Tracey Upton, Employee Experience Manager, Merseyrail
What was your motivation for running Mental Health & Wellbeing sessions with A Matter of Choice?
I had played a big part in identifying the need for these sessions and arranging for their delivery through the team at A Matter of Choice. These sessions played an important part in a much wider initiative and were designed to address and provide a real solution to a number of issues.
Firstly, we wanted to tackle the taboo of mental health awareness as a company. Rail is typically a traditional and male dominated industry with many of our staff having been with us for over 25 years. We have a big proportion of men on the frontline and we realised that many of those may not necessarily be confident in talking about their issues openly.
It was important to me to provide something tangible that would be useful and effective for managers to upskill them and equip them to have those difficult conversations with staff. I wanted frontline managers to be able to spot the signs related to mental health issues and identify those who are not willingly coming forward with their concerns and encourage them to talk.
In the last 18 months, and 12 months in particular, a lot has been done internally to address mental health and this session fit into that overall plan. So much had been done in terms of introducing initiatives for frontline staff, such as our ‘take two to have a brew’ campaign for example. We wanted to let our people know that it’s okay to talk.
It was at this point I spoke to Karen and Lesley as we understood that our managers weren’t necessarily able to have those kinds of conversations. I had been made aware of the work Lesley had done at West Midlands Trains by a colleague there and was impressed by the impact it had had and knew we were looking for a similar outcome. We had worked so hard to put out impactful initiatives, videos and messages to staff to encourage them to talk but we realised it could make things worse if their line manager was unable to help or support them.
We needed to close the gap and AMOC helped us to do that by addressing the situation with a top down approach. We have a really positive campaign that encourages staff to share stories alongside a helpline, videos and even access to a virtual GP, however our managers required the skills to deliver on all of that.
What feedback did you receive following the session?
The session was received so well and although it was mandatory for frontline managers, most of them were really keen to attend regardless. We were met with some reluctancy but so many of the people that had been hesitant at first contacted me afterwards to let me know how great it had been and how much they had gained from it. The change in attitude across the company was unbelievable.
I think the way that Karen and Lesley delivered the programme was a key part in that. It was informal, delivered at everyone’s own pace and involved a lot of interaction, so it wasn’t a case of being talked at. As a group, we had the opportunity to share stories and Karen and Lesley really helped us to break down our barriers. We all felt comfortable to open up and give our own views and that candidness made the whole process feel more real and authentic.
The feedback that I received from colleagues afterwards was genuinely very positive. Staff praised the personal feel of the sessions and they enjoyed that it didn’t necessarily feel like a learning environment although they did learn a great deal. There is a structure to these programmes but Karen and Lesley manage it so well that it doesn’t feel like training and the audience really do connect with them on a personal level. They are open, honest, truthful and frank, and participants were exactly the same back.
AMOC are so experienced in what they do and their style of training is really unlike anything else I’ve been involved with.
In total, over 100 of our managers attended over 10 sessions. Each workshop had around 12 people in attendance. Those smaller numbers meant that group had much better engagement and it felt much more informal and safer. Lesley and Karen were keen to keep the group small enough to allow enough time for reflection and discussion without rushing any part.
What did you take away from the session?
As a company, we were already very proactive in our approach to mental health and wellbeing. We have a range of initiatives in place and we have so much to communicate to our workforce that we found that some of the key messages we were trying to push often got lost. This session helped to refresh managers’ knowledge of the support systems available within the company and allowed them to properly communicate those to their teams.
After the sessions, we contacted everyone who had participated in order to share our internal resources while it was fresh in their minds.
We had feedback from colleagues who had taking their learnings into the working environment almost straight away, with many of our managers saying that they felt more able to support their teams while being comfortable enough to have those open discussions and spot the signs associated with mental health issues. It was important to offer this to our frontline managers as they are out on the ground and are the first point of call for most of our employees.
After the session, we made a collective commitment to drive our mental health campaign forward and better understand those situations in the workplace. Our staff acted immediately and put their learnings into practice.
How did you find the session, from a personal and professional point of view?
It really brings your emotions to the forefront.
As a person, I am very supportive and passionate about mental health awareness. I have been a people manager for many years, but the programme actually made me stop and think about myself. I realised that I do so much for others but I don’t give myself that same level of care or attention. I cried when I made that realisation, but I wasn’t embarrassed. I actually felt very empowered that I was strong enough to admit the way I was feeling. It was a good opportunity for me to self-reflect and come to terms with the fact that myself and many other managers don’t always handle our own stresses as we prioritise our teams. All of the pressures that we face are often pushed to the background, but I feel that this session enabled us to become better for those around us.
When you are passionate about mental wellbeing, people come to you and offload their problems but it’s important that managers also have someone to offload on.
After that session, people reached out to me and offered to chat or catch up over a brew.
How did the session equip managers to deal with issues around Covid-19?
I feel that our managers are better equipped to handle mental wellbeing issues around Covid-19 having been on those sessions. The importance of mental health is prominent in their minds and they’re now able to make that connection when someone might be suffering.
Not being with your team face to face means that it’s something that we, as managers, have to think about more than ever and A Matter of Choice have enabled us to prioritise this and be proactive in our management style. There are, of course, many resources that we provide to help with mental health and wellbeing at this time, from e-learning programmes to stress support systems.
Would you recommend AMOC?
I always tell other train operators about the work that AMOC do, not only from a mental wellbeing stance but also when it comes to work around inclusion training and confidence building for women in male dominated industries.
Lesley has worked within the transport industry for many years and her real-life examples and stories from her career made the session very relatable for us. However, the sessions and the learnings can be adjusted for almost any sector and their combined knowledge means they are geared to adapt based on their audience.
They really do offer something unique which is why we also recently sponsored their first ever Women’s Conference here in Liverpool.
Will you continue to work with AMOC in the future?
In the future we hope to run some mop up workshops for managers that didn’t get the opportunity to attend the mental health and wellbeing sessions in person.
We’re also exploring the possibility of working with AMOC to develop a training package that will enable us to deliver short bites of mental health awareness for frontline staff, train the trainer style
It’s important that we upskill all of our managers for the same level of consistency and see the training through from the top down.