Joana Faustino, lead work psychologist at Rail Safety and Standards Board, explains the benefits to business of having an effective mental health strategy that supports employee wellbeing.


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 up to £56 billion each year.

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, it is vital to include preventative and proactive measures (see image below).

To support this work, Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), in collaboration with Southeastern Railways, has developed the Railway Mental Health Charter. The charter is a framework, aligned with the UK Government’s Thriving at Work recommendations, that provides targeted actions and resources for organisations to promote, manage and support workforce mental health and wellbeing.

Action 1: Senior leadership commitment and employee consultation. Senior leaders are a vital part of defining the culture, progressing the mental health agenda, and creating change within an organisation. At the same time, and in order for interventions to create effective and sustainable change, employees should be consulted at all stages.

Action 2: Understanding your organisation.
To develop a plan for how to improve mental health, you first need to understand your organisation. This includes understanding the mental health hazards your workforce is exposed to and the impact of poor mental health in your organisation.

Action 3: Addressing stigma.
Stigma can negatively impact both people’s ability to ask for help and colleagues’ ability to offer support. In rail, colleagues may find themselves divided between the need to ask for help and fear that acknowledging difficulties may jeopardise their career due to the safety critical nature of many rail jobs.

Action 4: Providing a healthy workplace.
Employers have a duty of care to their employees. That includes both physical and mental health as well as issues caused or aggravated by work.

Action 5: Providing support.
Providing employees with access to support is a cornerstone to promoting good mental health at work. Providing adequate support when someone is struggling can support them to stay at work.

More information about each of the actions can be found in the charter, which is supported by a checklist and an action planner. These help companies to develop and enhance their mental health strategies, to ensure they are investing their efforts in robust approaches.

Return on investment (ROI)

Research has pointed to high ROI for interventions that support mental health, with Deloitte estimating an average £5.30 return for each pound spent. In another research piece, 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 Pensions, 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.

In order to improve your understanding of the issues people in your company are experiencing, it is key to ensure they 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 or 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.

As a starting point, you can also look at industry specific data, to help inform your priorities for data collection. Following a cross-industry survey on the mental health of rail employees, RSSB has identified risk and protective factors for mental health and developed recommendations on the management of mental health in the industry.

Measuring success

Identifying your hot spots is 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 Name has been changed

Find out more

Mental health and wellbeing surveyed across rail and maritime

Why we may need to start designing jobs with wellbeing in mind

Railway Mental Health Charter (RSSB)

Network Rail: dealing with the effects of trauma

Managing stress, fear and anxiety in the workplace

Better mental health: tips to help you take care of yourself

PTSD: getting help after trauma