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.”

Keeping safety on track

Rail Express sits down with Heather Neil, the new CEO of TrackSAFE, to hear about her focus for the harm-prevention charity.

When Heather Neil joined TrackSAFE as its new CEO, the organisation had just coordinated the largest ever Rail R U OK?Day, despite being in the middle of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Instead of the usual barbeques and meet-ups that had been organised in previous years, rail employees were checking in with each other virtually and organisations sponsored conversation challenges.

Despite social distancing measures, over 75,000 rail-sector individuals participated in the annual mental-health awareness day. Speaking with colleagues and partners after the event, Neil said she was heartened by the positivity of the sector and the widespread engagement.

“Even though this year people did Rail R U OK?Day quite differently, there still seems to be a real interest and enthusiasm for those activities in a workplace; to check in on people and to remind them that one day in a year there’s a real focus on it but hopefully that rolls into other activities that people do as individuals and in workplaces throughout the year,” said Neil.

“Various companies have reported seeing that long term cultural change about caring for your workmates. They’re more than just your work colleagues – you might not see them outside of work, but it doesn’t mean you don’t check in on them and notice if things don’t look like they’re in a great place today.”

Neil joined rail-focused harm-prevention charity TrackSAFE with 12 years under her belt as the CEO of RSPCA Australia. Having taken a year to do consulting work after leavings the RSCPA, Neil took up the position at TrackSAFE to continue in the charity sector, however, in a very different kind of organisation.

“I was in a very privileged position to have been the CEO of RSPCA Australia and it’s an amazing organisation that’s loved by the Australian community and does such a diversity of work as well, but it’s lovely being in a small charity that can be nimble but that’s also so connected to the industry itself.”

Being part of an industry-founded and funded charity represented an opportunity to Neil to be able to proactively make change.

“One of the things that attracted me to TrackSAFE is that it was established by the industry to address issues that the industry had identified so it’s a voluntary activity that the industry is doing for society. The rail industry is still very committed to playing this important role in reducing risks of suicide and accidents on rail, so it’s really exciting to be part of an industry that takes a very positive attitude and doesn’t sit back and wait for somebody else to solve their issues. The industry itself knows that it can play an important role in addressing some of these big societal problems,” said Neil.

As a way of settling into the role, Neil has spoken with the companies and organisations that make up TrackSAFE, including rail owners and operators, manufacturers, and construction companies. Not only has this enabled Neil to get to know the industry, but to get a sense of the values and aspirations of those involved.

“It’s really interesting to hear of so much development and such positivity about the future and the opportunities in the industry,” she said.

TrackSAFE CEO Heather Neil

As a geographer by training, working on strategies to enable people to move around and interact with their environment more safely has brought Neil full circle.

“I worked for Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils and much of my job was advocating for services in Western Sydney, be it an airport, rail links, and other services. Now I’m kind of coming back to how people interact with the environment in which they live and how do you try and make that safe as well as efficient.”

As a harm prevention charity focused on reducing suicide on the rail network as well as accidents within the corridor, Neil sees the adoption of new technology, such as platform screen doors, as one area where new developments in the rail industry can have a positive effect.

“What we know in terms of preventing suicide is that if you can restrict access to the rail network, that is the best way to prevent suicide. TrackSAFE at the moment are pulling together a lot of information on fencing in order to have a conversation with governments to put that into the mix, particularly at the moment when governments are looking for shovel ready projects.”

By taking successes that have been demonstrated overseas or interstate and applying them in new contexts, the rail sector can continually improve safety outcomes, highlighted Neil.

“I really like that attitude of ‘We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.’ If we can build on the experience that others have had, while putting it in a different context, that’s efficient and contributes to good practice all the time,” said Neil.

These attitudes are distilled into TrackSAFE’s four primary areas of focus, which Neil sees the charity as continuing to operate within. The focus areas are: preventing suicide; providing staff and organisations with trauma management tools; reducing and preventing accidents within the rail corridor, particularly at level crossings; and taking an evidence-based approach to decision making.

While larger rail operators would have their own programs in each of these areas, Neil sees TrackSAFE as playing an important role in enabling the adoption of best practices across the industry as a whole by facilitating information exchange.

“For example, we know that operators are involved in various school-based education programs, and we encourage them to share that information between them and identify what’s worked really well, what can people build on, and then to minimise duplication.”

With Rail Safety Week occurring as passengers and commuters begin to return to a somewhat altered network, due to the changes made during the COVID-19 period, the focus of messages during the week will be on getting commuters to break out of their daily routines.

“We want to remind the community that it’s your individual responsibility to be aware of the surroundings because when you’re going to and from work or school every day you go into autopilot. We are trying to give people a reminder to take out your headphones, be aware of your surroundings, hold onto the railing, and stay back from the edge of the platform.”

