We need to change our models of mental health support to be more accommodating to the needs of a diverse workforce
Delivering a high quality railway service depends on a workforce that feels supported, cared for and appreciated
By Nafisa Nathani
Mental health is of real concern in the rail industry due to the unique challenges and risk factors within the sector faced by employees internally as well as an on a macro level. The psychological safety and wellbeing of rail industry employees must be given the same level of attention as their physical safety. Never before has there been a time when employee mental health has held such weight in workplace and boardroom conversations. Delivering a high quality railway service depends on a workforce that feels supported, cared for and appreciated.
The rate of suicide and anxiety in the railway sector is 1.5 times higher than the UK average with employee burnout, depression, and disengagement pretty high
This year, the Mental Health Foundation has found that anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, often associated with stress of personal finances. The rate of suicide and anxiety in the railway sector is 1.5 times higher than the UK average with employee burnout, depression, and disengagement pretty high. Costs of mental health absences have also skyrocketed within the sector to around £1.3bn since the start of 2019. The charity Mind has chosen to focus this year’s topic on how the cost-of-living crisis is impacting our nation’s mental health. We have seen costs of household items and bills increase rapidly along with real time cuts in wages and in turn tighter disposable incomes. This financial inequality has become even more pronounced within minority communities, who face a greater risk of financial insecurity, bereavement, job losses and reduced access to care during the Covid-19 pandemic, all of which are high risks for mental health conditions.
With even more uncertainty and change on the horizon within the railway including a need to modernise our workplace practices and culture, providing culturally informed mental health support is integral to our survival. Wellbeing in the workplace goes hand-in-hand with equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) programmes. Bias, discrimination, and exclusion all contribute to workplace anxiety and cannot be ignored.
If we fail to address these issues which include reframing mental health provision so it is appealing and accessible to all communities, we are not only at risk of failing our own employees but will be at risk of sleepwalking into irrelevancy and becoming desperately ‘out of touch’ with our customer base.
Much of the theory and practice of mental health, including psychiatry and therapy, has emerged from western cultural traditions and western understandings of the human condition which prioritises autonomy, individuality, and personal satisfaction. The treatment of mental health conditions like depression have historically been thought to be solved through an adoption of a more western, lifestyle. Whether this bias is conscious or not becomes irrelevant, when the impact of advice like this is harmful to the individual, who is made to feel like they need to strip parts of their identity.
Many western definitions of wellbeing furthermore don’t acknowledge the holistic interconnection between physical health, social and family wellbeing and spirituality
Many western definitions of wellbeing furthermore don’t acknowledge the holistic interconnection between physical health, social and family wellbeing and spirituality. Advice and therapy is further steeped in stereotypes of minority cultures being inherently repressive, tribalistic and backwards. This ‘between two cultures’ discourse is extremely dated. My generation’s reality is far from this. Rather than seeing individuals as stuck between west vs east, traditional vs modern, oppressed vs liberated, veiled vs unveiled, it’s about time we move away from this outdated binary model and recognise we can accommodate multiple ways of being.
This mistrust towards mainstream mental health services is then further amplified for many minority groups with the over-prescription of medication, misdiagnosis and for more extreme cases involuntary sectioning under the Mental Health Act. This inadequacy of mental health services at all levels, goes hand in hand with broader racial inequalities in society. To cater to the needs of minority groups, mental health services desperately need to think beyond a white, Eurocentric model of counselling and therapy and improve their racial and cultural literacy.
The power of a tea-break
Within the south Asian culture, our resilience is embedded in collective action, spirituality, and religion. There is power in human connection. Family factors including having a supportive extended family and strong sibling relationships personally act as protective factors for my mental health. Therefore, this western concept of having strict boundaries in place between family members just wouldn’t work for me. Having a community and a sense of solidarity with others, is central to the development of my own personal identity.
Throughout my life, there has been a special connection between food, friendship and conversation. In my house, the kettle is always on and the most important conversations in my life have taken place over a cup of chai. For me, tea has always provided a sense of calm. For me, tea feels like home. I’m British and Indian, so is it any wonder I have an obsession with the healing properties of this drink. This is a tradition I will never let go of.
Within our race network at Network Rail – Cultural Fusion – we have a wellbeing call every Wednesday (11-12) where we discuss pertinent issues in a supportive and safe environment
Strategies like strengthening our community and family support systems can be strong coping mechanisms when dealing with mental distress. This is why, employee networks and the support they offer in the workplace is absolutely pivotal to any conversation to do with mental health. Within our race network at Network Rail – Cultural Fusion – we have a wellbeing call every Wednesday (11-12) where we discuss pertinent issues in a supportive and safe environment. This is extremely popular with our members as it is a chance for everyone to come together, learn and share experiences.
Having the humility to listen to each other in our own voices, recognise power imbalances, implicit biases and accepting that for minority groups our cultural backgrounds and traditions may actually contribute to our healing journey is important. We don’t need to reject our culture to thrive. We can still hold onto elements of our culture and identity that bring us joy. By tapping into a community-based network this can also help to realign power relationships between service providers and individuals. It is time we think of new ways of engaging across cultures that can empower all parties involved rather than disempower and marginalise some groups while empowering others.
Trauma support training is an issue we need to think more deeply about. Train-related suicides and the traumatic shock they cause railway employees is very real. There is a range of support available to workers and staff who experience such distressing events and managers are trained in how to handle such incidents. Nobody would deny how invaluable this is.
A topic we need to think more widely about is racial and gendered trauma and the mental-health impact of watching graphic violence whether that is on social media or dealing with the aftermath of a violent crime. Research has shown that graphic videos of violence played by news outlets on a 24-hour news cycle, which include shootings of black people can result in symptoms reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome within that community. I can absolutely testify to this. Research shows that when minority communities watch traumatic videos of a person being killed by the police for example, they personalise the victim switching them to a close family member, increasing feelings of powerlessness. When you combine this with structural inequalities and lived experiences of racism and/or sexism, this can cause real mental health distress.
Looking to tomorrow
Employee engagement, retention and EDI are the biggest challenges in the workplace today. Workplace culture has become more important, with more people than ever speaking out against toxicity. The last two years have been transformational, with more employees speaking out more than ever against organisations whose behaviours do not align with their values. The railway is not immune to this. We need to modernise as an industry, not just in workplace practices but in terms of representation, siloed thinking, and have open and honest conversations around mental health provision, trauma and burnout.
The last two years opened people’s eyes to the everyday realities of structural inequalities and institutional abuses of power with the disproportionate death rates of minorities during Covid, and the coverage of the murder of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, as well as the ascendancy of the #MeToo movement, combined to make it feel we were finally waking up to the reality of the ugly truths hidden in the fabric of our society. We now need to restitch the fabric with threads filled with tolerance, justice, and humanity.
Creating a sense of purpose and belonging and a culture where teams feel listened to and supported is an absolute necessity in 2023
Creating a sense of purpose and belonging and a culture where teams feel listened to and supported is an absolute necessity in 2023. All employees want to be heard, recognised, and connected to a clear vision with meaning, in a company whose values resonate with their own. We are moving towards having a multigenerational and culturally diverse workforce, with employee identities intertwined with the workplace in very different ways, therefore there is a need to re-think our traditional models of mental health support to be more accommodating to different needs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nafisa Nathani is Southern Region Lead for Cultural Fusion, Network Rail’s race equality network. Cultural Fusion is open to all those who work in the rail sector. To join, email email@example.com
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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