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RSSB’s Annual Health and Wellbeing Conference

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Topics included the effectiveness of mental health first aid, establishing credible benchmarks and rail’s occupational health struggle

RSSB’s chief operating officer Johnny Schute began proceedings at its Annual Health and Wellbeing Conference in January. The former British Army chief health and safety officer moved from the ORR to his current employer in May last year and knows all too well about the importance of worker health. 

In the military there is an “absolutely fundamental” focus on the health of soldiers to develop a “finely-honed razor-sharp team”, said Johnny, speaking at the 99 City Road Conference Centre in London. During his time in the rail industry, he has noticed that health can often be treated as “the slightly poorer cousin to safety” and wants to see that change.

“I believe that the health issues that we have to confront within the rail industry are in many respects more challenging than the ones we have to face in the safety arena,” Johnny added.

Overcoming the tough sell 

Health and wellbeing specialist Bridget Juniper, who heads up RSSB’s Health Economics Group (HEG), followed soon after. She has worked with public and private organisations for more than a decade to measure employee wellness and help inform health and wellbeing decision-making. 

Although businesses are starting to value worker health more and more, Bridget understands the difficulty in making a good business case in this area and stressed the need for “analytical, rigorous [supporting] evidence”.

HEG members – including Costain, Eurostar and LNER – meet on a quarterly basis to gather, evaluate and promote evidence that supports rail’s investment in health and wellbeing. Currently it is working on four projects. The first of two Bridget detailed is T1124, a study to examine the impact of managers’ mental health training in rail.

“In our view, and the literature supports this, line managers are absolutely critical to helping and supporting the frontline where health and wellbeing matters are concerned,” she said. “They are the gatekeepers for support, for signposting, for taking the temperature on the team, they’re meant to be good role models as well. So, they really are important. But when you look at the evidence base surrounding training for line managers it’s not very good.”

Bridget took a show of hands on how many in the room were interested in mental health first aid, which has become popular since training courses first became available in 2007. 

She added: “I have to say that the jury is really out on mental health first aid. While studies have been shown that it does raise awareness of mental health issues, there is no evidence to show that it brings about sustained improvement to mental health in the workplace. 

“I understand why people do it, but there are better, more effective approaches out there and that’s one of the things we are hoping to share information on over the next year or so.”

The Institute for Employment Studies is partnering RSSB on this study, which is showing rail to be a “real leading light” in this area, according to Bridget.


The development of suitable benchmarks to help drive health and wellbeing performance across the industry is another HEG project Bridget touched on. 

She said benchmarks, informed by evidence from indicators such as absence frequency rates, presenteeism and health leadership, would help organisations grade themselves using accepted standards and help justify investment by showing improvements. 

Eight companies are onboard – East Midlands Trains, Eurostar, Freightliner, HS2, LNER, MTR Crossrail, Network Rail and Siemens – and the first results are expected in April.

OHSAG, drugs and rolling out new training

Next up, Dr Richard Peters, Network Rail’s chief medical officer, and Dr Mark Hall, chair of the Association of Railway Industry Occupational Health Practitioners, spoke about their work in RSSB’s Occupational Health Special Advisory Group (OHSAG).

OHSAG has three main priorities: 

  • Drugs and alcohol – particularly the broad spectrum of testing and new drugs that are being used;
  • Diabetes – how to manage it and the risks associated to it;
  • And the delivery of a training package for occupational health (OH) practitioners – on which the pair focused their talk.

Dr Peters said: “The ORR has a vision that the rail industry consistently achieves best practice in occupational health and ensures that the railway industry proactively manages health risks.

 “What do I find is an issue? That there is insufficient knowledge from the rail providers to be able to deliver occupational health services across our sector. The clinicians? There are decreasing numbers of them, they’re working on many different contracts – whether it be blue collar or white collar – and the knowledge is not maintained or being updated.” 

Dr Peters added that it can be difficult to review the quality of OH services. Organisations such as Network Rail and Transport for London will have in-house medical teams but others won’t, so they’ll find it difficult to know what they want to buy. 

Mark said that OH worked “really well” under British Rail with a guided structure and governance but that the fragmentation of the franchise system has seen expertise lost.

SAG’s ongoing work will see the creation of RSSB-accredited OH practitioner training, to ensure that governance is reinstated. 

‘With You in Mind’

In November, RSSB received a grant from the Department for Work and Pensions in support of the government’s goal of having one million more disabled people in work by 2027.

Its project, named ‘With You in Mind’, hopes to help individuals who suffer from mental health issues, especially those caused by the industry’s unique working environment, to get back into work. 

Speaker Michelle O’Sullivan said it won’t be a therapy service but a psychological-informed employment service that will offer consultation to employees, link with their employer, bridge into peer support groups, self-management resources and external support if needed.

In good hands

Workshop sessions followed in the afternoon where RSSB members had the opportunity to share even more of their ongoing work. Highlights included: a project to introduce colour-coded HAVs labels for hand tools, inspired by food nutrition labels; a scheme called Health By Design, which aims to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal issues by thinking about risks not just in the design stage but during construction, supply, commissioning, maintenance and decommissioning; and also a session on encouraging healthy behaviours by engineering the workplace to help develop new habits rather than relying on willpower. 

RSSB’s annual conference provided a great window into the countless projects going on behind the scenes. Based on the energy and enthusiasm on display – combined with resources colleagues can draw on – rail staff can rest assured that their physical and mental health at work is in good hands with many potentially significant improvement projects in the pipeline.