Work can give us a sense of accomplishment, bring financial stability and form part of our identity, positively contributing to our mental health and wellbeing. A report from the Mental Health Foundation estimates that people with mental health difficulties contribute £226 billion to the UK gross domestic product (GDP), 12.1% of the overall GDP.

Work can also contribute to the development and exacerbation of mental health difficulties, with a negative effect on performance, sickness absence, presenteeism and staff turnover. Deloitte estimates poor mental health to cost UK companies between £42 billion and £45 billion each year.

In rail, it has been estimated that 120,170 work days are lost every year¹ due to mental health difficulties.

Companies that support mental health and wellbeing have been shown to perform better, with employees showing higher engagement and motivation.

Developing a mental health strategy

Supporting the mental wellbeing of your workforce should ideally be part of the fabric of your organisational culture. Although most companies focus on reactive efforts to reduce the impact of mental health difficulties in the workplace, include preventative and proactive measures too.

RSSB has developed a framework, aligned with the UK Government’s Thriving at Work recommendations, to support the development of a mental health strategy:

Return on investment (ROI)

Research has pointed to high ROI for interventions that support mental health, with Deloitte estimating an average £5.20 return for each pound spent. Line manager training, for example, has been shown to have an ROI of £9 for each pound spent.

A case study from an RSSB research project, developed to support employees struggling at work in light of mental health difficulties and funded by the Department for Work and Pensions², provides an example of the impact of direct employee support.

Mr Miles³ was at risk of losing his job due to poor performance. It was later understood he was experiencing anxiety following a set of traumatic work events. Support lasted five months and had a monthly cost of £275. Mr Miles stayed in his job and reported less anxiety and increased motivation. He explained feeling heard, understood and supported in a way that catered to his specific needs.

With Oxford Economics estimating the average cost of staff turnover to be around £30,000 (for a yearly salary of £25,000), it is possible to estimate that Mr Miles’ permanence in his role saved his company £2,210 per month (with the cost to deliver the project taken out). Assuming employment was sustained for one year, the ROI would be £20.60 for every pound spent.

Identifying hot spots

Other companies may have identified some helpful interventions for mental health. But will those work for your company? Should you invest in something because everyone else is doing it? Probably not. To create a mental health strategy that effectively supports the mental wellbeing of your employees, it is important to understand the specific needs of your company.

In a document that establishes guidance on how to commission mental health services, RSSB explores ways and resources to assess staff’s mental wellbeing, including the collection of sickness absence, occupational health referral and staff turnover data.

Accompany this by exploring and understanding factors contributing to mental health difficulties, such as exposure to psychosocial hazards like stress and potentially traumatic events. It is key to ensure employees are given the opportunity to voice concerns and difficulties. This may be in one-to-ones with managers, by adding wellbeing questions to your staff survey and through confidential reporting, such as the service provided by CIRAS. All this data can inform the definition of your organisational objectives and key performance indicators in relation to your mental health strategy.

Measuring success

Identifying your hot spots is also key for monitoring the success of your strategy, by comparing pre- and post-strategy implementation data. The ways in which you measure impact will depend on the actions you have put in place.

For example, you have identified stress as a big contributor to sickness absence in your company. As part of your strategy you have decided to hire more staff, as data pointed to workload being the biggest issue. Six months after that, you may wish to reassess stress in your company. Reviewing sickness absence and surveying staff could be two ways of assessing the impact of your strategy. The Health and Safety Executive has developed guidance on tackling work-related stress, which includes advice on how to measure stress, how to evaluate to cost of work-related stress in your company, initiatives you can put in place and how to monitor their effectiveness.

Mental health exists in a continuum – from feeling healthy to feeling unwell and anything in between – and we all navigate it. We all experience distress. The way in which our employer responds makes a huge difference.

And with rail and other transport systems being developed, managed and supervised by human beings, supporting their health and wellbeing is definitely good for everyone.

¹ RSSB estimation based on Office for National Statistics Sickness Absence in the Labour Market report (2017).
² A summary report will be available at rssb.co.uk in late August 2020.
³ Name has been changed

Joana Faustino (pictured below) is the senior work psychologist for RSSB. She is also the RSSB lead for mental wellbeing in the rail industry.