Image: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography
By Elizabeth Fabri
HUNDREDS of kilometres from home, far away from the comforts of family and friends lies Australia’s fly-in, fly-out workforce; a high-risk pocket of the population which often suffers through mental health issues in silence.
While mining giants drive down injury rates, silent killers such as mental illness are sweeping across the sector affecting more than 30 per cent of the fly-in, fly-out workforce.
Fatigue, isolation, alcohol, and unpleasant workplace cultures all contribute, coupled with unavoidable struggles experienced on the home front.
But what remains unclear are the pathways miners can take to irrevocably tackle the issue.
Each year, more than 2500 people die from suicide in Australia, with three quarters committed by men; a statistic that surpasses the national road toll.
The World Health Organisation estimated for every death by suicide, three suicide survivors will experience permanent incapacity, and 12 will require time off work.
“Mental illness impacts so many in our community, but if we can recognise the signs and do something about it early, we can significantly reduce the impact it can have on our lives,” Mental Health Australia chief executive Frank Quinlan said.
Research showed less than one in five Australians regularly seek help when they are stressed or down, indicating many workers neglect mental health problems for too long.
“It would be unimaginable to break a limb and do nothing about it,” Mr Quinlan said.
“We must begin to see our mental health and wellbeing in the same light as other health conditions.”
In June, the government invested an additional $192 million in mental health, which went towards initiatives such as a new $12 million suicide research fund, independent status for the National Mental Health Commission, funding for Lifeline follow up text messaging, and ten headspace centres
“This kind of investment will save lives,” Mr Quinlan said.
R U OK? Day
When much-loved father Barry Larkin committed suicide in 1995, his grieving family and friends were left with endless questions.
In 2009, his son Gavin Larkin filmed a documentary with Janina Nearn to raise awareness of mental illness and how a simple question like ‘Are you ok?’ can change a life; from there the R U OK concept was born.
On the second Thursday of each September, the organisation asks Australians to turn to their peers, and check how they’re going.
“While the day itself is a bit of a grand final for the organisation, we’re focused on making sure we provide opportunities to keep that conversation going all year round,” R U OK chief executive Brendan Maher said.
“Mental health is important in any workplace, and I guess with the mining and resources sector a lot of the challenges that face people working in environments, where perhaps they are away from home and their support networks for periods of time, can put a stronger reliance on colleagues and peers as your support network.”
The campaign has garnered support from a host of celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Simon Baker, Naomi Watts and Australian Idol and theatre star Rob Mills.
“I wanted to get involved as I see how important it is and how easily a change can be made just by asking someone are you ok or if when someone asked me if I was alright and I really wasn’t,” Rob Mills said.
“I think for mine workers and fly-in, fly out guys, you’re not alone; there are many people around doing the same thing and I definitely think R U OK Day will have a positive influence because you just start that one conversation and the next you know you’re having a chat and you realise you’re not alone and can have a bonding session, and know there is someone else out there.”
Rob Mills said he hoped men in particular would be more confident to open up with peers about their struggles.
“I can imagine it’s pretty full on, the hours, the extended shifts, the time away from your partners and your family,” he said.
“We’re [men] just good at not talking, but it has to go somewhere; it does get bottled up.
“I’m hoping that blokes and women alike start recognising that it’s ok to talk about these issues and it’s ok that it’s not ok.”
The 2016 campaign aimed to reconnect people with friends and family.
“We ran an Australian wide survey about a month ago to get a sense of what’s stopping us from connecting with the people that are important to us,” Mr Maher said.
“Alarmingly we are spending 46 hours of our downtime a week on our mobile phones, on our ipads, on our PCs or watching television and only six hours a week on average meaningful time with people who matter most.
“What we’re trying to do is get people to reflect on where are those relationships in their lives that perhaps haven’t been nurtured as much as they could have been.”
Mates in Mining
The MATES in Mining (MIM) initiative is a spinoff of the successful MATES in Construction (MIC) program, which has tackled mental illness in the Australian construction industry since 2007.
“The MIC program has demonstrated a capacity to significantly reduce suicide rates and improve mental health in the industry,” MIC chief executive Jorgen Gallestrup said.
