Chris Acton, Head of Rail Safety UK&I at AECOM, takes a look at attitudes towards mental health in the workplace
Safety will always be a priority for rail projects. However, it must be remembered that the notion of safety is not static – and it is increasingly evolving.
While safety is the main focus, its sister ‘wellbeing’ is becoming more focal. After all, it is simply not enough to only take care of an employee’s physical safety – mental health and wellbeing are equally important. The notion of wellbeing has become fashionable recently for a number of reasons. Firstly, the general pace of work and life continues to increase, and people are feeling increasingly stressed. Additionally, the modern generation have a different attitude to work and place more importance on wellbeing than previous generations.
Health and safety has historically been about adherence to standards, whereas wellness is about productivity, retention and recruitment. Wellbeing is also about organisations being responsible for their most valuable resource – their people.
Taking mental health and wellbeing seriously is a relatively new concept for many rail companies. Not only is taking care of employee mental health the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
A glance at a report by Health and Safety Executive reveals that, of the total working days lost each year to ill-health, work related stress accounted for the large majority. In fact, the cost of mental health problems at work accounts for £26 billion per year across the UK workforce, according to data from the Centre for Mental Health. Clearly it is time that more companies put strategies in place to help manage mental health.
Until recently, employee wellbeing has often been seen as a ‘nice to have’. However, industry and companies are starting to wake up to its importance. It is estimated that globally one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives (World Health Organisation).
AECOM has taken measures to respond to this, such as ensuring there are health stations installed in our offices allowing individuals to get physical screenings and blood pressure checks.
Some employees may be reluctant to take time out of work to attend doctor’s appointments if they consider themselves fit and well, so this ensures that staff stay on top of their health.
Sadly, mental health still has a stigma placed on it by some, which can cause employees to find it difficult to express their concerns. In order to break the taboo, AECOM has invested in training of ‘Mental Health Allies’, which are office-based staff who are available as a first point of call, trained to provide guidance and assistance to staff who have problems or concerns.
We have also launched a Manager Guide to enable line managers to encourage and promote staff wellbeing, addressing problems before they become severe and supporting staff when issues do emerge. This is not about becoming an expert in mental health; it’s about spotting the signs that something might be wrong.
Activities in offices to encourage this dialogue can also help. AECOM piloted an exercise called ‘Elephant in the room’ across some of our offices in the UK and Ireland. This was a really simple awareness exercise in which posters were put up around the office which posed the questions such as ‘How are you feeling today?’ and ‘What stops you from talking about your mental health?’.
We made sticky notes available for staff to write their responses and then asked them to anonymously place them next to the poster. This initiative was very well received by staff and they were refreshingly candid, sharing their own stories, which in turn encouraged more people to speak up. It was wonderful to see something so powerful happen from a very simple exercise.
In the rail industry in particular, employees experience a great deal of pressure. While a certain amount of pressure can be motivating, excessive amounts can lead to stress and anxiety. Organisations should encourage staff to talk openly about their mental health in the workplace. This can be done by building capability amongst peers, line managers and senior staff to recognise the signs of potential mental health issues and create an environment where mental health awareness is part of everyday activity.
Mental health and wellbeing is considered by many as the remit of the safety department and this needs to be broadened. Above all, it’s important for everyone to look out for each other in a caring culture that benefits the whole organisation.
Chris Acton is Head of Rail Safety UK&I at AECOM