Minds that matter

Mining executives are being urged to take notice of their workers’ happiness, wellbeing and ability to deal with stress, as positive mental health has been linked to increased productivity, profitability and staff retention. Brooke Showers explains.
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A poster used on the mines to encourage people to address mental health issues.

Staff Reporter

The hottest topic with the coldest edge in the mining and resources sector at the moment is mental health.

It is not because it has only just become a problem.

More men and women who work long hard hours in the remote dust, dirt and heat are starting to challenge the notion of “harden up and shut up” when it comes to their mental state of wellbeing and happiness.

With the fly-in, fly-out lifestyle embedded in the Australian mining culture, not everyone can cope with the physical, mental and emotional changes that result from working in a remote location.

More miners are being encouraged to speak to their mates, doctors and health professionals about problems and issues, and to shake off the mentality of suffering in silence, as it can lead to depression and even suicide.

“Most people who suicide don’t see a specialist,” Pilbara Mental Health and Drug Service clinical director and consultant psychiatrist David Cutts said.

The Australasian Centre for Rural & Remote Mental Health hosted the Exploration 2 forum at Perth Zoo to address mental health in mining and provide senior mining and resource executives with an opportunity to understand how these issues impact directly on business.

“Australia’s rural and remote environments are characterised by incessant and destabilising change, social isolation, paucity of services, extreme weather events and the sharp end of climate change,” CRRMH chief executive officer Dr Jennifer Bowers told the forum.

“Alcohol, tobacco, drug abuse, depression, anxiety, social isolation and the risk of suicide in rural remote areas often go unaddressed.

“These challenges precipitate low resilience, low self esteem and compromised health. They also affect productivity and profitability, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Bowers said, in business terms, improvements to the health and general wellness of a workforce led to improved morale and productivity, reduced absenteeism and staff turnover, and increased profit.

She added that unfortunately this understanding was often limited to physical health.

“The understanding of mental health in the mining and resources sector, and how it affects productivity and profit is embryonic at best,” Bowers said.

She said stress in the workplace was a major contributor to depression or some forms of mental illness, and that mining and resource workplaces were not always stress-free.

“Some forward-thinking mining companies are realising that incorporating mental health and occupational health and safety policies and practices pays off, in terms of productivity and profit,” Bowers said.

The forum initiative stemmed from a round table held last year that looked at strategies to promote mental health and wellbeing in the resources sector.

“The round table agreed that mental health issues can and do impact directly and indirectly on the modern line of mining and resource companies,” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner and CRRMH director Mick Gooda said.

“There is an urgent need to get mental health strategies into OHS mining practices and policies. It is really important, but virtually nonexistent.”

CRRMH’s report Dangers Lie Below the Surface was released in November.

“Long hours, heavy work, and challenging conditions can make it bloody tough,” the report said.

“But what is often overlooked is that this work can also be psychologically and emotionally demanding.”

The CRRMH has designed programs to support mining and resource companies proactively managing mental health awareness, and tailors solutions to specific workforce and operational needs.

“We will also collect data for key performance indicators and risk-management reporting to help improve the emotional wellbeing of all workers in these industries across Australia,” the centre said.

Strategies in the initial report target executive and team leader levels, pre-workforce training and mentors, and community consultation and engagement.

The study also included feedback from mine workers.

“Mental health? Ha! What do you do? Tell the shift supervisor? I don’t think so. He’d just tell you to harden the f**k up,” Pilbara mine worker Mark said in an excerpt recorded in the report.

“Fly-in, fly out, they call it FIFO,” another miner said.

“FIFO stands for something else when you get home after three week’s shift – fit-in or f**k-off. It was hard being at work and hard being at home; no wonder I got sick.”

The report said a successful and productive mental health strategy needed to have genuine commitment from the management team and be communicated across the whole organisation.

Benefits derived from the strategies were found to include improved workplace safety; awareness of mental health and available support; reduced training and recruitment costs; improved resilience to stressors; and increased productivity.

“Aside from being socially responsible, investment by mining and resource operations in proactive strategies to reduce the impact of mental health problems on their workforce makes good financial sense,” the report said.

By introducing relatively simple programs, operators can enhance the coping skills and emotional wellbeing of their workforce and in turn maximising worker productivity.

“The outcomes and benefits which we can expect from some of these initiatives include improved morale, increased workforce stability and higher retention rates, reduced absenteeism, increased indigenous participation and retention [and] improved status as a preferred employer,” Bowers said.

Being away from family and friends for long periods, living and working in close quarters, and working in potentially dangerous environments can have a major, and sometimes catastrophic impact on an individual’s mental health, CRRMH said.

Research also showed men and women living and working in rural and remote operations experienced isolation from supportive social networks, a loss of a sense of belonging, and were prone to a breakdown of family and personal relationships.

Dealing with extreme environmental conditions, use and misusing drugs and alcohol, and the absence of close friends and confidantes who might normally act as a release valve for negative feelings were also factors that could affect remote workers.