“A study found that suicide rates in the Queensland building and construction industry reduced by more than 8 per cent over the first five years of operation of the program even though the program had still only reached 25 per cent of the industry over this period.”
This led to Newcastle University approaching MIC to trial a MIM program as part of a study into mental health in coal mining.
Funded by ACARP, the MIM program was trialled in four mines and compared to results in four control mines.
“The model used by MATES in Construction turned out to be highly compatible with the mining industry,” Mr Gallestrup said.
“Workers felt significantly more able to identify a mate struggling and felt able to help connecting the worker to help.
“The ACARP study was extended to include a Western Australian metalliferous mine demonstrating the validity of the model in this particular mining sector.”
A group of coal mining companies also partnered with the Australian Minerals Council and the CFMEU Mining division to test the MIM program at Glendell open cut in NSW and Clermont open cut in Queensland.
“To date more than 2500 mine workers have participated in the MATES in Mining program,” Mr Gallestrup said.
“MATES in Mining is currently transitioning from a trial phase to become a permanent industry based charity working to support workers in the mining and resourcing industries.”
According to Curtin University clinical fellow Amanda Lambros, early intervention is paramount to prevent mental health issues.
“Regular supervision and debriefing will allow workers to express concerns and there should be workshops offered on site for workers to attend while they are away as well,” Ms Lambros said.
“Once the workers are in the arena of needing to be ‘treated’, consistent treatment, support and motivation to seek help will make all the difference to a good outcome.”
Workers on site were also encouraged to look out for signs their peers weren’t coping.
Lifeline Research Foundation director Alan Woodward said to listen out and watch colleague’s actions.
“Are they behaving differently to how they usually do, is there something that surprised you about what they’ve said or done in the last day or two, perhaps they’ve done something that’s completely out of character?,” Mr Woodward said.
In June 2015, the WA Government published The impact of FIFO work practices on mental health final report written by the Education and Health Standing Committee.
In the report, the committee called for the development of a Code of Practice on fly-in, fly-out work arrangements.
The Code of Practice would address issues such as even-time rosters, fatigue, workplace culture, bullying, impacts on personal relationships, telecommunication capacity on site, point of hire and travel time, and accommodation facilities.
“The Committee finds that FIFO workers and their families should have access to an induction or on?boarding program to better prepare them for the realities of the FIFO lifestyle,” the report stated.
The committee also explored alcohol and its impact on workers, with some sites restricting employees to four cans of mid?strength beer or cider per day by a swipe?card system.
On other sites, workers were entitled to purchase up to six mid?strength cans of beer, cider or spirits, or a bottle of low alcohol wine each day, while for other sites where accommodation was in the town, there were no restrictions.
It said many employees on prescribed medication, particularly antidepressants, ceased their treatment for fear it would be detected in a workplace drug test, and employers should educate staff on this false perception.
Employers encouraging workplace wellness should “embrace it authentically”, R U OK chief executive Brendan Maher said.
“If you’re going to promote it in a workplace as an employer make sure the people that are promoting the cause certainly have values alignment, make sure they are people that are genuinely thoughtful and caring of employees,” he said.
“Find some stories within your workplace that people are willing to share about perhaps how conversations and support from their colleagues have helped them through a difficult time, and always make sure you have a really clear pathway to help.”
R U OK’s new campaign of materials comprised a series of posters; videos; a step-by-step flow chart to have a conversation; and toolbox talking points for managers to share with their teams.
In March, beyondblue and Monash University launched a world-leading smartphone app and website to help save lives and show people how to create a plan to refer to when they are experiencing suicidal thoughts.
In July 2015, the 24-hour Working Away Alcohol and Drug Support Line was also established to offer confidential counselling support.
But despite the ample smart phone apps, websites and technologies readily available, Curtin University clinical fellow Ms Lambros said there was no substitute for face-to-face contact.
“There are heaps of resources available, but I would suggest that talking face-to-face with a trained counsellor or mental health provider is the best option.” Ms Lambros said.
“The best outcomes are achieved by being open, honest and genuine first with yourself, then your loved ones, and seeking help early rather than later.”
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.