We must work to ensure that we don’t negatively impact the mental health of our staff. It’s the right the thing to do, and it’s good for customers


Mental health has definitely been one of the big discussion points of 2019. Even those with absolutely zero interest at the beginning of the year can’t have failed to have given it some thought, however fleeting, as the months have progressed. I confess that it was not an issue that I had dwelt on for more than the odd minute until Meera Rambissoon wrote compellingly on the subject in this magazine.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how focusing on mental health could be a lever towards turning the tide on customer service – a key lever, perhaps not the biggest one, but important nonetheless. Regular readers will know that I chuntered on a few weeks ago about my fear that all the uncertainty in the owning groups, and over the structure of the transport industry (particularly rail), was having a negative effect on the HQ boffins in terms of their own wellbeing. Just as worrying – more so, I think – there’s clear evidence that our industry’s structures and practices are placing unnecessary strain on frontline managers.

It’s fair to say that the two tiers of managers closest to the customer have always come across as a pressurised bunch – railway duty and group station manager types. Dealing with complaints, vandalism, staff assaults, trying to fill vacancy gaps, under pressure on budgets, dealing with people jumping under trains, trade unions, customers and staff moaning on social media and expecting an instant investigation and so on. It’s unrelenting and back in the day you could finish your shift and switch off, but in this smartphone era, there are senior managers contacting you at all hours.

As they are on the early stages on a career ladder, these management roles tend to be undertaken by inexperienced, young folk, ill-equipped to see the bigger picture and deal with stress and a “to do” list which grows bigger by the minute. I recall when I was at London Underground, I worked in these roles and struggled to cope with the stress of it. My way of dealing with it was to find an exit – joining British Airways; frying pan and fire and all that.

It’s arguably worse now, not just because of emails and social media but because of intrusion from HQ. I hear of managers who walk to their station with the best intentions to go on the patch only to turn their phone on and be greeted by emails dictating they log onto portals (which are always more complicated to access than a pen and paper) to complete forms for the benefit of payroll/procurement/security. They may also face an electronic appraisal process so onerous and stifling that it actually prevents managers wishing to meet their direct reports and have a decent open discussion about performance.

These days, with increasing openness, I do see senior managers being more alert to their junior managers being under stress, though they are powerless to deal with the issues. What’s clearly worsened are the resources which your typical manager has to play with – no longer is there an administrative assistant or two or three to do all the return-to-work interviews, disciplinary write-ups or mindless form filling. One manager to dozens of stations, where before there’d have been four or five and of course with all this uncertainty around franchises in their last few months, approvals processes for the most miniscule of spends won’t get signed off for ages. But, there will be a dullard somewhere ready to chastise frontline managers for spending a few quid and deviating from procurement procedures to buy pizzas to thank staff or some plants for the station for customers to enjoy. There are some owning groups out there that literally act as if they are on a hand-to-mouth existence.

The problem for frontline managers is that their mental health is surely threatened by this sense of powerlessness

The problem for frontline managers is that their mental health is surely threatened by this sense of powerlessness. The job descriptions and competency based assessment processes specify that they should constantly strive to identify and deliver customer innovation and best practice. They should feel that they are genuinely accountable for their customer experience, but they are not. When they see their director constrained from making the most basic of decisions, or they realise that their MD has got a miniscule delegated financial authority such that she or he has barely any clout to make a difference in any case, then they realise the narrowness of their own authority. That frustrating sense of impotence is capable of troubling further an already unhappy mind.

The situation is exacerbated by a lack of proper development given to frontline managers – many of whom have been recruited from other, potentially less challenging service sectors and left to fend for themselves in the harsh railway environments with its jargon, clichés and trade union hostility. The big burgeoning HR departments display posters about mental health awareness (generally in HQ locations rather than your local manager’s office) and talk the talk in the company newsletter, but where are the experts looking for the signs, intervening and providing proper, professional advice? The middle manager is more alert but she or he is seldom an expert and doesn’t have the solutions to deal with delicate issues.

