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Rail sector must face up to mental health challenge

Rob Tidbury

Safety should always be at the forefront of rail organisations’ agendas.

Recent figures from the the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) paint a positive picture of safety in Britain’s railways. In its Annual Safety Performance Report 2016-17, the safety body demonstrated that there has been a continuing trend of safety improving, and further reductions in injuries and incidents in the past year.

While it is promising that progress is being made in terms of physical safety, the same emphasis must now be put on employee mental health. With Rail Safety Week 2017 in full swing, now is a good time to consider how paramount mental health is to safety.

Not just the right thing

Taking mental health and wellbeing seriously is a relatively new concept for many rail companies. Data collection and analysis methods are currently being developed, and the RSSB’s Health and Wellbeing Policy Group has begun to estimate health and wellbeing risk.

Not only is taking care of employee mental health the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. A glance at a report by the Health and Safety Executive reveals that, of the total working days lost each year to ill-health, work-related stress accounted for the large majority.

The cost of mental health problems at work totals £26bn every year across the UK workforce, according to data from the Centre for Mental Health. Clearly it is time that more rail companies put strategies in place to help manage this issue.

“Sadly, some still attach a stigma to mental health, which can cause employees to find it difficult to express their concerns”

In the rail industry in particular, employees experience a great deal of pressure. While a certain amount of pressure can be motivating, excessive amounts can lead to stress and anxiety.

Broader approach

Organisations should encourage staff to talk openly about their mental health in the workplace. This can be done by building capability among line managers and senior staff to recognise the signs of potential issues and create an environment where mental health awareness is part of everyday activity. Mental health is considered by many as the remit of the safety departments; this needs to be broadened.

Sadly, some still attach a stigma to mental health, which can cause employees to find it difficult to express their concerns.

To break the taboo, Aecom is investing in training and also launching a guide to enable line managers to encourage and promote staff wellbeing, addressing problems before they become severe and supporting staff when issues do emerge. This is not about becoming an expert in mental health; it’s about spotting the signs that something might be wrong.

While businesses should now be considering employee wellbeing as a strategic priority, individuals also need to be accountable for their own mental health too.

It is important that people find a balance and are empowered to take steps to better manage their own mental wellbeing, which could include improving their diet, undertaking more exercise or taking time out for themselves.

Together as an industry we can break the mental health stigma and enable all rail workers to flourish.

Rob Tidbury is HSQE director, rail, infrastructure Europe, at Aecom

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