me that while people may seem stoic on the outside, underneath they might be very stressed and a trigger can bring on high levels of anxiety in any of us,” says Beck.

Rail industry to come together for Rail R U OK?Day

On April 30, for the sixth year running, the rail industry in Australia and New Zealand will come together to ask colleagues, friends, and workmates, “Are you ok?”.

Run in collaboration between the TrackSAFE Foundation and non-profit suicide prevention organisation R U OK?, the day serves a way for those who work in the rail industry to support each other, said Bob Herbert, executive chairman of TrackSAFE.

“There’s around 300 attempts and 150 deaths on Australia’s train lines can be attributed to suicide each year. That impacts rail employees very severely, whether they’re drivers, stations staff, or maintenance staff and so Rail R U OK?Day was originally set up to deal with that trauma,” said Herbert.

In 2020, the day has taken on added significance as rail workers contend with the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on their working conditions, and the industry has responded in kind.

“We’ve got around 100 organisations participating in it this year, and each one appoints at least one champion, so there’s 120 champions, and we haven’t got the final figures yet, but I reckon we’ll touch 70,000 employees. This would be our biggest year ever,” said Herbert.

While a national R U OK?Day will be held in September, April 30 is a rail specific event that acknowledges the particular experiences of rail employees, said Katherine Newton, CEO of R U OK?.

“Rail R U OK?Day is distinct because it’s an industry specific campaign. It’s a day for the rail industry, for operators, drivers, admin staff, for everyone who’s in the industry to come together. It’s about acknowledging that they do see challenging incidents, and that the rail community as workmates and as colleagues can be there for each other during those times.”

In keeping with the grassroots nature of the wider R U OK? iInitiative, the rail day is a day for industry, by industry, highlighted Herbert.

“I’m delighted that this is the industry funding it, there are 30 subscribers, big and small rail companies, and they see this as an important initiative for the whole industry.”

Ahead of the day, TrackSAFE and R U OK? Have distributed rail-specific materials to encourage colleagues to sit down with each other or pick up the phone and get in touch. Herbert noted that these resources, in addition to TrackSAFE’s partnership with Lifeline, allow for an ongoing conversation.

“There’s nothing more important that having employees say to one another, ‘‘Are you ok?’’ and knowing what to do if you’re not ok, where do you refer them, how do you help them, make sure that there’s some action being taken and getting some follow up to see if you’re ok. That’s the message, quite simple really, but of all the things that I’ve been engaged in this is one of the most important at addressing mental health issues.”

THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 
Having been determined to be an essential service by all levels of government in Australia and New Zealand, the rail industry has been operating throughout measures implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19, and each sector has been called upon to contribute in their own way. Occurring in the run up to Rail R U OK?Day, Herbert has seen the industry come together like never before.

“Each of the companies are conscious of all the rules that apply, in terms of social distancing, and companies are practicing that. They understand their employees will face stressed passengers, and I’m pleased that TrackSafe can offer a big piece in the jigsaw as to how best it’s managed.”

Newton concurred, noting that while there may be a new physical distance between the rail industry, it’s more important than ever to be socially connected.

“While we’re being asked to be socially distant, we still need social connection and that’s really our message. We need to stay connected while and I think that the way that people have come together, with the increases that we’ve seen in both organisations that are taking part and the number of champions that are within those organisations, testifies to the idea of there is a lot more talking at the moment.”

Ahead of the day itself, participating rail companies and organisations have been provided with resources tailored to the conditions imposed by COVID-19 and are preparing for virtual meet-ups and calls.

“Let’s see what happens on the day but people are putting together some really creative ways online that they can connect,” said Newton. “It’s a great opportunity to pause and to take a moment, whether that be via phone, SMS, social media or the zooms that are happening around the country.”

AN ONGOING CONVERSATION
On April 30, leaders within the Australasian railways industry will be talking with their colleagues and checking in with each other, Herbert included.

“I won’t be sitting back and watching on the 30th, I’ve been invited to engage firstly with QR and Transdev New Zealand have asked me to do a presentation. My collages Danny Broad and Caroline Wilkie will be kicking in with Sydney Trains and Metro Trains Melbourne, so everywhere that we can spread ourselves we will be doing it.”

Other organisation will hold online webinars highlighting strategies for workmates to ask the critical question and for the past months two interactive question marks have been travelling around the country, beginning in Canberra for the first time. However, both Herbert and Newton noted that these conversations can continue year-round.

“Our message is that every day is R U OK?Day,” said Newton. “It’s very much around creating a culture of R U OK? and that’s where we see it works best. It’s not just having some cupcakes on Rail R U OK? Day or indeed R U OK?Day in September, it’s about having meaningful conversations and chats and that can only really come with trust.

“There has to be trust within colleagues and managers and it can be really helpful if leaders can show a bit of vulnerability and can show that they trust the people around them and say, ‘we all go through stuff, I’m human too and this is what we can do for each other’.”

Herbert agreed, and is looking forward to connecting with his rail colleagues once again.

“While April 30 becomes a significant exclamation mark for asking R U OK? It ought to be something we are doing all year round. We’ll engage with the national R U OK day in September I hope by then people can get together like they normally do,” he said.