Ray Roberts, head of mental health at Transport for London (TfL), answers questions about how London’s public transport authority looks after the mental health of its employees
What kind of mental health issues do you face within TfL?
At Transport for London (TfL), we employ around 27,000 people to help keep London moving, working and growing. One of the great things about working for TfL is that you get to see the difference that you make to other people’s lives every day – whether it’s helping a customer with their query or witnessing how your project or actions have helped make somebody’s journey easier. This is a very rewarding experience and can bring a smile to your face. However, it is not unexpected that within our workforce some of our staff encounter the mental health issues that people throughout society also face.
The nature of work for some of our employees can mean that incident-triggered acute trauma is more likely, but many of the issues can be faced by those in any profession, such as depression, anxiety disorders and illnesses relating to eating and body image.
We also find that some employees who have lifelong or untreatable conditions can experience distress, so while our dedicated occupational health team are unable to treat the underlying conditions, they work closely with the individuals to manage the stress that they cause.
How are you addressing these? What support mechanisms exist?
We have an occupational health department at TfL, including a dedicated mental health team, which supports our staff with health-related issues with the aim of enabling them to continue with their full working routine.
We want to make it as easy as possible for staff that are facing mental health issues, along with their line managers, to approach and tackle any issues so we provide guidance online that is easily accessible. However, we recognise that different approaches are required for various conditions and for working with each individual’s personal response to their experiences – a blanket approach just isn’t suitable. It’s not about waiting until an employee is facing an issue either.
We believe strongly in a preventative approach too, encouraging early identification, to ensure that issues don’t have to become overwhelming or advanced before somebody feels that they are able to ask for help. There are a range of provisions from our mental health service at TfL from counselling and trauma services to a telephone helpline that offers practical and emotional support. Given that some staff are more likely to experience trauma due to the nature of their role, we also offer peer-to-peer support as well as in-house treatment.
Is there work to do to encourage staff to discuss issues they’re dealing with?
We think it’s vital that our employees work in an environment where they feel comfortable raising any mental health issues that they are facing. A lot of the work that we do is around preventative measures and identifying any problems early on, as we can then work out what is the most appropriate support and treatment before the issues develop further.
We run a number of workshops on stress reduction and manager resilience and these can be very useful for our members of staff and help them to manage their wellbeing. We are continually working to reduce the stigma and discrimination that can sometimes be associated with mental ill health and encourage an environment where talking about this type of thing is a normal and natural part of the working day. This involves promoting our staff network groups, which provide a forum for employees to meet fellow colleagues in a similar position to them at TfL and give them the opportunity to talk to each other, be supported and share advice.
We are also supporters of the Time to Change and Talk campaigns and we have many internal champions, who raise awareness and encourage conversations in their teams.
How does the mental health of your staff impact on the business as a whole?
If our members of staff are facing mental health issues, then it can affect the organisation in a number of ways. When employees are not able to get the support they need, or are too worried to ask for it, it can lead to strained and fractured relationships with their peers, managers and customers, creating a difficult environment for everybody. It can also cause those facing mental health issues to become less engaged with their work, more likely to error or have to be absent due to sickness.
Ultimately, all of these aspects affect productivity adversely, which is why we are so passionate about making sure that staff feel the ability to be open.
As well as the other support opportunities already available, we also offer a number of staff the chance to undertake mental health training in conjunction with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. Their training consists of the two days MHFA training and one day of ‘TfL’ orientation training, which consolidates their learnings and focuses it to the workplace setting. This leads to them becoming mental health first aiders, who can then support fellow employees facing mental ill health.
Do you feel that this is an improving picture?
I think having the programme in place with all of the different types of support, from the helpline to counselling, means that the stigma around mental ill health is definitely being challenged. It’s important to remember that once a person has a positive experience of tackling mental ill health, they are more likely to feel confident to spot the signs and open up to somebody else.
We also encourage some of our staff who have faced mental health issues to write articles and blogs to help normalise the experience and encourage others to reach out and talk. By increasing awareness and providing support, we are working to make sure that our organisation is open and encourages staff to discuss mental health positively. Doing so will lead to better outcomes for both our staff and the wider organisation.