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Opening up about mental health

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Sharon Stevens remembers the exact moment last year when her depression caught up with her. It was a Friday morning. She opened up her laptop after a busy week out of the office and immediately broke down in tears.

“I didn’t want to have depression again. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to be ill and, above all, I didn’t want to let people down,” said Sharon, who works in Network Rail’s Route Services division as a contracts manager.

Sharon’s first experience of depression was in 2009. She doesn’t attribute it to any one particular incident, rather the cumulative effect of various life-changing events over several years, including the death of her father and the breakdown of her marriage. “At that time, I didn’t know the signs of depression. I was losing weight. I was sleeping literally 14/15 hours a day. My concentration levels were zero,” said Sharon.

Once she had been diagnosed with depression, Sharon was prescribed the antidepressant fluoxetine and spent six months off work. The experience was a difficult one and her relationships with colleagues became strained.

In 2014, Sharon joined Network Rail. In addition to her day job, she became a mental health first aider and mental wellbeing champion. She hoped to raise awareness of mental health throughout the business and teach people how to support their colleagues.

Sharon saw all the signs leading up to April last year. She knew all the symptoms. “It just goes to show how we are all vulnerable,” said Sharon, who described what it is like to live with depression. “It’s like your life stops. You’re you but you’re not being you… All I wanted to do was sit under my blanket on the sofa and that was it – and cry – and that was my life, so clearly I was in a very bad place.

“But I knew that if I did the right things, supported by the medication, I could get better.”

One in 32 employees

Now back at work, Sharon is keen to continue to improve mental health across Network Rail. Since joining the organisation, she has trained half of Network Rail’s 120 mental wellbeing champions and has delivered presentations around the country.

Around one in 32 Network Rail employees a year currently take time off work due to mental ill health. Network Rail employs 38,000 members of staff – that equates to 1,200 people each year.

In the UK, one in four people are expected to struggle with their mental health each year and research suggests that one in 10 people will have taken sick days due to mental illness in the past year. At first glance, the extent of the problem facing Network Rail appears less acute than it is nationally. However, the company’s chief medical officer, Richard Peters, believes there is more to the issue than the statistics are letting on.

“I’m very conscious we’ve got a heavily male-dominated workforce, an ageing workforce and employees that have worked in a trackside environment for a very, very long time. I have also heard colleagues mention the macho effect, meaning our trackside staff may not want to talk about their health problems, especially mental health.

Richard Peters

“We do know that women are more likely to seek help and probably more likely to talk about it. In our main hubs, where employees are predominately doing desk-based roles, the access to support may be easier than our trackside workers who are working in a multitude of conditions and environments every day. This is definitely an area of focus.

“So whilst the numbers may appear to be low – one in 32 is not the same as one in 10 – we do need to remember that it’s as good as the data we have. If we can decrease the stigma, improve the reporting by increasing disclosure of reason for absence when employees take time off, that number may actually be higher.”

Open environment

There are other factors associated with working on the railway that could make staff in the sector more susceptible to mental health problems.

“There’s emerging research out there that shift work and night work can increase risk of certain health problems,” said Richard. “We have a current programme in place to look at fatigue and the effects it has on our workforce because we want to ensure our people get home safe every day and are not working excessively long hours that could affect their health and wellbeing.”

He added: “The more we can create an open environment to talk about mental health, to talk about health issues in general and for people to support one another, the more we will have a happy, healthy and productive workforce.”

What are the signs?

The symptoms of mental illness can vary from person to person. “It’s a very, very personal thing and a very individual thing,” said Sharon, who talked about feeling tired and avoiding social situations. “However, what I always say to people in the training sessions is look out for changes in behaviour.”

Sometimes people over compensate and may actually appear happier than usual. “One of the interesting ones for me is that people sometimes work longer hours,” said Richard. “Number one because it’s a good distraction from whatever’s going on outside of work but, at the same time, it’s also because they don’t feel that they’re actually coping and that their performance is deteriorating, so they begin to work longer hours.”

Line managers are being encouraged to look out for this kind of behaviour so that they can carry out a stress risk assessment, direct employees to appropriate support and refer them to occupational health.

Mental health issues can also manifest themselves as a physical ailment. It can cause people to suffer from frequent headaches, stomach problems and, as Sharon found out in 2009, skin conditions.

Network Rail is now taking steps to ensure that managers are equipped to spot these signs early and give staff the support they need before small problems turn into something much bigger.

Richard said: “One of the things we’re looking to do is ensure we train up our line managers to understand what mental health and wellbeing is; and also to be able to spot the signs and symptoms to have those open conversations with colleagues and to be able to signpost them to appropriate support.”

Seeking help

Network Rail is able to offer a number of support services to staff. Its employer assistance programme provides staff with a free phone number that they can ring to speak to a counsellor, who can then arrange follow-up treatments. Once the problem has been identified, measures can then be put in place to help.

“It could be as simple as being allowed to attend follow-up appointments or it could be something more specific such as a reasonable adjustment, for example allowing flexibility in the start and finish times due to medication side effects, to be allowed to work remotely or even adjust performance targets temporarily because someone is in the recovery stage of their illness.”

Break the stigma

The bar is being raised for employers. The expectation on companies to monitor and address mental health among their staff is much greater and is seen as essential to relieving some of the pressure on the NHS’s mental health provision.

Senior staff members are now doing their bit to normalise conversations around mental health. Susan Cooklin, managing director of Route Services, has spoken publicly about her own mental health challenges. Network Rail’s chief executive, Mark Carne, has also made good mental health one of his watchwords.

Richard said this is important to break the stigma: “I think we’re getting to that stage now, which is very good, and even senior leaders are talking about it in public, talking openly about it when they do presentations and this is what needs to happen.”

Network Rail’s approach illustrates how the management and treatment of mental health is becoming more complete. It also shows a change in culture within business where mental health and depression are met with understanding and sympathy rather than suspicion and derision. Sharon hopes her story will demonstrate to others who have encountered mental health problems that they too can continue to lead a normal professional life.

“It just goes to show how when people with depression are managing it there is absolutely no reason why they can’t just lead a normal life,” said Sharon.

“They’ve got things to give, they’ve got things to contribute. It’s very, very important in enabling recovery and continued support for them to know that they’ve got something to give.”

She added: “When I look back at where we were in 2014 and when I look at where we are now, we’ve come such a long way. Yes, we’ve still got some work to do, but we have come such a long way and it’s gathering momentum.”

Damon’s story

Damon Pickard, Network Rail’s frontline services category manager, has suffered from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Now recovered, he leads support groups outside of work and uses his experiences to help others in need. Damon had the courage to reach out for help.

He said: “My mental health and addiction problems caused a downward spiral of despair that affected me, my family, friends and work. I was fortunate to have people who cared enough to notice, step in and put out a helping hand. What I couldn’t see was that they were always there. If only I had reached out sooner.

“If I feel wobbly now and then, sometimes a simple chat is all I need to lift the fog.

“Other times a meditation or exercise session helps. Now, I actively seek to help others find their way back into the light, as I know it’s impossible to recover on your own without help. Thanks to the people involved in my journey, I found a way to live happily that works for me – and everyone benefits from that, not just myself.”

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