Mental wellbeing case study: The Office of Rail and Road

Sia Papageorgiou

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Sia Papageorgiou

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The following case study was originally printed in the global report: The State of Mental Wellbeing in the Communication Profession – released in May 2022.

The spectrum of feelings being experienced across the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic is significant. Some people are nervous, anxious, and afraid; while others feel perfectly safe to go about their daily lives. The general sentiment simply mirrors the British public’s response to COVID-19 – people either have a rational or emotional response and the ORR is no different. This diversity in the way people feel can bedevil the ORR when it comes to their pandemic response for staff and has meant that communicating effectively with their people has been challenging at times.

Big enough to matter, small enough to care

The ORR is a relatively small government organisation with a culture that is described as family friendly. The size of the organisation allows leaders to maintain a relatively close watch on the way things happen within the organisation. When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, the organisation did what most organisations did and increased its communication with its people. It was fortuitous that only the year before, the communication technology capability across the organisation had been enhanced, allowing people to work remotely very easily.

Communication then, much like the track of the virus, has never been a linear process. The public wants certainty and there’s an expectation that government authorities should provide certainty even in a sea of uncertainty. Most governments have found this difficult to do because of the evolving nature of the virus – just look at what’s happened with the Delta and Omicron variants. Russell is also the ORR’s Covid ‘Gold Commander’ – overseeing the organisation’s COVID-19 strategy and direction, including communication. The Gold Team meets weekly and reports to the organisation’s executive leadership team every other week about how people are feeling and responding to the ever-changing environment.

Overall, the ORR took a very deliberate communication approach based on employee feedback. Following the initial lockdown in March 2020, the ORR communication team immediately introduced twice-weekly virtual town halls, which achieve no less than a 70% attendance rate. They often begin each town hall by introducing new team members which has proved popular with staff. They use Slido to manage questions as it is important to allow people to remain anonymous if they wish. There continues to be typically around 40 to 50 questions asked per session. Many questions are about COVID-19 and are often repeated. That’s okay because the act of questioning is a form of catharsis. Staff are looking for a sense of security and the sessions have opened up the dialogue across the organisation.

The ORR instigated a series of communication protocols as they moved to remote working. They discovered that remote working was a great leveller for their distributed organisation – it had never felt inclusive to have a group of people meeting together in London at their headquarters while many others were scattered across the country. So, they asked staff to attend meetings via their laptop, even if they were in the London office. Another ask was for all staff to have their cameras on during meetings because this significantly aids the overall experience and more closely mimics ‘in real life.’ Backgrounds could be blurred however, as some people found this intrusive.

Mental wellbeing on the agenda for some time

The ORR, along with the entire UK Civil Service, has for some time now recognised the importance of mental health and wellbeing. It strongly believes that the wellbeing of an individual leads to a better and more productive environment. It’s no surprise then that productivity at the ORR is generally felt to have increased during the pandemic.

Most of what the organisation does is produced as a result of cerebral activity – thought, imagination, creativity – so how people are feeling mentally is really important to their performance.

Prior to the pandemic the organisation had already begun working on their mental wellbeing initiatives, including:

  • Training Mental Health First Aiders across the organisation.
  • Inviting all senior leaders to complete an e-course on mental health and wellbeing.
  • Conducting formal check-ins with employees every quarter.
  • Ensuring leaders check-in on their team members regularly (at least once a week) – each leader at the ORR has between 5-10 direct reports and the organisation’s view is that if a leader doesn’t personally know how their people are doing, then they’re not being an effective leader.
  • Sharing health and wellbeing insights on the intranet about personal health issues, including women’s and men’s health, mental health and wellbeing etc. – these pages continue to be some of the most accessed on the intranet.
  • Providing staff with a catalogue of equipment that enabled them to choose what they need to work from home effectively (e.g., ergonomic chairs, monitors, headphones, headsets etc.).
  • Participating in the annual Rail Wellbeing Live event – an industry-wide event covering a variety of personal health and wellbeing issues. Resources are free to access and download on demand via their Wellbeing Library
  • Actively encouraging people to get vaccinated to protect their health.

Over the course of the pandemic ORR engagement scores have increased by four percentage points, in part due to an increased focus on listening and communication. Overall, ORR employees said they wanted leaders to listen more than talk. 

Most people comfortable working from home

One of the reasons the ORR considers its productivity has increased during the pandemic is because people no longer have to commute to work – the average London commute stands at 74 minutes a day. Most people are comfortable working from home, including the communication team, and particularly those with a caring role. They appreciate the time and money they have saved. What is really important at the ORR is for people to feel “on top of the job” and being able to manage workloads. The ORR does not have a policy of banning the sending of emails after hours. It’s a personal choice, and the expectation is, “it is under your command”. Even so, there are mixed feelings about remote vs onsite working. The organisation learned early on that for some of their people, their colleagues are the only people they have contact with during the course of a typical day.

Encouraging people to return to the workplace

It’s not being at work; it’s coming to work that has some people worried. The main issue is the perceived risk of catching COVID-19 on route due to crowding on trains and prior to Omicron masks being voluntary in the UK (although there is little evidence that, with the enhanced cleaning all rail companies put in, the trains themselves are spreading points). Those who have already returned keep their distance from their colleagues with no physical contact or shaking hands.

The ORR is also very deliberate about the language they’re using to encourage people to return, opting for: return to the workplace, instead of “office”, “work”, or any other variation to indicate physical location.

The organisation has recently implemented six principles around returning to the workplace. Importantly, they trust a lot of the judgement to individual members of staff and are guidelines rather than rules.  In practice, ORR’s culture means they are more likely to be followed as a result.  They want staff to return to the office a minimum two days a week to align with others across the industry, including railway staff. But these aren’t coordinated days, so it’s more about what works best for the individual and the business.

Across the UK Civil Service, around 75% of employees have drifted back into the office, leading in places to a perceived issue of fairness. People don’t want to come in if their colleagues don’t have to. The Behavioural Insights team at the UK’s Cabinet Office has suggested it’s important not to coerce staff back into the workplace as in the long run it’s not going to work. The key is to gently nudge them back in – you must pullpeople in not push them in. The ORR is almost certainly moving to a permanent hybrid working model in the future.

Russell’s two key lessons learned during the pandemic

  1. You don’t have to be in the workplace to be productive – in fact in many circumstances you can be more productive working remotely. 
  2. Be conscious of what doesn’t get asked and what is missing in a remote working environment. There are certainly things you can miss out on by not being together especially for those who are new to the job and haven’t had the opportunity to work on site with their colleagues.

Sia Papageorgiou is managing partner at the Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence and co-founder of The Alignment People. She’s a multi-award-winning communication leader on a mission to elevate the value and visibility of communication professionals and help them become trusted, strategic, and in-demand advisors. Sia is opinionated about what our profession can achieve and believes communication professionals have the best job in the world. She’s a certified strategic communication management professional, a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and past president of the Victorian chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). She’s also a past board director at IABC Asia-Pacific and is immediate past chair of the Global Communication Certification Council. In 2021, IABC Asia-Pacific named Sia Communicator of the Year and in 2022 she was awarded the prestigious IABC Rae Hamlin Award in recognition of her exemplary service in advocating the Global Standard of the Communication Profession and evangelising the power and possibility of communication.