Maintaining the health and wellbeing of front-line workers during the pandemic
SHP catches up with Syed Asim Shah, a Network Rail Shift Station Supervisor at London Bridge, to learn about his experience of working on the front line during the coronavirus pandemic and how ‘Our Frontline’ has helped to support the mental health of those out working to protect us.
Syed is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of London Bridge station, one of the busiest in the UK. He ensures the premises remains clean and safe, handles contractor briefings and deals, face-to-face, with customer and staff issues.
He regularly communicates with staff to ensure a safe environment for his team and passengers as they pass through the station in their droves. “We spend a lot of time on the station concourse, with staff as well, making sure everything is as it should be and running properly and controlling crowds. Making sure there are no hazards, no other problems and that everyone is happy.”
There are six managers and six supervisors in the team, and they work, round the clock, in shifts, early, late and nights. Syed said that, although shift work can be challenging, it can often suit those who choose to go down that path. “I applied for a job on the railways, I knew that it is a 24/7 job. I knew that I’d have to do early shifts, night shifts, odd hours. But it suits most of my colleagues, many of whom work around their partner or family. In fact, the nature of the job often it gives them extra time to spend with their families.”
Speaking proudly about the importance of his work, Syed described the railway as the ‘backbone of the economy, keeping the country connected’, and said that one of the biggest changes of this seven or eighth months, as the coronavirus pandemic hit, has been the huge reduction in passenger numbers. If that wasn’t enough for staff to worry about the future of their jobs, the other huge concern was the fear that they were the ones who would have to continue to offer the same level of service with people who were forced to travel into London for work.
“Some of the staff was really scared because no one had really heard coronavirus or understood it and they were unsure how to react to it. They were scared because they were being told to come into work at a still fairly busy station and be in contact with passengers on the concourses, whilst listening to the government guidance and messaging telling us the dangers of the virus and how we should keep our distance. There was also a national issue with PPE at the beginning, with us not being able to source masks and hand sanitizers.
“It wasn’t just whilst at work either, there were fears over coming close to people while commuting into work and then fears from people about passing anything on to family.”
To help mitigate the risk, free face masks were provided to passengers passing through the station, hand sanitizer dispensers were stationed on all entrance and exits. Cleaning was stepped up to ensure that all high-touch points were being disinfected at regular intervals. Posters were positioned throughout the station to remind people to keep their distance and encouraging people to wear face masks. During the second lockdown, the messaging changed from encouraging against non-essential travel, to reassuring passengers to ‘travel with confidence’ and that the station is COVID-secure.
Messaging is key
Many have argued that some of the top-line government messaging has been complicated or confusing. Syed was keen to avoid that issue. He personally recorded a voice note which was intermittently played out over the station’s public address system, encouraging people to socially distance, take alternative routes and only travel during off peak hours to slow the spread.
He came up with the idea of ‘social distancing badges’ for all staff, highlighting the importance of passengers not coming too close. This initiative was picked up and rolled out across all stations on the network. Syed was also keen to assist people with hidden disabilities, designing a ‘I don’t have to wear a mask’ badge and exemption cards for people whose disabilities are not obvious. This was put in place and shared nationally across the network, before it became a government policy.
As Network Rail encourages its staff to take care of their mental health, Syed wanted to look out for his colleagues and make sure they felt supported. To maintain morale across staff, many of whom were shielding, isolating or working from home, Syed organised weekly catch-up calls on a Wednesday, keeping everyone in the loop as to what was being done at the station and providing that sense of being a team. “It was great to catch-up and to see everyone’s faces and to talk to them about how we were all coping.”
Throughout the pandemic, Syed was separated from his daughter, not being able to see her for six of seven months during the first lockdown. “It was really challenging, but like I said, my job is something that gives me that focus and I was able to overcome that by calling my daughter and speaking to her over video calls and voice notes.” He said he had good days and bad days, sometimes there were tears, but that the responsibility and the work that he was doing gave him something to focus on throughout the crisis.
In response to the concern around the acute and long-term impact of coronavirus on key workers’ mental health, Samaritans, Mind, Shout 85258 and Hospice UK launched Our Frontline, with the support of The Royal Foundation, in April.
Through Our Frontline, this coalition of charities provides free, round-the-clock, one-to-one mental health support as well as extensive resources, tips and guides for key workers, that can all be found in one place. By housing all the different charities’ resources in one place, Our Frontline is trying to make it as easy as possible to support the key workers who have increased pressure and demands on them.
Our Frontline’s aim is to raise awareness of the free mental health support out there and encourage key workers to reach out for help if they need it.
Syed highlighted how the service enabled workers to fully open up, confidentially, to speak about issues that they were unsure whether they could raise to bosses of colleagues. “I regularly told the team during shift briefings about Our Frontline and how they can use it. Making it clear that it is something that will be anonymous, they will listen to you they won’t judge you. Mental health is very important, especially in these challenging times.”
The underlying thread of the whole conversation with Syed, was his sense of pride and accomplishment about the work he was doing. The passion in his voice when talking about some of his initiates and the work he has done to help support, not only his team, but all of the other key workers who relied on the railways remaining operational in order for them to get to work, was fantastic.
Keep up the good work Syed.
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