Health and Wellbeing Conversations

Words: Liam Johnston, Executive Director, Railway Mission

Health and wellbeing are recognised now in the emergency services more than ever as being important to the successful operation of a company, but what are ‘Health and Wellbeing Conversations’ in the context of the emergency services?

As a chaplain, I often express personal health and wellbeing and an individual’s resilience with the metaphor of a battery and its capacity to hold and discharge energy. But my question often comes back to how can the emergency services create opportunities for staff to reflect on their ‘battery level’ and identify the things they, their line manager and their team can do to recharge and stay well? Also, if the emergency services invest precious time and resources to integrate into their approach, what benefits could they expect?

Organisations that have supportive local and senior management and promote genuine staff engagement have lower levels of both absence and ‘presenteeism’ (turning up for work despite being unwell). Colleagues are less likely to report suffering from work-related stress and they rate their own health and wellbeing more highly. There is also a link to turnover with engaged employees being less likely to want to leave.

The Stevenson-Farmer review ‘Thriving at Work’1 noted that initiatives focused on improving mental wellbeing, in particular, are shown to have a 1:4 return on investment.

Utilising the chaplaincy service

Health and Wellbeing Conversations take place between an individual member of the emergency services and someone they trust in the workplace. Given the potentially sensitive nature of health and wellbeing conversations, some colleagues will need the option to have conversations with someone other than their manager, this is just one of the opportunities for the British Transport Police (BTP) to utilise the chaplaincy service.

Most Health and Wellbeing Conversations are short one-time engagements that help the colleagues to process situations or dilemmas, but they can also be revisited if situations change or as and when individuals feel the need to do so.

Most Chaplaincy and Health and Wellbeing conversations have three purposes: firstly, to enable all rail staff, irrespective of grade, role or professional background, to have a confidential discussion about their wellbeing and how it might be impacted by: the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensity of their workload, the demands of specific events eg the rate of exposure to distressing or traumatic events or other factors outside of the workplace such as major life events, family problems or health issues, caring responsibilities etc; secondly, chaplaincy conversations can also help to identify what steps individuals and teams can take to nurture their own recovery and increase their capacity to cope with situations and to take appropriate action to reduce the negative effects of stressful working environments or situations; thirdly, a conversation with a chaplain can highlight where someone may benefit from further help, including mental health support, and signpost to that help promptly and support the individual through the process if needed.

The results of a conversation with a chaplain can be: the identification of areas where an individual’s health and wellbeing could be improved taking a preventative and self-management approach; signposting to additional, targeted support when needed; and the identification of factors beyond the individual or team level, which are impacting on health and wellbeing and require action at an organisational level to change. The independent and impartial nature of chaplaincy means that sometimes patterns may emerge that can be fed back to the company to be addressed.

Specialist care

Chaplains are often asked by HR Directors or others, what have you noticed the issues are with colleagues? It should also be noted that Chaplaincy Health and Wellbeing Conversations arenot intended to be counselling or therapy sessions. It is well established that mental health professionals are not brought in to carry out psychological debriefing or trauma counselling to staff that are going about their job and experiencing perfectly normal reactions to traumatic situations. Nevertheless, individuals who do have significant levels of psychological distress should be offered prompt referral to counselling or therapy services able to provide specialist psychological care.

Chaplaincy is not to be used to ‘spy’ on the workforce on behalf of the management. It is important conversations take place in an atmosphere of psychological safety. Chaplaincy is and must remain, independent, impartial and confidential, as long as that confidentiality is understood not to allow the self-harm of the individual or others. As an organisation Railway Mission does capture data on the support provided to the British Transport Police in a way that reflects the confidential and sensitive nature of the support provided.

Chaplaincy Health and Wellbeing Conversations are for colleagues, not just at-risk groups. However, chaplains must prioritise those identified at higher risk for their Health and Wellbeing Conversation earlier in the implementation process. These are often those directly or indirectly involved with a fatality on the railway. But others are at significant risk and in need to support; this may be due to the terminal illness or death of a colleague, the threat of redundancy or a host of other situations that can cause distress or anxiety.

Resilience-based approaches to wellbeing

We all know that people are capable of remarkable things, even in the face of adversity. Resilience is about recognising that life often has its difficulties and sometimes these difficulties come with intense negative emotions. Knowing how to manage these emotions and not just to avoid them is at the core of personal resilience; it is the ability to adapt and grow through and following adversity.

Chaplaincy Health and Wellbeing Conversations are centred on promoting the ability of the individual to adapt and grow. It can provide a structured approach that can help identify an individual’s vulnerabilities to stress, assessing the impact of that stress and help them develop strategies to protect the individual or their team from the situation and its effects.

We must understand what makes our BTP colleagues vulnerable to stress. Our experience has highlighted key factors that can increase the risk of stress and negatively impact resilience, such as railway-related fatalities, passenger aggression or personal family issues. BTP officers and staff working in the railway industry may be exposed to these risks under normal circumstances, but COVID-19 has created an added level of exposure to stress, as has the uncertainty concerning the proposed ‘Great British Railway’.

Challenges that are being identified by police colleges now include: unclear or conflicting expectations; threat or change to a job role; challenging working environments, including remote working; social isolation; feelings of a lack of personal control; a lack of communication from companies; and TV and social media, where there are mixed, conflicting or hostile messaging.

Knowing what these challenges are can help us to be attuned to these and others’ risks. However, when these risks are compounded, there is an even greater need to be proactive and ensure that there are steps in place for the health and wellbeing of our BTP colleagues.

However, we should also be mindful that there is also a healthy amount of pressure or stress, and that this can help bring us to the point of peak performance. Nonetheless, when our stressors and pressures increase too much, it can push us towards feelings of anxiety, unhappiness and reduce our ability to perform well.

Stress is caused by pressure on an individual or team that is greater than their ability to maintain resilience, balance is always optimum for performance.

The above image shows a seesaw that identifies the impacts of no-low pressure on the left, moves towards healthy pressure and peak performance through the middle and onto the impacts of stress and over-pressured on the right.

The industry must nurture the things that help colleagues to maintain resilience in the workplace, particularly during difficult times, but support must be in place before the scale tips to the right. This can be achieved through: trusting, supportive relationships – with chaplains, line managers and colleagues; colleagues feel valued and recognised for a job well done; supportive and visible management – clear communication, defined roles and responsibilities and accurate information available; workplace self-esteem – through the encouragement of independence and the freedom to act and take responsible risks; emotional support for things that may occur outside of the workplace; hope/belief that things can change for the better; and perception that things are under control.

Resilience comes together when the working environment and the choices made by management and individuals support colleagues to operate in the best way they can. Health and Wellbeing Conversations with chaplains provide the space to look for opportunities and balance, particularly when there are areas of our life and work that are extremely difficult. Health and Wellbeing Conversations with chaplains are supportive, one-to-one discussions focused on building individual and team resilience.