Network Rail’s chief executive, Mark Carne, gave a frank reply when asked if he thought the organisation was doing enough to prioritise mental health: “No. I don’t believe we are.”
With around 38,000 members of staff, Network Rail is one of the biggest employers in the UK. There are also many more employed on Network Rail projects across the 4,000 companies that make up its supply chain.
Its own figures indicate that one in 32 employees have time off each year due to mental illness. But, with one in four adults expected to struggle with their mental health every year, that figure is thought to be much higher.
As part of its CP6 strategic business case, Network Rail has committed to reducing time lost due to mental health by 30 per cent.
Discussing Network Rail’s approach with mental health consultant Matt Kent, Mark Carne was clear that he didn’t think the organisation was doing enough to deal with the problem.
“I think we need to be honest about the issue of mental health more broadly in the industry and recognise that it affects a huge number of people.” said Carne.
“I think something in the region of 25 per cent of all people will experience a mental health incident of some sort every year. I think that is shocking actually and we as an organisation need to be leaders in the field of trying to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and to make the awareness of mental health so much greater, so that people are able to address it, tackle the issues and live far healthier, productive lives. So I think there’s a lot more to do actually.”
Being honest about mental illness at work is both a moral obligation and a business imperative, said Mark, who feels that the impact mental health has on business is often hidden.
“I’m a business man. I want to run a fantastic business and that business depends on great people delivering to the limit of their potential and things that prevent them from doing that are things that we should try to overcome.”
He added: “People conceal it. They deliberately conceal it and so the impact on our performance as an organisation is also hidden, so we don’t even really know what capacity we’re losing in terms of our people, what happiness we’re losing in terms of our people as a result of this and that’s why we need to talk more openly about it.”
Network Rail has a number of support services in place to direct employees to the help they need, but staff aren’t always aware of what is available to them.
Mark believes that Network Rail needs to be an industry leader on mental health, but he doesn’t feel it is Network Rail’s responsibility to offer its assistance services to the wider industry. Instead its role should be to set high standards around mental health that contractors and suppliers are expected to meet.
“How far we should extend our influence through the supply chain is a much more complex issue because I think that I’m not responsible for all aspects of everybody who works in the supply chain of Network Rail. If I was it would be hundreds of thousands of people.”
He added: “Certainly I think those people who are working closely with us and support us in delivering the major projects we do should feel the same level of care as they would do working for Network Rail in exactly the same way that I expect them to operate to the same safety standards that we would expect anywhere in Network Rail.”
During the half-hour conversation, Mark also talked about peer pressure and how it can create a harmful presenteeism culture, where people feel pressured to spend longer in the office than their work requires. Mark said he was a strong supporter of things like flexible working, part-time employment and job sharing, feeling they were important to ensuring Network Rail staff have a healthy work/life balance.
“We’ve been just ahead of the legislation in these areas rather than really leading the way and I think we need to become more aggressive in the way we provide these opportunities for people.”
Mark said there was little doubt that there was a link between mental health and safety performance, suggesting the possibility of introducing a stress close call system.
There have been several occasions that Mark remembers seeing the devastating impact of mental illness first hand. He spoke about meeting teams where one of the members had recently taken their own life.
“That is a really terrible place to be because those teams agonise over that tragic loss and wonder what could they have done differently, what might they have done differently to help that person deal with what was obviously a terrible set of circumstances in their lives.”
The interview ended with a question that can be difficult for some people to answer, but one that is central to starting a conversation around mental health: “How are you?”