Supporting managers at Transport for London
How a training approach to develop a mentally healthy workplace has been adapted for the new world of COVID-19
At the start of 2020, long before we understood the changes that COVID-19 would bring to all aspects of our lives, Transport for London’s (TfL) Mental Health Service began rolling out an in-house half-day training programme for managers, titled ‘Practical Skills for Developing a Mentally Healthy Workplace’. I was tasked with developing the training, drawing on my extensive experience as a psychotherapist and trauma practitioner with TfL, working with people at all levels of the organisation primarily in a therapeutic capacity, but also in delivering talks and trainings around mental health, resilience building and trauma awareness.
The programme I designed was intended to demystify ‘mental health’, equip managers with the skills to hold potentially challenging conversations with their staff, recognise the limitations of their role and to understand the levels of support managers can reasonably be expected to provide to staff, as well as the need for good self-care. I could not have imagined then just how vital these skills would also become in dealing with the fears and anxieties the pandemic has unleashed. The sessions were planned to work alongside meeting the business aims of improving attendance and engagement at work, as well as safety in the workplace and around the travel network – of both staff and customers – and, subsequently, improving productivity over time. A wider call for such an initiative comes from the Rail Safety Standards Bureau (RSSB) in its 2019 report, highlighting that ‘...line managers and supervisors are key targets for training as they arguably represent the “frontline” of wellbeing management and act as a gatekeeper to pathways to support’ (Wilson et al 2019).
I see training as an opportunity to introduce the potential for therapeutic thinking to the workplace, and hold the belief that it ‘...opens valuable windows into the world of organisations and management, offering insights that are startlingly original, have extensive explanatory powers and can find ample practical implementations' (Gabriel and Carr 2002). A key challenge for me was how to stay true to my values and those of our profession, without falling into a trap of pushing a neo-liberal agenda, with the programme becoming another cog in a machine, whereby ‘...critical thinking, authenticity and compassion are subordinated to the appearance of efficiency' (Rogers 2019).
Rolled out against a background of cuts, change and restructuring, the overarching intention of the training is to build confidence in managers when supporting their staff, including developing return-to-work plans or considering alternative duties, improving managerial communication, and supporting cohesiveness within and across teams. The aims align with the long-term vision of the London Underground People Plan for the year, with the key themes of working with staff engagement, ensuring good management, and implementing change and modernisation. Since COVID-19 has brought about increased anxiety around the safety of workers, and questions about how to work with and manage teams that are dispersed when working from home, shielding, or self-isolating, these skills are at more of a premium than ever.
The context in which the training is delivered is critical, as ‘...neglecting to understand how our mental wellbeing intersects with our social and economic situations means denying the basic context and conditions that give rise to our feelings of wellbeing in the first place’ (Stanley 2019). Often, I’ll explain that what happens at a socioeconomic-political level in a large corporation can act as a microcosm for that which is playing out in the wider world; thus, to ignore the milieu in which we are working risks decontextualising such initiatives, often to the point of abstraction and seeming irrelevance. Therefore, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, I revised the programme accordingly, both for the final sessions we were able to deliver face to face, and as the training was adapted for online delivery.
Planning and preparation
Initially, I got out and about in TfL, discussing ideas for the training with managerial staff. Many spoke of difficulties with their own mental health, and gave examples of where they had felt well supported by their management, and where they felt care had been lacking. From my experience at TfL, it’s clear that the majority of managers want to support their staff but are often unsure how best to do so, often lacking confidence or fearing saying or doing the ‘wrong thing’. Managers can feel unclear about the limitations of their role, and fear needing to be a quasi-therapist or counsellor, or becoming retriggered into their own histories or struggles with mental health through dealing with people who are currently vulnerable. There’s a tendency to see ‘mental health’ as broadly negative, and a lack of understanding of how good communication and positive relationships at work can contribute to creating a trusting, supportive and healthy workplace in the first instance. These conversations led to some adaptations to ensure the training would best reflect the needs of the attendees, and also brought credibility to the programme through a sense of its tailored specificity to TfL.
