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Case study: Health and wellbeing at First ScotRail


Nicola MacphersonThe health and wellbeing programme at First ScotRail demonstrates commitment to staff and recognises the relationship between staff wellbeing and customer service levels. Becky Midgley talks to its occupational health advisor to find out more about the company's wellbeing initiatives.








First ScotRail is the largest regional train operating company in the UK and serves 81 million passenger journeys a year. Over the past four years it has been developing its award-winning people strategy with the assistance of key stakeholders and four trade unions. In the process, the business has recognised the value in improving employee engagement and wellbeing.


"We set out to address striking a good work-life balance by bringing as much help and support regarding positive wellbeing to the workforce"

Nicola Macpherson, First ScotRail

When FirstGroup took over the franchise in October 2004 there were two major impacting factors on the culture and wellbeing of their workforce: "We have an 80% majority male workforce, which has led to the embedded 'macho' culture that doesn't take health and health promotion too seriously," admits Nicola Macpherson, occupational health advisor at First ScotRail. "Our two main reasons for sickness absence were musculoskeletal and mental health problems. We set out to address these issues initially as they were obviously the biggest issues to our workforce."

Macpherson stresses the importance of a good work-life balance: "Most of our employees are shift workers so we set out to address striking a good work-life balance by bringing as much help and support regarding positive wellbeing to the workforce, to make it more accessible to our employees.

"Our workforce is ageing and we have a large majority of staff who are with us from school leaving until retirement, which is evident in the very low staff turnover we have. We also have a lot of families working within our company. We therefore set out to address the issues of poor lifestyle choices within the family setting as well as the work setting." Many employees cited shift work as a reason for poor lifestyle choices.

The way forward

In response to the findings gathered over the last four years, First ScotRail decided that a multi-pronged approach was the only way forward: "We brought on board a team of physiotherapists throughout our route who had a specific focus on occupational physiotherapy, which involves them assessing our various jobs and locations and incorporating their treatment into their normal daily duties as much as possible," explains Macpherson.

"We redirected our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to one that used a person-centred approach using cognitive behavioural therapy as appropriate, and extended this to family members.

The firm also used the services of on-site massage and chiropody for its employees, as well as hypnotherapy for smoking cessation. "We also set up a personal health challenge using a personal trainer who developed a fitness assessment and improvement plan for all employees who took part in the campaign," she says.

When asked how they went about implementing their new-found strategy, Macpherson reflected on the trend of employees spending their "whole working careers" with First ScotRail and the need for a person-centred approach.

"We have put in place support and proactive wellbeing campaigns to ensure our staff can achieve as healthy a work-life balance as they wish to. This helps staff access health services promptly – helping them as well as us. This was crucial in helping our staff be fit and well at work and at home."

The company's EAP began to focus on person-centred counselling in order to assist staff in finding supported solutions to any health problems or concerns.

"It also meant that they had a tool kit to help them deal with any future situations," comments Macpherson. "In helping deal with general lifestyle issues, we launched 'wellbeing weeks' across our route with a general weekly theme and a specific theme within that topic for each day. For example, a healthy eating-themed week had a day dedicated to easy exercise, packing a healthy lunch, feeding the family healthily etc.

"We also realised that shift working makes life outside work more difficult. So we use the services of on-site massage therapists and chiropodists, offered to staff free during wellbeing week campaigns and at a very reduced rate throughout the rest of the year."

Positive results

The results are clear: absence rates are down from 6.9% to 4.1%; and increased employee engagement with staff survey response rates doubled to 44%. A revitalised recruitment campaign has attracted 80,000 applications and another campaign to help address the lack of female workers has increased applications by 10%.

Furthermore, smoking cessation has to date had a 70% success rate and is being rolled out next year with a view to offering hypnotherapy for other health needs, adds Macpherson.

"Our personal health challenge showed a marked improvement in fitness, and was so popular we are looking to bring something in-house as part of our next stage of wellbeing promotion."


"As a business we are growing and we are very aware of increasing diversity needs which we dynamically address."

Nicola Macpherson, First ScotRail

Overall, the company has made an annual saving on sickness absence of £2m, which Macpherson duly notes "is obviously important in any financial climate but especially in today's."

First ScotRail has signed up for the Healthy Working Lives scheme and have already achieved a bronze standard and should continue to achieve their silver, having ascertained that their health and wellbeing campaign is relevant to employees.

The company's wellbeing initiatives were also acknowledged when it won the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) award for health and wellbeing in February. The award recognises employers that are serious about addressing the health issues of an ageing workforce.

Reflecting on the EFA win, Macpherson concludes: "We are totally committed to employing people of all ages. As a business we are growing and we are very aware of increasing diversity needs which we dynamically address. We have apprentice schemes, a good family-friendly policy, and a whole host of employee benefits as part of our employee benefits scheme. To be recognised by the EFA for our efforts is magnificent."