Cutbacks put mental health at risk

THE global economic slowdown is seeing mining companies slash costs and staff numbers, yet the pressure to maximise production is increasing. According to a university professor, this climate is likely to see an upward swing in occupational illness particularly relating to mental disorders such as anxiety and stress.
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Claire Svircas

David Cliff, associate professor at the University of Queensland’s Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre, said staff cutbacks, especially in support areas, and the pressure to reduce costs was placing great additional stress on all levels of workers and could potentially cause the industry’s health and safety performance to degrade.

“As well as the potential for increased accidents and injury, there is likely to be an increase in occupational illness particularly relating to mental disorders such as anxiety and stress,” he said.

Cliff told the financial crisis was adding another dimension to the already difficult task of identifying and dealing with workers’ mental health.

“I see the current financial climate as placing a lot more external stresses on the working environment and this will inevitably lead to an increase in the amount of mental disorders, and in turn the amount of hazards relating from poor judgments and decisions made under pressure,” Cliff said.

“I think companies need to strongly enforce an environment of understanding and recognition, trust and support.

“This includes workers being able to admit they have a problem and seeking help.

“Communication is particularly important, if a worker’s job is secure, they should be told that to prevent unnecessary stress about job security.”

Cliff said it was unfortunate that statistics of mental health issues in the mining industry of Australia was virtually non-existent.

He said he didn’t believe this was because anxiety and stress did not occur in this industry, but rather that it was under reported and often went unrecognised.

“The issue goes largely unreported because, unlike occupational injury, occupational illness may not often relate to time off work and is often a more complex issue to identify and manage,” Cliff said.

“Yet if we want to keep workplaces safe and the workers happy, companies need to ensure workplace stress and mental health is well managed and of particular importance.”

One attempt to proactively tackle the increase in occupational illness is Pro-Visual Publishing’s Mining Industry Guide to Workplace Safety 2009.

The safety guide, which has been sent out free of charge nationally, focuses on stress and psychosocial health in the workplace. It also covers common causes of work-related stress, potential effects of stress and how to manage work-related stress.

Cliff said the Minerals Industry Safety & Health Centre, which played a role in developing the information in the guide, believes that dealing with important issues head on generally sees people respond and will result in a more productive workforce.

“The information on the mining industry guide is presented in a straightforward, user-friendly manner ensuring often complex topics are easily referenced and understood,” Cliff said.

“By displaying the chart prominently, employees have a daily reminder and employers are reducing the cost of workplace accidents, illness and injury.”

Distribution of the guide began last month and will reach all mining, mining contractor companies and all active minesites across the country.

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