Delivering the training
Managers in TfL work in fast-paced, high-pressure environments, where shifts frequently consist of constant fire-fighting and needing to make immediate decisions. We always validate the nature of such roles at the onset of training, while stressing that, today, we are asking attendees to pause, slow down and reflect, which may feel quite unusual. Sometimes, attendees ask why the session has been scheduled for half a day, to which I respond that it is a discursive and reflective session, and that while I could go through the slides and ‘teach’ the content in possibly less than half the time, this would likely render the session superficial and lacking in substance, rather than a piece of learning to be integrated into daily workplace practices.
I focus on how we can develop far-reaching and genuine, secure and trusting workplace environments, stressing that initiatives built on disingenuity or paying lip service will likely fail, and quite rightly so. I illustrate the vacuity of certain aspects of the wellbeing agenda, stressing the fact that while 61% of employees have experienced mental health problems due to work, or where work was a related factor, only 16% felt able to disclose mental health issues to their manager or HR department (Business in the Community 2018), which demonstrates the risks of paying lip service to the concept of ‘mental health’.
We meet with the notion that posters professing the benefits of talking about mental health, emails imploring employees to attend co-opted corporate mindfulness sessions and mandatory team away days can only go so far on their own remit, if there is no deeper substance to professed initiatives and ‘awareness raising’. This may touch on broader key contributing factors to poor mental health in the wider world – such as micromanagement, job insecurity, not providing sick pay, poor leadership, structural racism, or mistreatment of employees – that can be overlooked, although the pandemic has brought many of these concerns into the wider public and political consciousness.
Overall, I stress the role of the training in supporting managers in developing stronger relational bonds with their teams so as to promote an altogether healthier workplace for all, and that to over-focus on the term ‘mental health’ in the delivery of the sessions risks pathologising normal human emotional experience. Indeed, doing so can inadvertently increase stigmatisation around ‘mental health’ further (Angermeyer et al, 2001). Strong containment of the session in this way is necessary; sometimes attendees want to be able to ‘diagnose’ their staff, or want to know exactly what they can say to someone presenting with – or whom they suspect is presenting with – a particular condition. This is unequivocally not the intention of the training, and we quickly, repeatedly and strongly dispel any idea of mangers taking on any form of a clinical role, highlighting the severe risks and implications of doing so. Indeed, while the notion of ‘mental health’ remains the overarching theme of the training, I often state that we could take the term ‘mental health’ out of the title altogether. We collectively come to the understanding that what we are really looking at is – in business speak – communication or, in therapeutic speak, relationality and interdependence. However, the concept around which the training is centred, and the supporting ‘mental health’ framework, attracts an initial ‘buy-in’ from attendees, thus enabling a gateway in to a more profound way of working.
Introductory slides ‘set the scene’ about why we are running this training and targeting managers, and paint a picture around absence from the workplace due to poor mental health, as well as the impacts of poor mental health at work. I draw on relevant research and findings, both to quantify what I am saying, and because those in a managerial position tend to like references, facts and figures; so starting the session speaking their language bodes well for their ongoing engagement and commitment to the session. Check-in and check-out opens and closes each unique and specific group, and helps create a sense of cohesion and containment.
Introductory exercises allow attendees to link their real-life working context with what they are learning, thus from the beginning we are considering how this material can actually become applied. We then break down the key components of noticing – and approaching – a staff member who we may suspect of having difficulties in the workplace, then initiating and having a conversation with the individual. Using case studies, we role play how individuals may manage particularly difficult conversations, such as those with employees who won’t engage, and those who overshare. Interspersed throughout the role plays are opportunities to reflect on an individual’s right to privacy, and to consider how to ensure the safety of both the manager and the staff member when things become challenging.
We make connections with current staff members, bringing in some real-life case examples of TfL employees who have struggled with their mental health in the workplace. Some staff submitted a paragraph about their experiences and how their specific area of the business best supported them, namely through offering good and ongoing support. One train operator said that ‘…they had an attitude that fostered my return to work in an unrushed and supportive way’. The train operator spoke about how his management team played a crucial role in his recovery: ‘I felt we were all on the same side, and that was a massive help,’ he said.
