December 2015

Mental wellbeing in the mining industry

  • By Steven de Kruijff MAusIMM; AusIMM Board Member; Member of the interim leadership Committee for AusIMM’s Health and Safety Society; 2008 winner of the AusIMM Jim Torlach Health and Safety award

Examining the latest in government policy and professional best practice

In recent years, a revolution in thinking about health and safety in the workplace has been quietly underway. Health and safety has had a traditional focus on physical safety risks and occupational disease, but  mental and emotional wellbeing has entered workplace health and safety discussions and programs. Mental health is an issue that is now attracting serious attention, and not before time.

This article draws upon a recent flurry of attention to the mental health aspects of health and safety within the mining industry. In 2012, NSW Mining led the way by commissioning research that led to the development of the ‘Blueprint for mental health and wellbeing’ industry guide, which was published in 2014 (NSW Mining, 2014). In September this year, an updated version of that guide was adopted and launched by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the Queensland Resources Council (QRC), and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia (CMEWA).

Mental health in mining has also received significant attention from the media and parliaments in recent years:

the 2012-13 Australian Parliamentary inquiry led by former independent MP Tony Windsor explored the impacts of ‘fly-in, fly-out’ (FIFO) operations on regional communities (Parliament of Australia, 2013)

the Western Australian Parliament concluded an inquiry into the impact of FIFO work practices on mental health in June this year (Parliament of Western Australia, 2015) the Queensland Parliament published the final report of its inquiry into FIFO work practices in October this year (Parliament of Queensland, 2015).

These three inquiries by parliamentary committees have invested significant resources and effort into examining FIFO working arrangements. The WA inquiry focused specifically on mental health issues for FIFO workers, and the other two inquiries considered mental health within a broader scope of examining the impacts of FIFO work on individuals, families and communities. I outline the state of knowledge regarding FIFO and mental health in more detail below.

This focus on mental health risks and outcomes in the context of FIFO is very interesting but perhaps misguided; it appears to reflect an enormous media and community interest in FIFO work arrangements and their potential for adverse impacts. In my opinion the media and parliamentary focus on mental health in the context of FIFO mining employees is too narrow:

  • many of our colleagues in the mining industry aren’t on a FIFO roster, but do enormous amounts of travel and are often away from family and friends
  • many have challenging jobs that have the potential to stretch their personal resilience and coping skills
  • like any part of the community, the mining workforce includes many people who live with mental illness, and it is essential that right across the sector we work to ensure that these people can have healthy and productive careers as part of our industry.
  • I am pleased to see that the mining industry at large is taking mental health seriously for all of us who work in the mining sector, and is focussing its practical efforts beyond FIFO.

Blueprint for mental health and wellbeing

The ‘Blueprint for mental health and wellbeing’ documents are an excellent innovation by minerals industry peak bodies in Australia.

Credit and thanks must go to NSW Mining which developed the 2012 edition of the blueprint with the support of partner organisations the University of Newcastle’s Institute for Energy and Resources, the Centre for Resources Health and Safety and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.

The 2012 NSW Mining document has now been picked up and further developed by MCA, QRC and CMEWA, and so we now have essentially the same blueprint having been adopted by many of the key mining industry peak bodies in Australia.

Figure 1 reproduces the key concepts set out in the blueprint as published this year by MCA, QRC and CMEWA. The key modification to the 2012 original is that it highlights the central role of ‘leadership’ as a key action in addressing mental health matters. Leadership is central to the successful identification and management of all health and safety risks.

MENTALfig1

The blueprint makes it clear that, while there are some unique aspects to programs to achieve good mental health outcomes for mining people, the ways these outcomes can be achieved are not fundamentally different to the approaches our industry applies well to other health and safety risks.

Action towards good mental health outcomes can and often should follow known patterns. Success will be underpinned by a focus on leadership, positive workplace cultures, capacity building, prevention controls and a strong capability to understand and learn from negative experiences in our workplaces while also supporting the recovery of affected individuals and teams.

Fly-in, fly-out and mental health

There is much discussion of the question of whether FIFO working arrangements present increased risks to the mental health of our colleagues in the mining industry. The following quote from Beyondblue’s submission to the recent Queensland Parliamentary inquiry sums up the current state of knowledge:

‘Current research on the mental health of FIFO workers and their families is limited and somewhat conflicting, leading to some uncertainty about whether this population group experiences mental health conditions at the same, or higher rates than the general population’ (Parliament of Queensland, 2015).

