ACCORDING to the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (ACRRMH), mental health problems in the mining and resource sector cost Australia $221 million annually in lost
productivity and workforce participation.
That figure is based on a current direct workforce of about 250,000 people, but if it were to include indirect employees within the sector – which brings the workforce to about 1 million – the annual cost of mental illness rises to $885 million.
ACRRMH chief executive Dr Jennifer Bowers said she believed the resources sector had failed to recognise mental health as a serious issue and the magnitude of associated costs.
She said policies associated with the physical health and safety of employees working on remote mine sites had progressed, but the attention paid to employees’ psychological state was non-existent or perfunctory.
“It is fair to say that mental health and emotional well-being in the mining, resource and remote construction sectors do not currently enjoy the close attention of many boards and senior managers,
notwithstanding the potential for adverse impacts on productivity and profit,” Dr Bowers said.
“This lack of real focus on mental health is dangerous and expensive in terms of lost productivity and reduced profit.
“A worker with a mental health issue is known to be 41 per cent more likely to have an accident.”
Studies have shown that every year, one in five Australians and one in three people directly employed on a remote mining or construction site will experience some sort of mental health problem.
“Slowly, very slowly, it’s beginning to dawn that people working in rural and remote mining, resource and construction operations face a wide range of mental health challenges,” Dr Bowers said.
Such illnesses include depression, destructive thinking, anxiety and acute stress disorders, alcohol and drug misuse, and any other forms or stress or conflict.
Factors stemming from living and working on remote mine sites that contribute to these illnesses and, in some extreme cases, suicide, include isolation, relationship stress, compressed rosters, long shifts, high workloads and harsh working environments.
Dr Bowers said even though emotional disorders were not confined to any particular age, gender or socio-economic grouping, there were certain people who were more at risk than others.
She said immigrants and men with young families were particularly vulnerable to mental health problems.
“People with a history of mental illness and adverse reactions to isolation, and people with little or no experience of life outside a city, also seem to be particularly at risk,” Dr Bowers said.
She said the fly in, fly out employment arrangement that dominated the mining industry in WA was a major source of disruption and psychological stress, and was also emerging as a significant element
underpinning issues in the industry.
FIFO is a preferred employment option for companies because it is cheaper and more productive. It is also favoured by individuals prepared to work longer shifts as a trade-off for increased time at home.
Dr Bowers said that that early detection of symptoms and recognising noticeable changes in a colleague’s behaviour could prevent serious problems from developing.
Warning signs of possible mental disorders included uncharacteristic mood swings, lack of self-esteem and motivation, unusual tiredness, loss of interest in recreational activities, increased consumption of alcohol and loss of the ability to concentrate.
Dr Bowers said that the ‘macho’ culture of the mining industry, in which it was considered weak to admit to a personal problem, severely hampered the ability to identify issues early on.
“Remote mining sites are often a refuge for men running away from domestic, financial, occupational and/or legal difficulties and who are, therefore, not normally given to sharing confidences,”
“If a mate tells you that you might not be travelling too well, listen and then act.”
“Look out for your mates: if they don’t seem themselves, offer a friendly ear.” While there is not a lot of research undertaken or data supporting the relationship between mining industry working conditions and mental health problems, numerous organisations throughout Australia are committed to raising awareness.
The ACRRMH is working with a number of mining businesses to build comprehensive strategies, such as surveys, crisis management training and ‘toolbox’ talks, to combat emotional stress and associated problems.
Dr Bowers said that while the strategies were designed to be practical, sustainable and delivered in the long term, for them to be successful the strategies needed to receive genuine commitment at board
level and be incorporated into a company’s policies.
“By giving [employees] information about what to look out for, how best to manage their split lifestyles, giving them information, useful websites and phone numbers to seek help or encouraging them to seek help early, we know that it prevents problems arising or at least prevents them becoming more serious,” she said.
Dr Bowers said the benefits of such strategies included improved morale, increased stability and higher retention rates, reduced absenteeism, improved risk identification and management, better occupational health and safety policies and procedures, and improved production and profitability.
The WA Association for Mental Health (WAAMH) highlights the issue of mental health through various projects and events including Mental Health Week, which is held annually in October.
Dr Bowers said that until resources companies addressed the mental health and safety of their workforce, they could look forward to the continuing costs associated with avoidable stress claims, sub-optimal productivity and diminished returns.
“It’s high time boards and senior managers took mental health as seriously as physical health and safety,” she said.