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Supporting the workers on our frontline

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Concern for the mental health of key workers during the current pandemic, Samaritans has joined other charities to offer support by launching ‘our frontline’.

The advent of coronavirus in March has forced everyone to adapt their lives in different and unexpected ways. Daily routines have completely changed, and, for many people, their work environment is now their home. For the millions of key workers around the country, however, this is not the case. They have continued to go to work and form the frontline against coronavirus, in an effort to keep the nation going. These key workers have faced a prolonged period of pressure that shows no sign of easing this winter, and, as well as putting their physical health at risk, there can be a toll on their mental wellbeing.

The concern around the acute and long-term impact of coronavirus on key workers’ mental health led Samaritans to join forces with Mind, Shout85258 and Hospice UK and launch ‘Our Frontline’ 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.

Rail staff are a group of key workers that is keeping the nation connected. Whether it is helping doctors get to hospitals or teachers to schools, the UK’s rail workers are there to ensure the safety of passengers. During these challenging times, rail workers’ roles have evolved, and many are finding themselves taking on more responsibility and new tasks. In times of heightened uncertainty, it is more important now than ever for rail workers to take care of their mental health and check in on the wellbeing of colleagues.

A personal account

Syed Asim Shah is the shift station supervisor at London Bridge station, and he shares his experience of the pandemic’s effect on his life, and how he looks after his mental health and that of his staff as a priority.

“When the pandemic first hit us, there were so many challenges. The main thing I needed to focus on was uplifting staff morale. Some of my team were scared that, if they came to work, they were risking their life, as they would be coming into contact with so many passengers each day.

“My role adapted quickly. I went from spending a lot of my time based in the office to standing with colleagues on the concourse, helping them lead passengers and trying to reduce the fear they were feeling.

“I came up with a plan that gave staff more breaks and less contact, so they didn’t feel they were exposed for long periods of time. I came up with the idea of social distancing badges for all our staff, that were then ordered for the staff for all stations. We wanted to encourage passengers to maintain their distance from staff and ensure our team felt they had some support to help communicate the government guidelines to protect themselves.

“Anyone with underlying health issues were sent on special leave to shield, and many staff had to step into new roles or cover different stations. This meant I had to step up and support in roles that were new to me including briefing new staff, looking after the existing team and ensuring everyone was as safe as possible.

“The main focus for me was to engage the team as much as I could and make sure I stayed connected to them, checking in on them and leading them to keep the country running. Network Rail has always prioritised the mental health of its staff, with training courses for managers to help us support staff effectively.

Keeping in contact

“Network Rail also offers its staff free access to Validium, an independent employee-assistance programme that we can call for counselling, information, signposting and support, as well as encouraging us to reach out to Samaritans if we are ever struggling to cope.

“We also have a railway chaplain and mental health champions that staff can speak to, and, because we’ve always encouraged people to share their feelings and seek support if they need it, it has made it easier to reinforce that message in the wake of the pandemic.

“Every week we had a station manager zoom call with all our staff, including those working from home. They would ask me how I was getting on and be there to listen and support. I did get emotional sometimes. During the first lockdown, my daughter lived with her mum and because I love my daughter so much, it was difficult not seeing her for so long. I did have bad days, but my job gave me something to focus on and it was my responsibility to look after my team and my customers.

“I live alone and, without all the things I used to be doing, such as going to restaurants and get-togethers, I made a routine for myself to ensure I was still doing things I enjoyed. I use the extra time I have outside of work to stay connected to my loved ones. Video calls with my daughter make the biggest difference to my mood, and I regularly check in on friends and family to see how they are coping as well as sharing how I am doing.

“I find doing moderate exercise regularly helps me feel healthy, particularly as my shifts can change and include nights. I also watch different comedies as I find laughter is really good for my mental health. I’m reading more books and trying to learn things through documentaries. I’ve advised my colleagues to consider doing similar things to maintain good mental health during this tough time.

“As we come out of the second lockdown, we are a bit wiser to what we all need to do. For instance, we know how to equip our station with the right PPE for both our staff and passengers to be safe and the public is social distancing and wearing masks without needing to be asked.

“However, we still have to remain vigilant and keep adhering to the restrictions required. As rail workers, we have been working under these new pressures for so long that it’s essential that we continue to take care of our mental health. As every individual is different and things affect them in different ways, having support like Our Frontline is incredible as every resource is in one easy to find place.

“I hope my fellow rail workers are as proud of their role as a key worker as I am, and I hope platforms like Our Frontline help their wellbeing so we can all keep going this winter.”

Key workers can find out more about Our Frontline here: https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/ourfrontline/