The rail industry is more aware of the importance of mental health than ever before, acknowledging the importance of emotional well-being and taking steps to ensure workers are supported. But the issue of poor mental health still looms large, impacting the lives of countless rail staff who often don’t know where to turn. Despite the improved situation, how can the rail industry better protect and support its workforce?
Rail industry employees face many unique challenges and risk factors that can negatively impact their wellbeing. These include heavy workloads, changes in the industry, financial concerns, lone working, and shift working, all of which can be significant contributors to mental health issues. Many rail staff also face exposure to traumatic incidents, including abuse and being witness to accidents and incidents which can impact on their mental well-being for many years to come.
A recent Samaritans report titled “Understanding and providing recommendations for good practice mental health provision in the rail industry” sought to provide good practise recommendations for mental health provision, raise awareness of the support available for staff, and destigmatise conversations around mental health. It also sought to understand the positive aspects of support provided across different roles, what current support looks like, as well as what needs to be improved to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of staff is prioritised in the workplace. So how well does the industry look after its staff?
“There are many positive mental health initiatives across the sector and support that staff do find helpful,” says Richa Mitra, project development lead at Samaritans. “However, our research highlights inconsistencies in the availability and quality of support services across the sector. The research also indicates that staff can lack awareness and understanding of what support is available, and face various barriers to seeking help.”
The Samaritan’s report found that more than half of staff surveyed (57%) had continued to work despite experiencing a change in their mental health, and 44% did not seek any support. Half of respondents were unsure whether their organisation had a strategic plan for mental health, with 28% of those respondents holding senior management roles or higher. In addition, over a third of staff, a quarter of which were middle managers, reported they had received no training or support around mental health.
One way in which rail companies do offer support for mental health issues is through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Many organisations provide these programs which offer face-to-face, telephone or online counselling and support on both personal and work-related issues. However, despite the positive outcomes these programs can provide, many staff remain sceptical of their use.
EAPs offer around six sessions of counselling which, according to the Samaritans report, many staff don’t find sufficient. Others reported that EAP services weren’t specialised enough to help with their specific problems. There was also concern about the confidentiality aspects of using such services because the programs are linked to their employer, some staff can be reticent to open up.
The stigma which still surrounds mental health conditions may also be the reason why some employees aren’t so eager to talk, says Richa: “Stigma is a significant barrier to rail staff accessing support and there is recognition from staff that there have been improvements over the last few years, however, they feel that stigma still exists in many areas and to differing degrees. Our research highlighted the increase in stigma within male-dominated teams and with a focus on more peer-to-peer support groups that are aimed specifically at men, the industry can continue to break down this stigma around mental health further.
Creating a culture of mental health awareness is essential for companies serious about protecting the well-being of rail industry workers. By fostering open dialogue and encouraging employees to seek help when needed, companies can break down barriers and ensure that individuals feel supported and valued.
One way the industry attempts to do this is by working alongside recognised mental health organisations to raise awareness and enhance the support they offer their employees. The Samaritans report, for instance, was part-funded by Great Western Railway (GWR). However, engagement with outside organisations has been patchy across the industry says Richa.
“There is a lot of evidence to show that many rail companies are working with national and regional mental health organisations, however our research highlighted inconsistencies, with some organisations within the sector further ahead compared with other parts of the industry.”
According to the Samaritans report, this tended to be a trait more associated with freight companies, as well as smaller organisations that don’t have the resources to dedicate to such initiatives.
A further concern among staff surveyed by the Samaritans was that senior leadership from across the sector tend to work in disconnected silos, which harms the prospects of creating an industry-wide strategy to address mental health issues.
“The Railway Mental Health Charter is a great step forward in addressing this,” says Richa, “as it brings a cross-industry approach to mental health and encourages organisations to share good practice and resources.”
The Railway Mental Health Charter, which was launched in May 2021, provides the railway industry with a simple yet robust framework for promoting and supporting mental wellbeing among its workforce. It aims to support the rail industry in creating an open and inclusive atmosphere where anyone can ask for support. It is free for organisations to join, there is no cost for membership, and members are provided with support to develop a plan of action which suits their organisation. Signing the RMHC is a commitment towards improving mental health in the industry and more than 100 organisations have signed since its launch.
Despite the best preventative efforts of any company, at some point, managers will inevitably find themselves dealing with an employee who is struggling. Whether this is reported by the employee, or the manager suspects there is a problem, the way that managers act can have an impact on the outcome.
If a manager thinks a member of their team may be experiencing a mental health problem, they may need to take the lead and raise this with them, recommends the charity Mind, as people often don’t feel able to bring it up themselves.
Sometimes when managers lack confidence about mental health, they might make this conversation overly formal or escalate it to HR or Occupational Health straight away, says Mind, however, as their manager, they will know the employee best and it’s important they take the lead and talk with them themselves. The way managers behave and the relationship they have with staff are key actors in shaping how employees respond when they’re experiencing stress and poor mental health. It’s vital that managers start this process off in a positive and supportive way. The language that is used in any discussion with the employee is also crucial, says Richa:
“When a mental health condition is reported, organisations can help to reduce stigma immediately by using accurate language around mental health, avoiding use of stereotypes and labels, and by showing empathy and compassion for those struggling with their mental health. This in turn helps create a supportive environment where staff feel comfortable to open up about their mental health.”
If an employee is required to take leave due to their mental health, the handling of their return to work is also a critical part of their care.
A return-to-work plan is a vital part of the process, says Mind. It should address the person’s health needs and ensure their return to work is supported through appropriate agreed steps (outlined in section three) for employees and managers to take. This may include practical steps and workplace adjustments; on-the-job support from line manager and HR; and other forms of support such as peer support.
Discussing these steps in advance with employees and producing a written plan together will help reassure them their needs will be met on their return. It will also help managers and employees to identify what is expected of each person and to reduce anxieties either party may have. Unfortunately, while some companies excel at this critical stage, the level of training for managers is not standardised across the industry.
“We’ve heard some great examples of how managers within the sector are going above and beyond to support their staff with their mental health,” says Richa. “It is important that senior leaders empower those who are doing great things in this area and provide them with continuous support.
“Managers are usually the first point of contact when a member of staff returns to work, and we understand from our research that managers are not always given adequate training or tools to support staff with their mental health and wellbeing. By investing in this training and ensuring managers have the appropriate skills such as communication, active listening, empathy and compassion – companies can support any staff returning to work after a mental health-related absence.”
The Samaritans report highlights how the rail industry has taken positive action to address the unique challenges that rail workers face. However, there is much more to be done to better protect staff and support them with their mental health and wellbeing.
Image credit: Samaritans / istockphoto.com