June 2019

Creating mentally healthy workplaces in the resources sector

  • By Dr Ali Burston Director, Metisphere Business Consulting

Both individuals and organisations can benefit if a preventative and proactive approach towards good mental health is taken

Mental health practices and procedures in the resources industry are under the microscope. There is growing public awareness and scrutiny on organisations in the sector to provide psychologically healthy workplaces for their workers. In particular, fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) work has drawn the attention of regulatory bodies around Australia. So how are FIFO and broader construction roles impacting the mental health of workers?

The impact

FIFO workers report more than triple the rate of high-level psychological distress compared to the overall Australian population (33 per cent compared to ten per cent; Mental Health Commission, 2018). Heightened psychological distress is coupled with increased burnout, increased binge drinking behaviours and increased rates of suicidal thoughts (Mental Health Commission, 2018).

Construction workers, including those in the mining and resources sector, are six times more likely to take their life than through a workplace accident, and twice as likely to take their own life than the average Australian population (Mates in Construction, 2017). 

The cost

There are significant humanitarian and social reasons why improving mental health and wellbeing for workers in the mining and resources sector is so important. But beyond that, there is also a business case. Eleven billion dollars is spent across Australia due to poor mental health in the workplace (PwC, 2014); while the staggering costs are known, what may be surprising is that compensation only makes up $145 million of this figure.

The main contributors are absenteeism (ie being away from work; $4.6 billion) and presenteeism (ie overwork; $6.1 billion). Furthermore, return on investment is approximately $2.30 for every $1 spent on mental health and wellbeing initiatives and programs; the caveat being that the programs must be effective, appropriate and supported by visible leadership. 

What do mentally healthy workplaces look like?

A mentally healthy workplace is one that is perceived as supportive and friendly. It promotes a positive workplace culture and minimises or eliminates risks that can lead to mental illness. In addition, a healthy workplace appropriately supports employees who have mental health conditions and does not discriminate against any individual. 

The Centre for Transformative Work Design (Mental Health Commission, 2018), and the Western Australian Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS, 2019) have released complimentary reports on mental health standards and key recommendations for creating psychologically healthy workplaces.

To ensure wellbeing an organisation must:

  • reduce poor mental health/wellbeing
  • prevent harm
  • promote positive practices. 

A detailed look at each of these is presented below. 

Reducing poor mental health/wellbeing 

Statistically, many people in any given organisation likely suffer from psychological distress or poor wellbeing. This may include diagnosed depression or anxiety, burnout or stress. This impacts workplace culture, organisational productivity and the bottom line. Supporting these individuals and providing ‘effective, appropriate and visible leadership’ is important. This may include:

  • Giving access to health professionals and attendance – it is seemingly obvious that having health professionals such as psychologists and counsellors will improve wellbeing and mental health; but this is true only if they are utilised by those who need it the most. Too often workers are afraid to speak out and seek help through fear of being reported, judged or stigmatised.  
  • Making reasonable work adjustments (adjusting workloads or roles).
  • Providing awareness training.
  • Providing anti-bullying leadership training.
  • Reducing the stigma surrounding mental health (ie workplace culture).
  • Accurately identifying psychosocial hazards.
  • Promoting the reporting of psychosocial hazards without repercussions. 

Preventing harm

Of course, the most effective way to minimise costs and effort associated with reducing poor mental health is preventing the root causes of harm. This may involve management taking a hard look at the key elements of a workplace that could be contributing to poor mental health. Some typical examples in the resources sector might include:

  • Lack of communication facilities.
  • Uneven FIFO rostering.
  • Financial stress.
  • No regular accommodation sites – giving workers the same accommodation helps create feelings of familiarity. You start to know your neighbours and they know you. A sense of belonging assists mental health and wellbeing.
  • Leadership – leaders must be committed and capable to drive standards on site. ‘If my boss doesn’t follow the rules, then why should I?’ 
  • No reprieve from extreme heat.
  • Applying and maintaining interventions to address previously identified psychosocial hazards.

Promoting positive practices 

While emphasis is often placed on negative mental health and wellbeing, there is a positive side of the spectrum that can be overlooked. To create a mentally healthy workplace, workers need to be thriving – not just surviving. Workers and the bottom line can be safeguarded by encouraging inclusion, socialisation, and establishing a proactive safety culture at your organisation. Here are a couple of ideas to promote positive practices: 

  • Implement job design that improves motivation/satisfaction; ie cultivate workers who have control over choices, feel like they are competent in what they do and can relate to others.
  • Constantly review and improve mental health procedures and policies – without continual engagement, monitoring and management, standards can steadily revert to a pre-implementation phase. Reviewing and improving is far more cost-effective than redeploying new programs and rebuilding a safety culture. 

Taking into consideration the evidence of this important workplace issue, both organisations and employees can benefit if a preventative and proactive approach is taken to addressing and improving mental health in the workplace, and removing the stigma associated with seeking help. After all, organisations are only as extraordinary as their employees. 

More information on the Western Australian Government’s introduction of Australia’s first code of practice for FIFO workers is available on the next page. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health concerns, Beyond Blue and Lifeline provide crisis help and support. Visit beyondblue.org.au or www.lifeline.org.au. AusIMM’s conference charity partner Rural and Remote Mental Health develops and implements mental health awareness, prevention and intervention programs specifically for rural and remote communities. Visit www.rrmh.com.au

A full reference list is available with the online version of this article at www.ausimmbulletin.com.

About the author

Dr Ali Burston is an organisational psychologist and the Founder and Managing Director of Perth-based management consulting firm, Metisphere, which is best known for developing world-first mentoring programs for women in mining and construction, encouraging diversity in the industry.


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