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The new study seeking to improve mental wellbeing in rail

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Research shows that Mental Health Awareness Week has a special importance to our sector.

So it’s encouraging that suicide prevention charity Samaritans has been commissioned by train operator Great Western Railway and the Department for Transport to lead a new research study on mental health and wellbeing for the sector.

The work is being carried out in partnership with Mental Health at Work.

GWR says that what makes this study especially pressing is two years of working under the threat of the pandemic, as well as uncertainty and change.

The train operator says that Samaritans will work with Mental Health at Work to provide good practice recommendations for psychological health provision. That way, the industry can raise awareness for their staff and support those experiencing mental illness. It will aim to highlight existing barriers, as well as encourage a culture shift to destigmatise conversations around mental health.

Staff across the sector are being asked to contribute to the study and have their voices heard by taking part in an industry-wide survey, interviews and group discussions.

The online survey will start in June and run for six months. It will ask the rail family about its experiences, its understanding of available support and its thoughts on improvements in seeking help. The final study report will be available next year.

Samaritans Research Project Manager, Suzy Ludlow, said: “We’re excited to be delivering this important study to support the mental health and wellbeing of the rail industry, thanks to GWR and DfT’s commitment.

“We know the pandemic has had a huge impact on the rail industry and its staff and this is likely to be felt for some time, so it’s so important and timely that we delve into what support is currently available and see where we can recommend improvements, so that every single person in the industry feels comfortable to be open about their mental health and supported to get the help they need. 

“We really want to encourage rail staff from all areas to get involved in the survey – from the frontline to the managing directors – so everyone can have their say. Having worked with the rail industry for over 10 years in suicide prevention, Samaritans knows the traumas that rail staff can face, so we hope this study will make a huge difference to the industry.”

Research

The RSSB ran a survey in 2020 – revealed in November 2021 – taking into account the effects of the pandemic, and the figures made grim reading in terms of the escalation of poor mental health.

Out of 4,000 people responding, there was a wealth of data covering the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, in rail employees. But it also opened the door to a range of factors that can improve mental health.

Out of the 4,000 respondents, 43% met the criteria for a mental health condition. Symptoms of depression were the most frequently reported, with 38% of the total respondents meeting criteria which suggested they were in the moderate to severe range. When it came to anxiety, 29% of participants had symptoms.

In terms of how the pandemic affected these recent numbers,  it was consistent with the trend observed in the general population – moderate-severe depression has increased from 5.6% to 31.6%, and moderate-severe anxiety has increased from 6% to 18.8%.

The study’s results revealed that rail employees experienced a 1.5 times higher rate of anxiety compared to the rates seen in the general population. RSSB stresses this may be partly due to differences in survey methodology. However, it could also be related to the challenges of working in public-facing roles and increased pressure during the pandemic.

Of the respondents, 41% reported that they experienced a traumatic event, with 74% describing at least some of these events as work-related. 10% of all participants reported symptoms consistent with a clinical post-traumatic stress disorder, with 7% reporting symptoms consistent with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and 3% consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is over double the rate found in the general population.

Pivotal to destigmatising conversations

With regards to the new work being carried out with Samaritans and Mental Health at work, GWR HR director, Ruth Busby, said:“We’ve been working closely with the DfT and colleagues from across the rail industry to develop a study which will help to promote and support positive mental health. 

“The wellbeing of our colleagues is so important and this study is a further sign of our commitment to promoting an environment that supports positive mental health and supports colleagues experiencing trauma or mental illness.

“We look forward to learning the results from the study. This cross-industry approach means we can share best practice, learn from one another and provide the best support we can.” 

Alison Pay, managing director for Mental Health at Work, said:“We are delighted to be working alongside Samaritans on this important research initiative for the rail industry. Supporting organisations to build capability across the mental health agenda for all employees, is at the centre of our work.

“Understanding mental health and wellbeing, with consideration for the extremely challenging circumstances of recent years, is pivotal in destigmatising conversations and encouraging access to appropriate and timely support. This research project will provide leaders with the information to make informed decisions on the future mental health strategy and support across the rail industry.”

Samaritans has worked in partnership with Network Rail and the wider rail industry since 2010 to reduce suicide on the railway and support those affected by them. The charity has trained 25,000 rail and British Transport Police staff in suicide prevention, as well as providing trauma support courses and working with the charity’s 20,000 listening volunteers to provide emotional support to staff and customers when needed across the network.

Darran and Carol’s stories

Darran Hickery, GWR depot engineering manager technician, knows the importance of looking after our mental health following his own experience with depression. Darran is a big advocate for inspiring others to be open in the workplace to destigmatise mental health.

Darran said: “I’ve worked in the rail industry for 31 years. When I look back, I was on a downward spiral from the end of 2017, but I didn’t realise it at the time. I was trying to keep up with work and there was so much pressure, but I was putting on a front. One day in April 2018, I’d been in a conference that morning, which hadn’t gone well. I came out of it and went outside and phoned a colleague for a chat and I just burst into tears. I went to see my boss and I said, ‘I’m not alright’. Being a man, and even in 2018, there wasn’t much talk about mental health – thankfully today there is a massive difference and things have moved along.

He added: “I was off work for 17 weeks in total and when I came back, I was open and honest about my experience. When I opened up it was absolutely amazing how many others then shared their experiences. It’s a cliché but I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did. I manage my own mental health now by talking and helping others – sometimes a simple smile and a chat can be enough. We’re all human beings at the end of the day. If we can be a bit more sociable and look out for each other, it will be a better place.” 

GWR lead customer host Carol Foster also uses her personal experience to help others at work now that she’s a Mental Health First Aider. Carol said: “My story started in my 20s, before I joined the railway. It started with anxiety – I started having palpitations and panic attacks. I remember calling the doctor the first time it happened thinking I was having a heart attack. I managed to get to a point where I had control of it, but then halfway through our marriage my husband got sick and that’s when things started going even further downhill. He became clinically depressed and his behaviour in turn made me depressed too. There was only so much I could take, and I had terrible thoughts.

Carol added: “Part of what happened has made me who I am now. I think what I’ve been through makes being a Mental Health First Aider better. Having been there, I can empathise better with people because I know what I needed to hear. Being part of the onboard crew, I’m always visible and people see me out and about if they need to chat to me. I do find that helps some people – they just want to offload. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ really does make a difference.”

For more information and to get involved in the study, please email the Research Project Manager Suzy Ludlow at s.ludlow@samaritans.org

When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org, or visit https://www.samaritans.org/

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