Finally, we focus on the value of self-care, encouraging employees to tune in to what it is that they currently do for their self-care, and how they can improve it. Seldom do I come across an attendee who does not have room for improvement in managing their own self-care. And it is very common for those in a managerial role to be too busy looking after everyone else, both at work and in their home lives.
Attendees report on the benefit of having the open space to reflect and talk through the material as well as their own personal and professional reflections. In particular, they enjoy the somewhat unusual format of a more experiential training group. Attendees repeatedly report feeling more confident in having challenging conversations with their employees; more aware of the limitations of their role, which many report actually frees them up to engage with employees as they have less fear of having to 'know what to do’; a better awareness of the need to look after themselves, and feeling back in touch with the more human aspects of their role, much of which is summarised in the following anecdotal feedback: ‘I probably haven’t given enough thought to managing the mental health of my team, and I would have worried about how to initiate a difficult conversation, and how to fix the problem for a staff member. Now, I’m more confident and realise that I don’t have to try and fix the person’s concern, and I know that saying nothing is probably worse than accidentally saying the ‘wrong’ thing'. Attendees report that the novel model of training and group business development contributes to the demonstrated high levels of engagement. The co-constructed, relational aspect of each training group enables each session to retain its individuality, with attendees contributing content on a relatively equal footing with the trainer.
Further feedback calls for the training to be made mandatory for those in a managerial role, and values the programme tailored to the company and delivered by in-house psychotherapists. More specific feedback praises ‘...the reminder and signposting to matters relating to self-help’, the reinstatement of the managerial boundaries, and ‘...the understanding that as a manager we don’t have to try to “solve” mental health issues, which there is always a tendency to do’, and ‘...understanding the expectations of managers, and where the line is drawn between employer support and professional support’. One attendee said that the training was ‘…helpful as it brings in the human element when dealing with staff issues’. But one of my favourite closing remarks came from the employee who looked around quizzically at the end of a session and said, ‘Do you know what? I think this is the first training I’ve been on where everyone is engaged. Normally we go to training and we all just switch off, but no-one’s done that at all here!’
The COVID-19 context
We had been delivering this training for just a few months when the pandemic was declared, and social distancing and lockdown measures meant that, like most people, we had to rethink our entire way of working. We have adapted the training for online delivery so that we can continue to support managers working with their staff. We have also added to our online guidance for staff and managers, eg in supporting staff who have been bereaved, those who have been furloughed and those working from home, as well as supporting managers working with teams who are dispersed, and encouraging managers to take and implement self-care measures.
Extra measures have been put in place through our EAP to provide immediate and ongoing support to managers and teams who have lost colleagues to COVID-19. We have opened up our counselling provision to work with frontline staff who are experiencing significant mental distress at this time, over and above our standard remit of working with staff who have experienced trauma in the workplace. We continue to respond flexibly to varying needs of both staff and managers across TfL, while planning for longer-term support and resourcing as we move forwards.
To fully engage with a group in a training session that relies on contribution, discussion, challenge, group dynamics and containment, combined with educative and skills learning purposes, can be exhausting. However, the unique holding of the group can, I believe, help attendees to move towards holding their team members in a similar fashion, foregrounding containment, boundaries and flexibility of approach to enable them to meet their employees where they are at, from an appropriate management position. Staying connected in the way that I’ve described here, means that I resist any seductive urges towards complacency in the name of a quieter life, and stay true to my psychotherapeutic values. I hope that I can hold on to the therapeutic principles and practices I believe in when delivering such trainings and engaging as a psychotherapist with the wider world ‘out there’. In my own way, I’m contributing to increased relationality and communality at TfL, working with individuals who simply would not be reached were it not for the increasingly wide arm of the corporate world.
The unfolding local and global context could not be much further from what I imagined when I started work on this project in summer 2019. Yet I hope the altered format for the training can continue to support staff, and become a vital tool for reflecting on new ways of relating to and being with each other, at a time when it remains more important than ever for us all – and especially those in leadership roles – to demonstrate humility and be in touch with our own humanity, and that of those around us.
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of BACP Workplace, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/bacp-workplace/ BACP 2020©.
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