Staff health and happiness is important to a successful business. How can the coach and bus industry address the unique challenges frontline workers face?

Operators take the health and wellbeing of their staff seriously both as responsible employers and in recognising the importance of a healthy workforce to ensuring the smooth running of services.

That’s according to the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), when queried on the importance of driver health and wellbeing. After all, when it comes to employee health, operators may have cause for concern. Data recently collected by charity Cancer Research UK warned that 71% of people in the UK will be overweight by 2040. That’s up from 64% today, and the announcement comes amid news last month that the government plans to delay measures intended to tackle obesity in the UK.

Studies have shown public transport workers undertaking long, sedentary shifts are particularly vulnerable to this issue and the social and mental challenges that come with it. According to one operator, supporting drivers in this regard is crucial element of driver recruitment and to keeping the industry attractive. Staff need to know employers will be there to support them. So what kind of action can help?

Spotlight on wellbeing

Operators are already taking action on driver health and wellbeing, and for some it has led to the introduction of new employee strategies and programmes. Tom Bartošák-Harlow, then Head of External Relations at CPT, points to schemes and incentives shown by some operators to encourage weight loss. “Where staff are having health or other challenges at work, we encourage all operators to look on these sympathetically and do everything they can to help colleagues overcome them,” he says. One operator in particular – Go South Coast (GSC) – provides an incentive for staff to lose weight with weight loss organisation Slimming World. This was the idea of Head of Marketing Nikki Honer, who recognised that many drivers perhaps needed the helping hand in order to make those gains. Money invested into the membership is refunded by the company when colleagues hit the first 10% weight loss target – chosen for its significant impact on health. GSC is also working with a healthcare provider to deliver support via apps to help staff lead healthier lifestyles.

That work stems from a desire by the operator not to tell its colleagues what to do, but to provide the means to do so if staff so choose. It uses a package powered by Personal Group, a health and wellbeing support platform with experts in the relevant fields. Articles and online information help users to “help themselves”. The app that comes as part of this package is more widely known as Hapi/

Giving employees the tools

Personal Group is embedded in the transport industry and offers a number of employee benefit services and wellbeing aspects. It offers an optional employee assistance programme (EAP) which provides an employee helpline for personal and professional issues, and that is accessible 24 hours a day. It can offer, if necessary, structured counselling or other services recommended by its partner, Health Assured, once a medical assessment is undertaken. There is also an online health portal which provides assistance in a number of areas.

While Health Assured delivers the EAP, Personal Group takes control of the marketing and communication of the app to employees. The organisation is particularly focused on transport workers, and realised during the pandemic the additional pressures staff in that sector faced. During that time, Personal Group sent out communications from the Hapi app to raise awareness of specific wellbeing and mental health events, which then directed staff to any benefits offered by employers.

Signposting has been of particular importance and is highlighted by Personal Group Account Development Manager Anthony Clayton and Head of Benefits Lisa Hack.

“We really tried to focus the marketing we were sending out to highlight events that encouraged employees to sign up to the comms that were available via Hapi,” explains Lisa. “We have a wellness Wednesday where we send out comms that focus on a specific event that is happening, whether that is physical, mental or mental health awareness – such as Mental Health Awareness Week, or Get Fit Week – and send out tips and information to help employees stay healthy and be aware of the benefits that are available.”

“We spent a lot of time
getting underneath the causes
of attrition and we would look
at our people metrics. It
creates a picture where we
recognise as an employer
that we need to do more”

This highlights that health is not just about being physically fit. Personal Group works on a “four wellbeing pillar”, focusing on financial, mental, physical and social wellbeing. It provides articles on its wellbeing blog, Hapi Life, which delivers information and links on a variety of topics. “All articles we believe can offer some tangible support that’s easy to understand,” Anthony explains. “That’s what Personal Group excels in; making sure information lands in the best possible way, and the easiest format.”

Being embedded into the transport sector, Personal Group understands many of the unique challenges that staff in the sector face. One that Lisa points to is the fact that the sector is male dominated; the organisation has worked to highlight men’s mental health awareness, and looks at statistics on gender and location to see how different demographics are being affected. That can then be reflected in communications.

Engagement is the key, and Anthony stresses the constant work to signpost staff to the resources available. The Hapi app is a significant first access point to EAP benefits when statistics show that many men are reluctant to pick up the phone and seek help with wellbeing issues. “Having an access information place was a key element we considered. We saw during the pandemic that, as we signposted more to the health portal, the usage on it tripled during that period. That is good to see; we want to make sure people are aware the information is there for them,” says Lisa.

And EAPs have had an opportunity to shine during the pandemic. Personal Group provides an implementation team and Account Manager to ensure that any wellbeing programme is tailored specific to the needs of the client’s industry, employee demographic and location. An employer’s key driving factors are also discussed. “We take a consultative approach, and embed ourselves in our clients’ culture,” Lisa explains. “We want to know what they are trying to achieve with their employees.”

A new focus

One operator also highlighting the importance of dialogue with staff is FirstGroup. Chief People Officer Kevin Green, responsible for some 14,000 employees and part of recent a senior executive overhaul at First, highlights a new employee proposition which is putting forward new policies designed around its frontline staff.

While it will be several years before that strategy is fully deployed, Kevin points out that the company is doing much at pace to spend time listening to staff and to understand and support them when facing challenges with health and wellbeing, among other things.

Much of this stems from the problem of high driver turnover. “We spent a lot of time getting underneath the causes of attrition and we would look at our people metrics,” he says. “It creates a picture where we recognise as an employer that we need to do more.”

Kevin is a great believer in using data to drive decisions. First draws upon data gathered from its workforce every quarter through an engagement survey and gathers absence data, attrition data, and direct feedback from staff. The focus now is on the 9,000 or so drivers within the business, for whom interaction can be minimal due to working conditions.

First has now introduced “catch-up” a 20-minute informal conversation positioned to replace more rigid performance reviews around safety and punctuality. “We’ve recognised that if you want people to be engaged, and you want discretionary effort, then there’s a duty of care about investing time and energy into them,” explains Kevin. “First get the data. Second, have a direct conversation, so that we know what’s going on. As part of those conversations, we are going to pick up lots of issues which may be physical health issues, or they may be mental health issues. We’ve trained our managers to be able to spot that, and refer staff on to the right place. We have an employee assistance programme, some external support around mental health, and when we have these conversations about how people are feeling, if they have issues, we’re trying to become much more supportive and point them in the right direction.”

First is now in the process of appointing a new occupational health provider to supply more services to its drivers. That includes addressing muscular skeletal issues from the sedentary nature of the job, and introducing a physiotherapy service. “This isn’t just about being off sick or in work, we want to get preventative,” Kevin adds. “The catch-ups are really important, making sure the right professional support is in place.”

In addition, smaller changes such as the improvement of canteen facilities, the introduction of free fresh fruit, tea and coffee into depots, and encouraging social activity and exercise all speak to a desire for positive improvements in driver lifestyles. Kevin believes all these changes will support First in becoming an even more successful business. “From our employees’ perspective, we’re going to make sure they’ve got the right tools to do the job, to make people feel passionate about our business.

“We know our drivers are the lifeblood of our organisation. They play a critical role in the communities that they serve. Making them feel important, feel recognised and supported is vital to the success of our business.”