Samaritans mental health study report
Samaritans and Mental Health at Work have collaborated with colleagues from across the rail sector to develop an industry-wide study on promoting and supporting positive mental health within the rail industry. The study aims to provide good practice recommendations for mental health provision, raise awareness of the support available for staff, and destigmatise conversations around mental health. The study used a cross-sectional research design that combined a sector-wide survey of rail staff with focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews.
Society depends on workers in the rail industry, who face unique challenges and risk factors that can negatively impact their mental health and overall wellbeing. These include heavy workloads, changes in the industry, exposure to potentially traumatic incidents, financial concerns, lone working, and shift working, all of which are significant contributors to mental health issues among rail employees.
The psychological safety and wellbeing of rail industry employees must be given the same level of attention as their physical safety. The sector faces constant change, with recent industrial disputes and uncertainty and change on the horizon with the transition to Great British Railways. Mental health-related absences have cost the sector over £1.3 billion since the start of 20191 making it crucial to provide support to employees. Investing in staff mental health has proven to be cost-effective, with employers receiving an average £5 return for every £1 spent on wellbeing support2.
There is evidence of many positive mental health initiatives across the sector and support that staff find helpful includes reviewing and managing workloads and working hours, having a platform or opportunity to open up and talk, learning strategies to support themselves and hearing from others who have had similar issues. Despite these positive initiatives, our research indicates that rail staff lack awareness and understanding of available support and face various barriers to seeking help. Additionally, our study highlights inconsistencies in the availability and quality of support services across the sector.
Barriers to seeking support
Over half of employees continued working despite experiencing mental health changes that affected their job performance, while 44 per cent did not seek any form of support. Our research revealed several obstacles that prevented staff from seeking help through their organisation. These barriers included distrust of available support, stigma surrounding mental health, worries about the impact on career advancement, concerns about disappointing others and fears of being taken off the job.
Role of managers
Many workers felt their managers did not know how to provide support for mental health and it was reactive, rather than proactive, whereas managers did not feel confident providing it. Our research highlighted that managers unfortunately do not always have the time available or confidence in the skills to talk with staff and are already under a lot of pressure in their roles, which has been amplified by heavy workloads and recent staff shortages. Staff recognised that everyone should take responsibility for mental health support and this should not fall solely on managers. Instead, all staff members should receive mental health awareness training, which would encourage them to seek support when they need it and signpost each other. Moreover, senior leaders must play a critical role in supporting managers to lead this change.
Many rail staff face exposure to a wide range of potentially traumatic incidents in their roles, affecting their mental health. Almost two-thirds of staff experienced verbal abuse, and almost a fifth experienced physical abuse while working for their employer. The level of abuse and threatening behaviour experienced by rail staff can be severe. Traumatic incidents are not always dealt with in the best way, and some staff feel there is a lack of concern for staff welfare when such incidents happen. Organisations need to acknowledge and address all trauma in the workplace, including those that are less severe but still highly distressing such as bullying, discrimination and the pressure of service disruption.
Cost of grievance
The volume of complaints and grievances seen within the rail sector is notably high, with 43 per cent of staff indicating that they have been involved in one in their current role. These procedures have a cost for individuals and organisations and often exacerbate staff mental illness. In many cases grievance procedures were poorly
managed, were often extensively long and drawn out, and communication throughout the process was poor. Organisations must look at how they can intervene early before situations escalate and also consider rewriting grievance procedures as a “resolution policy,” with the focus being on resolving the issues rather than on the grievance3.
We have made a series of recommendations for organisations to consider to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. The study’s findings suggest that there is a pressing need for organisations to raise awareness of and improve the support available for staff, ensure they have an effective strategy for mental health, build and foster a positive and inclusive culture, regularly review and evaluate support programs and services, and provide training and tools for managers to support staff. Addressing key drivers of poor mental health, acknowledging and addressing all trauma in the workplace, and improving grievances and complaints procedures will benefit staff and organisations.
This report underscores the crucial importance of prioritising mental health within the rail industry and outlines key steps that can be taken to improve mental health provision and support for employees. By implementing the recommendations provided in this report, the rail industry can strive towards creating a safer, healthier and more productive work environment, for all its employees.