CRRMH is working with some what it describes as “far sighted” companies to develop sustainable mental health strategies.

Gooda said leadership should set the scene, and it was only when leaders got behind these tough issues that people started to take them seriously.

GHD chairman Des Whybird said the company had made some “great strides” in its health and safety systems. “We’re proud of that, but after meeting Jennifer. and having been exposed to some deeper thoughts about mental health issues, it does the raise the question as to how well that we do that,” he told the forum.

Whybird, who admitted the “stresses of life had led him to feel a little bit down at times”, said situations could arise in any organisation that caused tension, stress and difficulty.

“We try to be mindful of these challenges and create an environment which is supportive,” Whybird said. “We provide a framework and basis to support people, set behaviours and lead by example.

“Realising what has happened and being aware of it is half the way of solving the problem.”

Whybird said GHD did not have a formal mental health policy as part of its OH&S framework yet.

“I know how support systems work, but I think we can do a lot more to make them work better,” he said.

Engineering management consultant Len Greenhalgh said safe work practices had improved dramatically during the past ten years and individual health and wellbeing was being recognised as the next opportunity.

“Reality strikes and you realise that your family network, the local community, the kids, support of friends, and all the conveniences of living in a capital city or even a regional area are all severed, they’re gone,” Greenhalgh said.

“I think people manage and cope with that work environment differently.”

Some of the difficulties Greenhalgh raised were managing being away from home and managing relationships, missing children, family, special events, celebrations and anniversaries, and communication issues.

These could be on top of financial pressures and the day-to-day stresses at work.

“The big challenge in my opinion is managing the unknown,” Greenhalgh said.

“A worker that is normally highly motivated may come to site with all the skills and tools ready to do the job, but his mind is focused on the unknown about what is happening at home.

“If his mind is not on the job, it impacts on his performance, his behaviour, his personal safety and the safety of others onsite.

“There is no magic pill to deal with these issues – professional support and medical support is not available onsite, and the best support that is available is either a supervisor or a mate. Clearly, this is not adequate.

“Managing wellbeing is not an easy task, especially in large camps at single accommodation villages. So trying to make the best of work-life balance in these types of situations can be really quite difficult. Alcohol is not the answer and nor is drugs.”

Setting up a healthy environment to provide relief after hours on site is an important factor in maintaining emotional wellbeing and reducing stress.

Introducing gymnasiums and other leisure activities has been a positive move, as has setting up a social calendar based around public holidays.

Another of the CRRMH’s initiatives has been to develop posters encouraging mine workers to be concerned with their own wellbeing and learn there is help available.

A competition to invent a slogan for these posters was hosted by musician and songwriter John Schumann, who started the company Strategic Communications.

Schumann, an old friend and colleague of Bowers, is probably best known for singing I Was Only 19, an ode about a Vietnam veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

“I am not an expert in mental health at all, [but] I have learned a lot about it,” Schumann said.

“I seem to have the capacity to go in and talk to blokes and talk to them about what’s happening in the army, and tell them stories about post traumatic stress disorder and get them to understand it.”

Although PTSD was not as prevalent in the mining sector, Schumann said a lot of other mental health conditions on minesites were quite similar, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and phobias.

“I think the similarities between the army and people who work in rural and remote areas, particularly on mining sites, are quite similar. It’s a blokey culture and very masculine,” he said.

A DVD Schumann uses for army audiences was shown at the forum and gave attendees an alternative idea of how to get the message across.

“The concept of getting on a plane in a fluoro shirt and flying three and a half hours to the middle of nowhere, to get there and work 10, 14 days, two weeks, three weeks, working 12 hours a day, so you sleep, eat, work, sleep, eat, work – that’s not the way that finely tuned, emotionally fragile human

beings are designed to work,” Schumann said.

“There is an emotional fragility about us all. These sites are not really conducive to the sorts of emotional and physical beings we are, but we do it.”

Schumann has performed on mine sites and said the male-dominated industry often regarded mental health issues as stigmatised, unmanly and blokes just did not talk about it.

“I think all of these things contribute to an environment that needs to be looked at,” he said.

“I’d like to see senior people in mining and resource organisations stop and have a good hard look at their organisations and themselves and see if they are actually addressing what is a very significant issue on the landscape. I would like organisations to take mental health and weave it directly into the fabric of their OHS policies and practices.”

Organisations can hold conversations with the CRRMH about how they can put together sustainable mental health strategies.

“Get a consultant in from the centre,” Schumann said. “There is a process the centre has [where they] start to develop some concrete understanding and communication.”

Many companies have Employment Assistance Programs. However, as shifts in attitudes towards mental health in the mining industry start to occur, an active agenda is needed.

Strategies for dealing with remote and rural workers who normally shy away from communicating their negative feelings are being encouraged so those miners will open up and talk about issues before they become a problem.

The light is shining in a direction that could bring many out of the darkness.

Published in the June 2011 Australian Longwall Magazine