Why mental health in mining matters to workers and employers

31 October 2017

Nobody disputes that mining is a physically demanding profession. The work is hard and dangerous, with working conditions among the most inhospitable of any profession. What is often overlooked among the legitimate concerns about physical risks, is that mining is also one of the most mentally taxing professions.The occupational conditions that accompany mining work – long periods away from friends and family, harsh physical conditions, long shifts – are challenging, not just for the body, but for the mind. When left to fester, mental health concerns are a huge problem for both worker and employer. Investing in tackling the problems of mental health is an extremely worthwhile investment in ethical and monetary terms for any mining employer. In fact, a recent report produced by Price Waterhouse Cooper quantified the ROI of investing in mental health and found it to be a very sound investment. This shoes that mental health matters and it can no longer be ignored specially in challening industries like mining.

There are a number of mental health problems unique to mining, whose cause is directly influenced by the work involved. One major contributing factor is the way mining work is organized. Mines are usually in geographically remote areas, so workers often operate on a fly-in fly-out basis (FIFO), where they are flown to a mine and stay in temporary accommodation provided by the mine operator. Their days are spent either working long shifts, or in basic accommodation with other miners. Most rely on technology to communicate with loved ones for the duration of their stay, which can last weeks at a time. The extent to which working on a FIFO basis contributes to mental health problems is the source of debate but it seems certain that the conditions associated with FIFO create an environment that is not conducive to good mental health.

Mental health matters

Working and living conditions for miners tend to be male-dominated with a workplace culture that reflects all the stereotypes of male behavior. Bullying is a common problem and lack of meaningful communication is a real issue among miners. In such a male-dominated workplace, miners sometimes feel unsure talking about their feeling for fear this might be perceived as a sign of weakness. Communication is key to dealing with mental health and a workplace culture of silence is a real obstacle to building a supportive and healthy work environment.

Mining shifts are lengthier than those of most jobs – 12 hour shifts are common practice – and this can pose its own host of problems. There is evidence that long and irregular shift work can cause a variety of health problems for mining workers, including depression, anxiety and fatigue. Mining is physically demanding work and the nature of hard shift work can cause considerable mental strain.

Substance abuse is a widespread problem throughout the mining industry. Drug and alcohol abuse is more common in male-dominated workforces, such as construction, manual labor and mining. Many workers turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of dealing with physical problems that stem from work, as well as the stress. For some miners, alcohol and drugs are a tool to handle the physical and mental toll of work and as a way to help them get back to work. This is obviously not a healthy way of dealing with personal issues but unfortunately it’s a common problem in the mining workforce. One tragic irony is that miners are more likely to encounter distressing, or traumatic events in the course of their job than the majority of workers, yet are less likely to seek psychological help. The workplace culture of mining is one of silence that does not suit mental health.

How Poor Mental Health Among Workers Affects a Business

It’s important to note that mental health is a complex topic and an employer is not solely responsible for their worker’s mental state. If a worker is experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety, these feelings may not be directly influenced by their job. However, workers, in particular miners, spend a large proportion of their time working so the work environment is definitely a major influence on a worker’s life.

The detrimental effects of poor mental health among miners are clear. Even if you’re lucky enough not to have suffered from these problems, we can all at least imagine how destructive depression, fatigue and anxiety can be. As recent research shows, mental health problems among workers also impact on a company in a number of significant and tangible ways. According to a report conducted by Price Waterhouse Cooper, costs associated with poor mental health include:

  • Absenteeism – Workers missing days of work.
  • Presenteeism – Reduced productivity at work.
  • Compensation claims based on mental health.

This report focused solely on Australian data and estimated the total annual cost in all Australian industries, resulting from mental health problems, at $11 billion. This figure included 1.1m days of absenteeism and 1.5m days of presenteeism, where the worker is assumed to have decreased productivity levels of 50%. Absenteeism and presenteeism made up the bulk of this $11 billion but compensation claims also contributed to the high cost of poor mental health. The average claim in the mining industry relating to mental health was $22,400, which when all claims were combined, added up to a significant cost of $146m.

