Getting in Control of Mental Health

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Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year.* Rail shoulders its part of the burden, losing over 122,000 working days to stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions that could be managed better, at an estimated cost of nearly £520 million.** For the industry to get on top of this, line managers need the skills to spot emerging problems and support to help themselves and others better manage their health and wellbeing.

Training from the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) gives managers the confidence and tools to help staff and act before mental health issues spiral out of control.

The Mental Wellbeing for Line Managers course lets managers focus exclusively on mental health in a way that’s not possible in the usual working day. It helps them spot signs of mental health issues early enough to minimise the toll on wellbeing, and equips them to talk to staff and understand their difficulties. The course also lets managers share their experiences about topics they usually confront alone.

RSSB can tailor the course content to a company’s particular needs and it’s available as a one-day face-to-face session, or remotely with modules spread over three days.

Recognising rail’s unique pressures

The training recognises the pressures of working on the railways and helps managers be better prepared, says RSSB Senior Work Psychologist and trainer Joana Faustino: ‘Rail can put people in stressful situations, whether it’s drivers facing trauma after a fatality, station staff dealing with abuse from members of the public or others making on-the-spot decisions that affect people’s safety.’

The effect on mental health can be hard to gauge, partly because people are often reluctant to come forward to discuss their issues as they fear it could jeopardise their employment, or because of lingering stigma around mental health. People might also think that some stress and anxiety is part of their job and that they shouldn’t draw attention to any problems.

In 2021, an RSSB survey found that over four in ten rail employees had symptoms of mental health issues like stress or anxiety, but only half were getting help.

Spotting the signs of mental health issues

This makes it important for managers to be alert to signs of difficulties and take the initiative before they become so severe that someone has to take time off work.

The training helps line managers look out for these indicators, Joana explains: “Everyone is different, so there’s no one size that fits all. But if someone is behaving atypically – a usually outgoing person becoming withdrawn, say – it can be a sign they need help. Someone taking sickness leave could also be an indicator, even if it’s for reasons not apparently related to mental health. And a lot of conflict within a team could also suggest that one or more people in that team are struggling.

Starting the conversation

If people tend to see problems and solutions in black and white, conversations about feelings and emotions can be awkward, says Joana. The training gives managers tips on how to talk about mental health. ‘They often tell us the hardest part is having that first conversation. We discuss the value of listening and empathy and underline that the first objective is to understand the problem rather than come up with an instant solution.

Having these conversations early can potentially nip problems in the bud and stop people’s health affecting their performance. Early help can also prevent absence from work later through stress, burnout or PTSD if problems are left to worsen. With the right support, a person will be able to carry on working, and manage and overcome their issue.

If line managers have too many direct reports or too little time to be able to engage with them regularly, it can make them less able to see the need for this support and make it available. One result of the training could be that managers realise they have to work with their employer to change this, so they get more time with the people they manage.

The training also explores help managers can offer, either by themselves or with HR and Occupational Health colleagues. It might include signposting people to sources of support, working with them to develop a strategy to boost their wellbeing, or agreeing a plan to stay in touch and give support if they need time away from work.

Meeting specific needs

Each employer has its own needs. For Chiltern Railways, mental health-related sickness absence among drivers costs 2,000 days and over £400,000 a year. Enabling their managers to better support their drivers was a key part of their strategy to better the health and wellbeing of their employees while contributing to improving the performance and safety of the railway. They worked with RSSB to deliver mental health training to their managers. “We recognise that mental health is an essential consideration if we are to have a contented and highly motivated workforce that’s resilient and able to manage change,” said Operations Implementation & Engagement Manager Steven Fisher who commissioned the training.

One Chiltern manager who attended the training course said: “Hearing other people's experiences helped me feel less alone. The course was a great opportunity to exchange tips and discuss how I can identify when people in my team need support for their mental health - and how to have those potentially difficult conversations.

If you are interested in RSSB's Mental Wellbeing for Line Manager training, contact the Training team at or (+44) 020 3142 5418.



** RSSB estimation based on Office for National Statistics Sickness Absence in the Labour Market report (2017).

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