Mining sector addresses worker stresses

It is estimated one in five people globally will experience a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, in a given year.

Mining industry workers can be particularly at risk, with common triggers including spending long periods of time away from home, working long hours, financial stress, shift rosters and social isolation.

A recent ‘Wellbeing and Lifestyle Survey’ of 1100 workers based at 10 remote construction, open cut and underground mining sites in Western Australia and South Australia, found about 30 per cent reported high psychological distress levels. This was three times the national average.

The research team, from Edith Cowan University and The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, showed that workers aged 25 to 34-years-old and those on a two week on and one week off roster were much more likely to be stressed and suffer poor mental health than those aged over 55, or those working for four weeks with one week off.

Survey participants who reported high-stress levels also said they were likely to be stigmatised at work for having a mental health problem.

Major mining industry employers, such as Macmahon, are taking the lead on adoption of strategies to address the wellbeing of employees and their families, and at the same time ensure workplace safety.

Across its management and operational divisions, Macmahon has introduced employee programs to boost awareness of mental health problems, overcome stigmas that prevent people from seeking help and providing support services.

“We have a comprehensive mental health program that addresses on-site issues and provides specific support for managerial and supervisory staff,” said Kale Ross, Manager HSEQ from Macmahon.

“It is at this level where our employees have the added responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their workforce.”

Macmahon has been integral in the development and roll-out of a dedicated mental health initiative, Strong Minds, Strong Mines, which is designed specifically for the resources sector and tailored to the company’s workforce. The program is coordinated by Rural and Remote Mental Health to address the specific challenges faced by companies, work sites and locations.

It engages mental health specialists who understand the specific challenges facing the fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) lifestyle and offers mental health training workshops for supervisors, managers, OH&S /HR personnel, shift bosses and front-line responders. It is accompanied by a suite of ‘Toolbox Talks’ videos and guidelines and a physical health program using a dedicated online ‘app’ run by mental health ambassador, Soa “The Hulk” Palelei.

Already more than 25 managers and 1,000 FIFO workers at some of Australia’s most remote mines have participated in the Strong Minds Strong Mines  program through Macmahon.

“We believe it is proving effective in helping us tackle the complex mental health challenges of our workforce, many of whom are away from home for weeks at a time and may be affected by anxiety, depression, relationship problems or financial stress,” said Mr Ross.

“A key benefit for our company is being able to identify any warning signs to facilitate early intervention, as part of a proactive approach to minimising mental harm issues in the workplace, which spans multiple projects on and off-shore.

“Like all mining operators, Macmahon is focused on doing its best to keep our people safe and resilient. Providing a comprehensive mental and physical health program provides a deeper level of support which we are proud of.”

At BHP, mental health and well being became a major company policy in 2015 as part of its Chartered ‘Mental Health Framework’ health and safety program. This was in response to the prevalence of conditions such as depression, and recognition that well designed workplace programs would improve employee engagement, safety and productivity.

It is based on building a strong mental health and wellbeing culture, improving the capacity of management and other employees to identify and respond to mental health problems, mitigating risks of problems arising and providing resources and support to staff returning to work after illness.

The BHP program is supported by an innovative health toolkit ‘app’ and a team-led resilience program. By the end of 2017, 64 per cent of BHP’s leaders had undertaken eLearning training about mental health and hundreds of supervisors and managers had completed specialist mental health and suicide prevention training.

The next step for the company is developing a wellbeing index to help measure improvements in the mental health and wellbeing of its workforce. This will guide future strategy development and identify risks.

At Alcoa of Australia, its mental health initiatives start in the education sector, targeting the next generation of workers through support for the Youth Focus organisation.

More than 6000 secondary students from 40 schools have now attended Youth Focus ‘Having a Conversation about Mental Health’ workshops aimed at improving mental health and preventing youth suicide.

Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, with statistics showing 51 young people aged between 15 and 24 took their own lives in WA in 2017. Another 20 people for every suicide attempted to take their own life. Youth Focus community engagement general manager Chris Harris said community education was the cornerstone of suicide prevention.

“Research shows 75 per cent of all mental illnesses first appear in people under the age of 25, so early intervention and creating supportive communities is paramount,” he said. “Outreach programs in schools provide a critical conduit with young people that helps us raise awareness and understanding about youth mental health challenges.”

Youth Focus also provides workshops for 18-25-year-olds that are supported by Alcoa and designed to get men talking about suicide and mental health.

“The Young Men’s Project is about creating a space where we can work collaboratively on new and innovative strategies to help shift the way young men think about mental health issues and reduce the unacceptable toll of suicide,” Mr Harris said.

Such a strong commitment to mental health strategies, including preventative, early intervention and industry-wide programs, is logistically difficult for mining operators.

The problem is exacerbated by the remoteness of operations, low rates of workers tending to seek help due to fears of stigmatisation, bullying, potential termination or loss of income.

But, the big players, including Macmahon, are renewing efforts to overcome these challenges and deliver comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention programs to support their workforce.

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