Supporting mental health in rail: New steps and support surveys
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Supporting mental health in rail: New steps and support surveys

By Frankie Youd 22 Nov 2021 (Last Updated November 23rd, 2021 12:22)

Taking place over the space of two days running from 17th to 18th of November, Rail Wellbeing Live - the biggest health and wellbeing movement in the history of the rail industry - held an array of online webinars. Webinars explored a variety of mental health related topics in the form of panel discussions, emotional talks, and educational presentations. Here are some takeaways from the event.

Supporting mental health in rail: New steps and support surveys
Working within the rail industry puts station staff, rail crew, train operators and many more in uncertain, stressful situations. Credit: PhysioDave.

Working within the rail industry puts station staff, rail crew, train operators and many more in uncertain, stressful situations. These situations range from operation malfunctions, unpleasant customer experience encounters, and the possibility of having to deal with a passenger fatality.

During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic the amount of stress and unhappiness at work reported by rail workers increased due to having to work on the front lines – which many deemed an unsafe environment – when Covid-19 case numbers were at their highest.

To assist those working within the industry, The Department for Transport have been working with Samaritans to develop an industry wide study to promote the support of positive mental health within the rail industry.

Discussed during ‘Promoting and supporting positive mental health within the rail industry’ panellists conversed over the study which aims to focus on the challenges which all rail staff, managers, train crew, rail operators and every member of the rail workforce face on a day-to-day basis.


The study: What it aims to achieve

Samaritans have been working with the rail sector for over 11 years, on programmes which focus on how to prevent lives being lost, reducing suicides, how to achieve positive mental health, and much more. The introduction of the new study aims to create an opportunity to focus on mental health and wellbeing within the industry, and assist those who are struggling or are in need of support.

The study will look at what is currently happening within the industry, what challenges the staff are facing, and look for the areas where inconsistencies are occurring, as well as potential failures. Alongside this the study will also look outside the rail industry to other sectors to see where lessons and learning can be taken and applied to the rail industry so repeated mistakes can be avoided.

Once conducted, members of Samaritans will be talking to personnel across the UK in the form of surveys, group discussions, structured interviews, and informal talks. It is hoped that during these discussions those within the rail industry will provide the charity with ideas and recommendations in areas which they feel more could be done. When all the information and feedback has been gathered, Samaritans will write up the findings to decide what is next for the rail sector and what the data shows.

Speaking on the introduction of the new survey Olivia Cayley, head of rail programme, Samaritans, said: “When we’ve learned everything from the feedback from the industry, I think the key part of those recommendations is that they need to be implementable. They need to be ambitious. They need to stretch and challenge the sector, but they also need to be realistic.”

“Maybe we’ll look at what is that low hanging fruit that can be done quite quickly. What are the quick wins? Then what are some of the longer term strategic cultural changes that need to happen if mental health and wellbeing in the rail sector is going to go on leaps and bounds? That is what we’re hoping for at the at the end of these recommendations.”


Current support and help

During the webinar mental health lead manager for Southeastern (SE) railway, Lee Woolcott-Ellis, discussed his past battle with poor mental health and the help he sought out to help him with these challenges. The acknowledgement of his past struggles inspired him to start the companies peer to peer programme.


Credit: Paul Briden.


“I contacted the board at SE in 2017 and I told them a little bit about my journey, but then the question was, how many other people are also having a similar journey, and probably don’t know where to go? So, we started the advocate programme in 2018.” Woolcott-Ellis said.

“The advocates are colleagues from the organisation that have come through as volunteers, many of them have their own journey, which gives them that passion to be happy in that space. But we also put them on a professional training programme to give them, not just the qualification, but the components they needed to make sure that they were actively listening.”

Since the programme was launched engagement has been recorded at 25% of the organising coming forward to discuss their mental health. When that is translated into numbers it stands at a recorded 1,150 colleagues who have contacted an advocate, had a conversation with a person on the programme, or sought advice.

When speaking on the success of the programme so far Woolcott-Ellis commented that one of the biggest drivers is positive recommendation. Once they have taken part in the programme colleagues have been noted to be recommending their experience to their friends within the company which has seen an increase of staff members taking part.


What more can be done: The future of support

With many rail organisations such as SE and The Department for Transport – as well as many others – currently providing help and support for those within the industry struggling with poor mental health, what else can be done to further support them?

During the discussion Heather Waugh, freight driver for ScotRail, discussed the issues she has noticed which take place after a stressful experience has occurred. Waugh commented that too many times she has seen situations where, although one individual experienced a stressful, trauma inducing event, other members of staff within that location are not considered within the same way.

“Perhaps the ticket examiner – whilst the driver is taken away and dealt with and taken back to the family – is put back on next train ready to work because, well, it’s not affected them. They didn’t see anything. But of course it’s affected them. It’s affected everybody involved and there needs to be some kind of follow up care put in place or a duty of care for everybody that’s been affected at that time.”

Alongside this issue Waugh discussed the training surrounding the situation of a fatality on the line. Although training is provided to rail staff on how to deal and cope with a lifechanging situation such as a line fatality support and the care that needs to be present to reassure drivers that they did everything they could, that they followed the correct procedure, and that they feel as prepared for the situation as they can be.

Another issue of discussion which was raised surrounds the point of when care and support should end. Waugh commented that support should not end the moment the person is back driving the train again, support should be provided to the individual for as long as they deem necessary to ensure that long lasting effects – such as PTSD – can be diagnosed and treated. Paired with this, managers need to be informed on the potential triggers which a returning staff member could experience to make sure that the second they are back at work the traumatic event is not resurfacing for them.

Speaking on her own experience which resulted in Waugh suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she stated that the ongoing support helped her through that stressful, emotional time. “For my experience it wasn’t somebody just following a policy. The policy was in place to support the manager to support me, but they also made sure that the support was offered from the moment that it happened, throughout that entire time, and that it was personal and was suited to me.”

With mental health within the workplace being a key area of discussion for many rail companies, it is hoped that even more programmes and support networks are introduced so individuals within the rail industry an receive the support that they need.