Whilst mentioning HR departments, I feel that many, but not all, have regressed in previous years – become too big for their boots, forgotten that they are a support function and introduced onerous processes and online form-filling that have scant regard for how busy your average frontline manager may be. Once the friend you could go to for support or a shoulder to cry on, more often than not these days they are the most ruthless and clinical part of an organisation, hated by all and sundry. I’ve lost count of how many times HR has actually done the job of sacking someone because the line manager hasn’t had the guts to do it themselves. Often, the first inkling a departing person has that there is something wrong is when they get a call from the HR director and are given a compromise agreement. Then, they are ushered off the premises with their own boss cowering in the mailroom downstairs keeping their head down. Nowadays, when you get a call from HR, it fills you with trepidation and if you can’t count on them for a bit of help, who is there to provide pastoral support anymore?

Appraisals processes exacerbate the fragile state of beleaguered managers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for performance management, but the problem is that these wretched grading systems wreak havoc on an already stressed-out person’s sense of wellbeing. I’ve seen many a manager feel that their whole status in life and sense of self-worth is entirely defined by whether they received a “needs improvement” or “good” in their appraisal.

The situation is worsened by many companies adopting a wretched calibration system, using “forced distribution” – which basically means that it’s a numbers game in which your department has to help create a curve that says that only so many people can get certain grades, however great or hard someone might have worked. I have taken great pleasure in previous roles in bringing the whole system into disrepute by being belligerent, obstinate, devious and the biggest troublemaker you could think of just to get my team the scores they’ve deserved based on their customer-centricity (these ridiculous schemes play scant regard for customer service, by the way). And I’m proud of it.

You only live once, I’m 48, and I won’t accept anyone ever defining me with a grade – ‘if they don’t like me, don’t employ me anymore,’ was always my adage and it truly depresses me to see hard working, customer-focused frontline managers have more stress heaped on them by having to spend days developing evidence for an appraisal that is always rigged in any case, then have their morale sapped when they realise they were downgraded to help the department fit in a silly curve.

Many excellent managers openly admit to me that they are terrified of being worse than others and they spend more time worrying about this than actually getting on with their job, all because of a stupid system that is obsessed with making judgments and league tables or diagrams about people. Why not just take each person as an individual and accept their strengths and weaknesses and realise we all make contributions in different ways?

A more stressed, thinly spread station manager stuck behind a computer filling in silly forms online and going through onerous approvals processes to order a potted plant for the waiting room, is one who has little clue as to the customer experience on their stations

What’s this got to do with the poor customer? A more stressed, thinly spread station manager stuck behind a computer filling in silly forms online and going through onerous approvals processes to order a potted plant for the waiting room, is one who has little clue as to the customer experience on their stations. S/he is more likely to go sick with stress or just leave and then there will be a period where no one is in charge and a new person comes in, struggles to learn the ropes and then the cycle repeats itself.

On a more positive note, though, the very fact that we’re talking more about mental health, even if most of us haven’t the slightest clue about mechanisms to help support our people, is a good thing for customers. If we’re more open, sensitive (you may say “touchy-feely” in our approach) and less ‘stiff upper lip’, then we’re sub-consciously creating a more people-orientated environment. If there’s one thing we can get our head round when trying to gen up on mental health it’s that we should treat everyone individually, analyse their behaviour and needs, never pre-judge and be generally more empathetic and one-to-one in our approach.

Hence, customer service standards and training these days focus intently on customers with neurodiversity issues, being alert to the unpredictability of customer behaviour. From CRM systems to your member of gateline staff or bus driver, the fashion is rightly these days to get all granular in understanding each and every customer.



I’m convinced that all this chatter about mental health is no bad thing But, it’s no use just using the M and H words as soundbites by HR departments keen to show they are doing the right thing, we need to actually get under the pores of the issue. Focus on those over-worked, stressed managers that are closest to customers, listen to them, cut them some slack and provide a structure and resource that helps not hinders. Then, we might also find the lot of our customers may just start to improve.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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