Although targeted at the COVID-19 era, these messages will be ones that need to be heard no matter the year.

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.”

Rail R U OK?Day

Participation higher than ever in Rail R U OK?Day 2020

Rail R U OK?Day has been marked by rail organisations around Australia and New Zealand, with engagement reaching all-time highs.

On April 30, for the sixth year running, those within the rail industry reached out to their colleagues, co-workers, and friends to ask, “Are you ok?”

While traditional face-to-face get-togethers have been limited due to physical distancing measures in place to keep people safe due to coronavirus (COVID-19), numerous organisations still encouraged employees to pick up the phone or jump on a video call to check in on each other.

South Australian Public Transport Authority executive director, Anne Alford, said that Rail R U OK?Day in 2020 was the most significant yet.

“It’s now more important than ever that we promote a sense of community, reach out and ask our friends, family and workmates and ask, ‘Are you ok?” said Alford.

In Melbourne, Metro Trains driver Stephen King said that the simple action of asking a colleague how they are going can make a significant impact.

“To be able to just ask and check in on somebody to see how they’re going can make all the difference.”

Train drivers, station staff and the wider rail industry are often the first witnesses or respondents to traumatic incidents that occur on the rail network, leading to a focus on mental health within the industry.

“On any given day, at any given time, we’re prepared for any incident – whether it’s an accident or a trespasser. There are also things that happen away from the job that can affect us as drivers,” said King.

“There is a fair bit of stress and pressure that goes with the job for sure.”

In Queensland, Queensland Rail set a Wellbeing Conversation Challenge to encourage their team to check in on their workmates. Sydney Trains also encouraged employees to get involved in the conversation challenge.

“The virtual conversation challenge saw employees across Sydney Trains engage with each other by sharing videos and posts on our internal communication channels, and nominating others to take up the challenge,” said a Sydney Trains spokesperson.

Roughly 3,500 Sydney Trains employees participated both at in-person, socially distanced events and virtual panel discussions and live streams.

KiwiRail similarly looked to virtual methods to get colleagues to check in on each other.

“As we continue to be in lockdown due to COVID-19, we used our staff closed FaceBook group to share the message. More than 1,600 staff belong to this group and use the page as a discussion and information sharing forum,” said KiwiRail group general manager human resources Andrew Norton.

Rail R U OK?Day is facilitated in collaboration between TrackSAFE and harm prevention charity R U OK?. Participation numbers are still being confirmed, but across Australia and New Zealand, over 75,000 people participated, surpassing previous years’ figures. Bob Herbert, chairman of TrackSAFE, said that each year leads to more ongoing conversations that last throughout the year.

“We keep hearing numerous anecdotal accounts whereby a rail employee has trusted their instinct and noticed the signs that someone near them has been struggling, and we’re thrilled to learn that they have started a conversation that has put that person on a whole new path.”

Katherine Newton, CEO of R U OK? Said that the event showed how the rail industry can work together to address challenges such as mental health and wellbeing.

“Our partnership with TrackSAFE is one R U OK? is extremely proud of and is a brilliant example of an entire industry being committed to the R U OK? Movement,” said Newton.

“Participation in Rail R U OK?Day has grown more than 800% since the inaugural event in 2015, as we see, rail employees from across Australia and New Zealand are transforming their workplaces into strong and resilient environments every day of the year.”

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.

Rail R U OK?Day updated with COVID-19 resources

The importance of looking out for friends, colleagues, and mates in the rail industry has only been further highlighted this year with the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As routines are upended and social distancing is adhered to, loneliness and isolation can be further compounded, while obligations to look out for family members, partners and, friends outside of work can increase.

With these factors in mind, the TrackSAFE Foundation has reaffirmed that Rail R U OK?Day will continue as scheduled on Thursday, April 30. In addition, TrackSAFE has released additional materials relevant to the current working environment.

Resources that TrackSAFE have collated include updates to the RailRes App, as well as support and counselling services provided by Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and the National Mental Health Commission.

Additionally, R U OK? CEO, Katherine Newton has released a special message to encourage people to stay connected and give practical tips to stay in contact despite physical distancing laws. This messages has been supplemented by Connection Cards, which can be distributed without contact.

Materials to encourage electronic communication and online events have also been uploaded to the TrackSAFE website.

Ahead of this year’s Rail R U OK?Day organisations and participants can draw on the five years of successful R U OK?Days since 2015, with 55,000 rail employees participating in 2019. Over 70 rail companies are registered for the initiative and 105 Champions will facilitate the day.

This year, the two interactive question marks, Quentin and Quinn, departed from Canberra, with Major Projects Canberra, Canberra Metre Operations and Transport Canberra and City Services hosting the beginning of the seven week journey. This year was the first time that organisations in Canberra had participated in the Rail R U OK?Day.