In all the industries the study looked at, mining had the second highest level of problems associated with substance abuse. Given the financial cost associated with mental health problems, and the fact that mental health is a problem in the mining industry, it makes good business sense for employers to make an effort to reduce the rate of mental health problems among its workforce

What can a company do to create a mentally healthy environment?

There are several things a mining employer can do to improve the mental health of their workforce. Mental health needs to be a business priority, and the figures highlighting the cost benefits of improving mental health in the workplace should provide added incentive for an employer. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for how to improve mental health in the workplace, including identifying problems and developing applicable solutions, like creating a drug free workplace. After developing relevant plans, it is then incumbent on the employer to ensure that these proposed solutions become action items that are implemented by management as soon as possible. These should be included in all training materials, starting off with the onboarding process. This might involve freeing up the required resources that are needed to implement the plan, as well as providing consistent support so the plan is sustained.

It is vital that all stakeholders are consulted when coming up with a plan so that all concerns are heard. Workers need to be involved in every step in the process as they are the concerned parties who the plan will affect. Once a plan is implemented, its impact must be measured and its effectiveness reviewed at regular intervals. An online onboarding system is a great way to ensure that all workers get the necessary training in mental health, with the knowledge that no worker falls through the cracks. Once again, worker participation is vital because they are the ones capable of providing the necessary feedback. A comprehensive plan requires a comprehensive buy-in from all stakeholders, including owners, managers and workers.

ROI from investing in mental health

According to the Beyondblue report, there is a clear financial incentive for an employer to invest in improving the workplace mental health of their company. The report conducted a thorough analysis of the ROI and found investment in improving the mental health conditions of their workers to be an effective investment. The average company can expect an ROI of a multiple of 2.3 for each effective action a company takes to improve mental health, according to the report. Investing in mental health has a cost but brings a variety of benefits that will bring down costs in the medium to long term:

  • Shorter sick leave periods.
  • Fewer days missed by workers because of substance abuse issues.
  • Increased productivity – increased number of hours worked, improved resilience, increase in goal attainment.
  • Reduction in compensation claims.
  • Reduction in turnover.
  • Lower management costs.
  • Lower insurance premium costs.

The report found that if there was a one third improvement in a worker’s mental health matters, this would result in an increase in productivity that would provide a positive ROI. The ROI was found to be highest for small organizations, mainly because worker participation is so crucial and is easier to obtain in smaller organizations. For example, in a small mining company, the ROI for each action taken to improve worker mental health was found to be at least 15, meaning that an employer should expect at least 15 times return on any investment made towards improving worker mental health. This is a huge figure for ROI and illustrates the benefit of an investment in mental health matters.

The analysis found that it is best to implement a comprehensive strategy for improving mental health in the workplace. This is because each action taken has a knock on effect that multiplies the ROI impact of the previous action, meaning it is better to implement a plan that has multiple actions to get the maximum ROI.

For the preceding decades up till now, there has been a real stigma surrounding mental health and why mental health matters. People suffered in silence, not talking about their problems, the implication always being that there was something ‘wrong’ with you if you were suffering from a mental health problem. As more analysis is done on mental health matters we have begun to understand just what a scourge it is on people how deep the impacts are, on businesses, and society as a whole. A lot of businesses, in particular male-dominated workplaces like mining, are still relatively in the dark ages when it comes to mental health and are still not confident that mental health matters.

Communication is key to all issues about mental health and will help to prove that mental health matters. It is now the responsibility of the employer to open a dialog with its workers to tackle the issue. The cost/benefit analysis of investing in tackling poor mental health in the workplace should incentivize employers to take action. Reducing levels of absenteeism, presenteeism and compensation claims is financially beneficial for an employer. Developing and implementing a plan that deals emphasizes good mental health will reduce levels of these problems, improve the lives of your workers and save your business money. Therefore, it is essential to focus on mental health matters in heavy industries like mining.

Mental health matters

Jenny Snook
Jenny Snook

Jenny Snook is content executive at GoContractor with the job of researching the latest health and safety trends in the heavy industry. Her past-experience includes the research of large museum collections such as the Louth County Museum, many from the industrial age.

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