Stop press! It turns out that people are a key driving force for business success! Indeed, this isn’t likely to be new information, and most of us will recognise that people strategy has many facets, including skills, talent, rewards, workforce engagement and health.

If we home in on health in particular we can uncover a range of issues, including the effects of work on health (for example, poor posture caused by a poor cab design), the effects of health on work (such as where an ailment impacts on the ability to do a task) and general wellbeing.

Now the rail industry wants to reinvigorate its approach. Why? Well, poor health and wellbeing among the workforce leads to unnecessary cost. ‘Absenteeism’ caused by impaired workforce health costs the GB rail industry about £320 million every year. If coupled with ‘presenteeism’ (for example, attending work while unwell), it could be as high as £790 million, and the relationship between the two indicators is still not fully understood (at least for rail).

At RSSB, we estimate that by working collaboratively and proactively to improve health and wellbeing, the rail industry could save up to £32 million every year.

So what are the issues which are increasing risk and cost to GB rail?

The first point to make is that this is not just a rail problem. The UK workforce is ageing as people work for longer, so although people may be medically fitter, the health problems they encounter in later life are also brought into the workplace. Health issues such as obesity are beginning to be better recognised at the public policy level. It means that businesses together with government and society have a responsibility and have started to recognise the human and economic costs of compromised health and impaired wellbeing. These all have impacts on businesses’ performance and bottom line. A consistent approach across the industry and promotion of wellbeing can help to address the problem.

For rail in particular, since privatisation there has been an absence of rail-specific senior clinical support to provide advice, expertise and guidance to third party providers and line managers. This has meant both physicians (who have limited understanding of the rail workplace) and line managers being more risk averse, causing unnecessary delay in returning people to the workplace.

Lack of clinical guidance in the rail environment has also restricted the number of qualified health providers willing to enter the market. There is also a great deal of variability in challenges facing employers depending on their geographical location and the nature of the tasks they are involved in.

Addressing this lack of clinical guidance would help industry benefit from the latest technology and medical advice and ensure consistency of approach that would significantly reduce industry costs and improve employee wellbeing.

People and organisations do not have access to sufficient data to understand the issues, target investment and measure success, and if you can’t measure, you can’t manage. The NHS and TfL are examples of businesses that have benefited from benchmarking different trusts or business units enabling targeted investment in health service provision. The GB railway already benefits from cross-industry safety data collection through RSSB in terms of business performance and reputation. The same is possible with health.

New programme from RSSB

Having identified this as a business risk with significant opportunities, industry has refreshed its approach to workforce health and wellbeing in a new programme managed by RSSB on behalf of Network Rail, train and freight operators, rolling stock leasing companies, infrastructure companies, suppliers and supported by the Office of Rail Regulation.

The programme seeks to increase business performance through a menu of products and initiatives that RSSB members can call upon as required. This led us to develop a high level ‘road map’ which outlines industry’s shared vision that ‘the GB railway is an industry where everyone takes responsibility for health and wellbeing and benefits from it.’ The work follows extensive research, consultation and expert working groups and is very much ‘by the industry, for the industry’.

The road map provides a series of high level actions against five strategic themes in CP5 and into CP6: industry leadership, clinical knowledge, reporting and monitoring, employee engagement and behavioural change.

A cross-industry policy group has been set up to take this forward. Collaboration across the industry will yield significant benefits to individual rail businesses. Collective promotion and support of industry effort creates consistency of approach within the industry and between third party providers. Sharing good practice improves management approach, saves time and increases knowledge. Overall competency of line managers and use of health professionals can be increased and in turn reduce absenteeism and improve our workforce health and wellbeing. Improved wellbeing can mean a boost to individuals’ capabilities and happiness and to employee relations, as well as reducing unnecessary costs and improving the overall sustainability of the organisation and the industry.

In terms of sustainability, health is directly relevant to many of the industry’s Sustainable Development Principles, including ‘Being an Employer of Choice’. We have already published some material to kick-start the programme and raise awareness of the importance of the issues. This includes six booklets designed to help individual companies develop health policies about addressing:

  • proactive health policy
  • internal health relationships
  • health surveillance and screening
  • mental health and stress
  • getting people back to productive work
  • employee wellness and engagement

We have also published research into the costs of impaired health, health data collection and usage, occupational health provider relationships, internal health relationships and health standards.

Looking forward, the policy group will focus on setting the industry’s direction in health and wellbeing; specifically promoting a board room commitment, developing cross industry data collection and building clinical knowledge to support industry. For more information, go to the Health and Wellbeing section on our website at