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RailStaff Awards: A conduit for change

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When Lee Woolcott-Ellis was recognised at the 2018 RailStaff Awards, it launched a roller coaster ride that he’s yet to get off. 

The Rail Person of the Year was awarded one of the night’s major prizes for developing a sophisticated mental health support scheme for colleagues at Southeastern.  

After a successful pilot between July and December last year, the mental health advocate programme has now entered its second phase and will be rolled out to all of the train operator’s 4,500 employees. 

Such is the size of the project that Lee, an onboard train manager turned mental health professional, was promoted to HR mental health coordinator in January. 

Lee was the victim of historic childhood sexual abuse and his story of turning his negative experience into something so positive has attracted the attention of the BBC and Financial Times in recent times. 

Before the RailStaff Awards trophy, he was already busy with work. A presentation to Southeastern’s management forum in Ashford the morning after the awards ceremony in Birmingham meant he was unable to pick up his award in person. But since the award win, work has really kicked up a notch. 

“To be honest, my feet haven’t touched the floor. It’s just been an incredible journey and it makes me smile every day. 

“The award has really enhanced our profile, without a doubt. It was a real conduit for change.”

The programme

The mental health advocate programme Lee is credited with driving forward supports the early intervention of problems that can be signposted to appropriate support, before issues such as absenteeism emerge. It is also an agent for reducing stigma surrounding mental health, particularly for men, who make up 81 per cent of Southeastern’s workforce.

As it steps up from a pilot covering part of the network to phase two covering all of the Southeastern network, an extra 14 volunteers have completed their Level 2 counselling accreditation with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, creating a total group of 25 volunteers. 


Growing exposure of the programme and its high level of engagement with the workforce has led to conversations with companies such as Eurostar and P&O Ferries, as well as mental health charities, about sharing best practice.

He added: “Since the awards I’ve constantly been contacted by other organisations that have obviously seen some of the publicity that has gone on LinkedIn, for example, to find out what we’re doing and what we’re doing differently from everyone else.

“I’m pretty sure we’re leading the field with it. To have a full-time mental health employee within the organisation is just amazing. What it’s done is give me the opportunity to focus fully on what is a cultural change initiative.

“I’m really pleased I’ve been given the opportunity to do what I’m doing now, I’m really proud to be a part of Southeastern, I think they deserve a huge pat on the back as well for being so open to change.”


It’s been five months since Lee received the call late at night telling him he was the ‘Rail Person of the Year’ but he’s been so busy that it’s yet to sink in. 

“The next morning I woke up and opened my phone to an incredible avalanche of congratulations,” added Lee, who said he was proud enough to be nominated and to read back his colleagues’ submissions in the first place.

“I have a lot of organisations come to see me at Margate where I’m based, to discuss what we’re doing. I have the award here on my desk because I’m obviously very, very proud of it. I also look at it with disbelief as well, it seems incredible to receive such an accolade.” 

The RailStaff Awards returns to Birmingham’s NEC on November 28 and nominations have opened! To put forward one of your colleagues for one of the 20 awards or find out more information, head to www.railstaffawards.com.