Rail boss talks about Covid-19, Boris, mental health and Brexit.

Matthew Gwyther spoke with Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman of Network Rail, about the challenges of maintaining wellbeing and productivity in a huge workforce. In a refreshingly frank discussion, Sir Peter talked about subjects including Covid-19, mental health and future plans for our transport infrastructure.

Managing a large workforce is complex and demanding at the best of times. For leaders in transport and logistics, the challenges are even more profound, because so many other businesses are reliant on reliable, timely delivery. Consequently, in these final sectors the ravages of Covid have tested management teams to the limit. In doing so, the inextricable link between employee wellbeing and productivity has also been brought into sharp focus.

Moreover, as the pandemic spread, hundreds of thousands of employees keeping trucks and trains running have proven that, just like NHS staff, they are also 'essential workers.'

Learning from those in the thick of it

In the first of a new series of interview with UK leaders, we asked management writer and broadcaster, Matthew Gwyther to meet with Sir Peter Hendy, who heads up Network Rail, for his personal perspective.

Described as "a bus and train man, through and through," it's unlikely that anyone else was better qualified to be in the driving seat during this crisis of epic scale. The cost to the taxpayer of keeping the UK rail network running during Covid-19 has been in excess of £700 million every month, while just a tiny fraction of the normal passenger traffic has been travelling. Woever, Sir Peter highlighted the pivotal role that train companies have performed, transporting key workers and delivering raw materials, food and medical equipment during our darkest hours.

He explained how almost every operational process had to be completely redesigned to allow for social distancing amongst his staff.

He thanked his workforce, of at least 42,000, across depots and stations nationwide, for their extraordinary commitment, observing that transport workers respond well to a crisis.

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Hendy went on to note the increasing problem of poor mental health in the workplace; acknowledging that, for many people, this is a relatively new subject. He cited the alarmingly high levels of suicide among construction workers, including those working on the railways, and discussed his collaborations with union leaders and charities to tackle the problem.

With his characteristic candour, Sir Peter also commented on Boris Johnson's leadership, the impact of Brexit on British exporters, diversity in the workplace, the increasingly role of data in HR and the need to provide better coaching for managers.

Additionally, he gave hints of what will be in his forthcoming report for the Government on the future investment in the UK transport network, which is due for publication in August. An emphasis on stimulating growth in previously overlooked regions seems inevitable. "London and the South East have had a large share of the transport investment," said Hendy. "There is, quite obviously, inequality."

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