Spotlight on Local Mental Wellbeing Practice: West Midlands Trains are "Hear to Listen"
Within the programme, we use the green ribbons from the Lord Mayor’s Appeal ‘This Is Me’ campaign to improve awareness and understanding of wellbeing and create safer, more supportive working environments.
In the first of the series, we speak with Lesley Health, Head of Safety & Environment at West Midlands Trains to hear more about their “Hear to Listen” campaign, a local twist on the green ribbons.
What is “Hear to Listen”?
“Can somebody help me? I need help!”, exclaims Lesley to the room full of WMT staff sat at their computers, her arms waving wildly. Lesley can’t get the room booking system to work, as happens in most offices. This is the culture of WMT – I need help and I’m not afraid to ask for it. WMT has discovered not just the talking cure, but the listening cure. “We don’t teach people how to listen. We ask how people are, but we don’t listen, but sometimes that’s all you need”, shares Lesley.
Like most innovations, “Hear to Listen” was borne out of discomfort and an unmet need, particularly during a period of uncertainty, due to franchise change. It was recognised that managers and colleagues alike would need ongoing support to cope with the changes ahead. WMT wanted to break down barriers about mental health in a way that was really embedded in the business. “We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing something about it.”
Phase one objectives were:
- To inform all senior managers about the strategy.
- To start educating line managers about mental health: what it is, how to spot it, what to do about it.
- To get the message out that there are people that are ‘hear to listen’ within the business, and that speaking about mental health at work should not be stigmatised.
Phase two, which is ongoing, includes:
- To ensure frontline colleagues are aware of the support they have on offer.
- To continue training of line management.
- To ensure access to and understanding of materials, processes and support.
Launched at its Senior Management Conference in November 2017, “Hear to listen” is a top-down approach with senior leadership at its heart. WMT identified the need for a dual approach - senior managers need to be equipped adequately with the skills to help people in crisis as well as being competent and confident to tackle stigma and open those ‘difficult conversations. Twelve senior managers received training to be Mental Health First Aiders, which effectively addressed both these points.
“Hear to listen” isn’t even about mental health per se, but about saying we’re operating in a culture that wants to sit down and talk with you about how you are” explains Lesley. “We haven’t badged it mental health, we’ve badged it ‘we’re people you can trust, and you can come and speak with us’”.
The campaign is characterised by a speech bubble logo which people can wear as a badge, just like the green ribbon. WMT took inspiration from the blue dot that is used as a badge at Google, i.e. if you have the blues… “We had loads of fun trying to come up with something. We wanted something that didn’t have any words attached, something that was about more than just mental health. All we’re trying to say is that we are here to listen, about anything really!”
WMT also do mental health storytelling as part of the campaign. They already have four videos completed, all of which are senior managers within the business. Using Yammer and the intranet to disseminate, they have encouraged more people to volunteer, and video number five is already in the pipeline.
From Lesley’s experience an effective mental health strategy must cover 18 months to 2 years for it to work. It needs to be about more than a one-day campaign. “You have to tackle the culture so people can act before it becomes a mental health issue.”
The driver behind this strategy has been an impassioned mental health steering group. This formed three months before the launch, has 10-12 members, and meets every 4-8 weeks. The group is made up of senior managers who were already advocates for wellbeing, because as Lesley explains, “if you go into this, you have to go into this seriously”. When talking to Lesley about what makes the steering group effective, how they manage to create this organisational support system at a time of such great change, the key is in the people. There seems to be a magic human formula of authenticity, trust, and being in a position of influence; or simply put: clout and a good nature.
WMT invested in Mental Health First Aid training first for the twelve managers from the senior leadership team, and then for another twelve team leaders who represent the different areas of the business. That’s training for 24 people in a company of about 2,500, or 1%. Each team leader is buddied up with someone from the original team, who can provide coaching and guidance. Not only does this ensure team leaders are supported and learning embedded, it also supports a culture where there is an active open dialogue with senior management.
While WMT chose the MHFA qualification, Lesley highlights that it’s “important not to see MHFA as the answer, that’s not what going to make the change. MHFA can help give people the confidence to have conversations and to support managers to reflect on their own behaviours and how they manage people. People come to you because you are trusted, not because you are MHFA trained.” It’s about the combination of creating a culture of trust and building managers’ confidence in their mental health literacy.
Some people express concern about how managers can be mental health first aiders, and whether it creates a conflict of interest when the manager may well be the source of stress. WMT manage this by ensuring that employees can speak to any manager, not just their own. If it is flagged that someone may be struggling, it is generally tasked to another manager to check in with them so open conversations can be had. WMT have ensured that staff are aware of exactly who these champions are and how to contact them through a comms plan entailing posters and z cards.
A budget was required for the badges and comms; courageous employees with experiences were needed for the videos; but the primary resources that have been required is creativity and enthusiasm.
It’s still early days in the strategy, but the stories are flooding in about the change that’s happening, including changes in management practice, how returns to work are dealt with, and improved supervisory relationships.
WMT is planning to review by asking managers to reflect on whether their behaviour has changed since training, and to collect anonymised data on how many interventions have been undertaken. One manager has reported eight interventions since November, and each individual is being followed up.
Lesley identified how difficult it is to measure these changes and that an outcomes framework is something they are still working towards. While there have been reports of increased disclosures around mental health, this has yet to be formally captured. The hope is that having these disclosures will not only reduce stigma, but allow companies to support their employees before problems escalate.
We know from human factors research that stress can impact employees’ attention, with the potential to increase risk for those in safety critical roles. While it is difficult to quantify, it is important to acknowledge that when someone has been able to share a worry, we are making rail a safer place.
Good People Doing Really Good Stuff
Lesley speaks about what she terms “valued connections”. “It’s all relational, building a network of trusted people, that’s how you get change.” Valued connections seem to be the key to overcoming lack of time and resources. When you have valued connections, people will find the time.
Importantly, Lesley acknowledges that this is a project that will never be over. It is an iterative process. With each step comes learning, and from there the process is refined.
“I’m really proud of all of it. Sometimes when work is so busy and so full-on it’s really good just to see good people doing really good stuff. It gives you hope. They’ve helped me. I can go and speak to them”.