This lack of understanding has been highlighted many times: the unfortunately titled February 2013 report ‘Cancer of the bush or salvation for our cities?’ by the Australian Parliamentary inquiry made the same point and recommended the Australian Government commission research to address this knowledge gap. However, the recently published response by the Australian Government did not commit to commissioning any such studies (Parliament of Australia, 2015).

A range of elements are highlighted as potential risk factors for the mental health of FIFO workers in the minerals sector. The Queensland Parliamentary inquiry (2015) sums them up as follows:

  • separation from family and friends
  • challenges in transitioning between home and work life and the disruption to family life
  • strain in maintaining regular meaningful communication (and therefore strong relationships) with family and friends
  • challenges in maintaining connection to the broader community (such as sporting or social groups, volunteer work arrangements)
  • fatigue and stress associated with long working hours and long work swings
  • missing out on key life events
  • low control over work and life while they are at camp
  • the tendency to not seek help – due to workplace culture or stigma regarding mental health difficulties.

The WA Parliamentary inquiry focused specifically on the relationship between FIFO work and mental health. It was instigated (at least in part) by reports of suicides amongst FIFO workers. The inquiry highlights some extremely important issues, and has made a number of recommendations for changes to the way the WA Government and the industry work to prevent and respond to mental health problems.

A striking fact highlighted in the WA Parliamentary inquiry is that there is a strong demographic correlation between the FIFO workforce and the prevalence
of mental illness and suicide amongst the general community: men aged 18-44 years are likely to be over-represented in both cohorts.

The inquiry’s findings and recommendations include:

  • investment in better research and statistics relating to FIFO and adverse mental health impacts
  • development of a Code of Practice for FIFO work arrangements and its impact on workers’ mental health; industry is asked to work with the Department of Mines and Petroleum and the Mental Health Commission on the Code’s development
  • amending WA’s health and safety legislation to clarify that mental health is part of the good health outcomes being sought in health and safety regulation, and also to clarify who the responsible regulator is
  • companies and industry associations should treat suicide as a workplace hazard
  • anti-bullying efforts should be a core focus in action to support mental wellbeing
  • improved linkages to communities and active and healthy lifestyles should be a core focus in action to support mental wellbeing.

This WA inquiry gives us considerable food for thought, and should stimulate a number of activities that AusIMM members can get engaged with and support in the future.

AusIMM’s role in good mental health for all

In October this year the first meeting of the interim leadership group for the newly promoted Health and Safety (H&S) Society of the AusIMM discussed the role the Society might be able to play across all aspects of health and safety for minerals professionals and our colleagues. Part of this conversation is how we can contribute to good mental health outcomes for all.

That first meeting included consideration of the roles the Society might be able to play – potential development of a Code of Conduct, addressing bullying and harassment within the minerals sector workforce, consideration of how members’ awareness of behavioural and mental health risks might be improved to support better outcomes across the membership.

The H&S Society is in the very early stages of establishing members’ needs and priorities for professional development support on health and safety matters. While there is now one health and safety professional for every two mining engineers in our sector, we know that health and safety is an important issue of professional practice for all of us. Member input is very welcome, and we encourage comments and suggestions being sent to hssoc@ausimm.com.au.

One of the most powerful ways in which we can support excellence in health and safety is to share stories with our colleagues. Suggestions for stories about health and safety experiences are very welcome – these can be best practice and good news stories, and also the hard lessons that have been learned from a negative experience. We are keen to publish real stories as part of the H&S Society’s presence on the AusIMM Bulletin website, and of course these stories can be presented in a way that does not identify the individuals involved if that is appropriate. 

Resources for information, advice and support

Lifeline Australia

www.lifeline.org.au

13 11 14

Lifeline New Zealand

www.lifeline.org.nz

0800 543 354

Access to crisis support, suicide prevention and mental health
support services.

beyondblue

www.beyondblue.org.au

1300 224 636

An Australian national support
service that provides professional counselling for anyone who needs someone to talk to.

References

Minerals Council of Australia, 2015. Blueprint for mental health and wellbeing.

NSW Mining, 2014. Blueprint for mental health and wellbeing.

Parliament of Australia, February 2013. ‘Cancer of the bush or salvation for our cities? Fly-in, fly-out and drive-in, drive-out workforce practices in Regional Australia’, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, Canberra.

Parliament of Queensland, October 2015. ‘Inquiry into fly-in, fly-out and other long distance commuting work practices in regional Queensland’, Report No. 9,
55th Parliament, Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee.

Parliament of Western Australia, June 2015. ‘The impact of FIFO work practices on mental health’, Legislative Assembly Education and Health
Standing Committee.

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