Crossrail is among employers taking a proactive approach to staff wellbeing © Getty

With most of its 12,000 employees involved in the manual work of building tunnels and track across London, Crossrail has taken an unusual tack in efforts to support workplace health: it has stressed the mental wellbeing of its staff.

“We have a tendency to focus on physical safety because that’s obvious,” says Christina Butterworth, Crossrail health and safety specialist. “We have a really good safety record. But we also need to look at health.”

Like many of her counterparts in other sectors, she has been exploring digital technology as a way to help identify, support and respond to the health needs of employees. “It’s not about productivity or absenteeism,” she says. “I’m a nurse, and this is the right thing to do.”

Across the UK, mental health — from work-related anxiety and stress to underlying depression and schizophrenia — is one of the largest determinants of illness and is judged to affect a quarter of the workforce, according to government statistics. Such conditions are often difficult to diagnose and manage and can occur in unexpected sectors of work.

The construction industry, for instance, is particularly affected by suicides. This partly reflects the isolation of individual staff, the dominance in the workforce of men — who are often more reluctant than women to identify problems and seek support — and a particularly macho culture of management.

Employers such as Crossrail face other problems if they are to provide support for their staff. The company’s ethnically diverse background means Ms Butterworth has needed to ensure materials are available in six different languages. The fact that most of the workforce is not in an office means many do not have frequent access to desktop computers or smartphones. Crossrail’s public sector status also means there could be criticism if it paid for such devices.

Cultural factors may create resistance to a focus on wellness. “There is a lot of history in the rail industry of people not caring,” says Vicky Ward, head of occupational health and wellbeing strategy at Network Rail. “Occupational health was always seen as punitive by the unions: a way of trying to get rid of someone. We want a shift in culture.”

Technology can help. Ms Ward has sought ways to develop “resilience” at Network Rail and the company has worked with business psychologists Robertson Cooper, a spin-off from the University of Manchester, which has developed an “i-resilience” report and a “Wellbeing Snapshot”.

Staff conduct their own confidential online assessments, which helps managers spot signs of stress. More than a fifth of the workforce have participated. Ms Ward says notably high levels of stress have been found in the finance and legal departments and the company has worked to develop programmes in response.

Crossrail has begun promoting Public Health England’s new “One you” support, which offers self-assessment online and access to additional resources including downloadable apps to “nudge” employees with ideas for physical exercise, stopping smoking and healthy recipes.

The company is working with Transport for London, its parent, in distributing monitoring devices on wristbands. These are designed to detect movement at night, as part of a broader research project to examine the effects of fatigue on sleep patterns for shift workers.

Heather Bebbington, director of workforce and organisational development at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool — where work life is presently being disrupted by a move into new premises — has introduced measures to help identify and tackle stress. That includes a daily five question online poll to “take the temperature” of staff.

More widely, many employers are helping encourage wellness at work with physical activity trackers, such as Fitbit, and online networks to promote competition and collaboration between staff to encourage exercise — an important factor in fostering mental wellbeing.

Some are exploring the scope for providing online medical consultations as employee benefits via the likes of London-based Babylon Health, giving busy workforce members the chance to swiftly contact a GP online.

The most fundamental impact of technology on health — for good or bad — may relate to the changes they bring to working patterns without any explicit connection to wellness. Remote access to documents and systems offers staff scope to not necessarily come into their offices, which can mean a better balance between work and domestic life.

At the same time, it can encourage staff never to switch off. “The email phenomenon is pernicious,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester university and one of the founders of Robertson Cooper. “We don’t need any more science. On the front of every door should be a sign ‘your manager is potentially dangerous to your health’.”

For Prof Cooper, healthier workplaces begin with tackling more traditional factors such as unmanageable workloads, unrealistic deadlines, lack of a clear role and management by fault-finding.

“We need managers with social, interpersonal and soft skills,” he says.

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