New initiatives are being introduced into the mining industry to support miners’ mental health, but there are calls for more significant change, including on-site psychologists at every mine.
One new idea is a vending machine that offers stress balls and healthy snacks rather than a chocolate bar or energy drink.
Several mining companies will install the vending machines for workers after partnering with the creators, Wellness Stations and Happiness Co.
The idea is to replace junk food with online meditations or protein balls for shift workers in mines.
Robbie Figg, general manager of Happiness Co, which runs workplace culture seminars, said mining companies were often early adopters of new ways to promote mental health.
“I think they’re really moving towards everything they possibly can do, which they should be given credit for,” he said.
FIFOs’ work-life balance under pressure
Joseph Carpini, a lecturer in human resource management and organisational behaviour at the University of Western Australia, said while initiatives like the wellness vending machine had their merits in promoting good behaviour, they should be adopted along with interventions at many levels.
“It might be one type of intervention for low-risk people, but what about people who are experiencing suicidal ideation? You need something better than that,” Dr Carpini said.
Dr Carpini said evidence showed what was important was having psychological services that were easily available to workers on site.
“Every employee on a mine site should have quick and easy access to psychological services,” Dr Carpini said.
“There might be a justification to have a physical person onsite like a psychologist or a nurse.
“Your Employee Assistance Program needs to work quickly. It’s about providing people with low-barrier, easy access,” he said.
Dr Carpini also supports workers having more flexibility in choosing their hours to achieve a better work-life balance.
“We know that the fly-in, fly-out [FIFO] lifestyle puts a lot of pressure on work-life balance,” Dr Carpini said
“You’re more likely to experience conflict with friends and families – who are the very support networks that are protective factors to mental illness.”
High rates of suicide
According to suicide prevention group Mates In Mining, suicide rates in the construction industry — which includes the mining sector — are 80 per cent higher than the general working population, with 190 workers taking their lives every year.
Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston said all mining companies had a responsibility to keep their workers safe.
“FIFO employers’ responsibilities extend to their employees’ living arrangements, and include their physical and mental wellbeing,” he said
“Companies should consider all options when it comes to looking after their workers’ mental health, including having a psychologist on site.”
FIFO life ‘uniquely challenging’
Advocate and blast hole driller Scott Dearlove started Mineset, a peer support group for workers who are struggling.
“The FIFO life is uniquely challenging to your mental health because of the isolation, being away from your family and friends,” Mr Dearlove said.
“You’re waking up at four in the morning, going to work at five, finishing at six, pretty much eating and going to bed and that’s it.”
Karen, who doesn’t want to be identified by her last name, attributes the FIFO lifestyle to the breakdown of her relationship and the decline of her former partner’s mental health.
“I reached out to his company and asked them who their Employee Assistance Program provider was in July last year and I’m still waiting on a return phone call to that company,” she said.
“That tells me they [are paying] lip service to looking after the concerns about their employee at that point in time.”
Karen, who was a wellbeing manager in professional sport before she became a site administrator, said the mining industry had a lot to learn.
Peter Miller has been vocal about preventing suicide after his son Rhys Connor committed suicide while working as a FIFO in 2013.
Mr Miller, who still works as a contractor for mining companies, said the mining industry had made tokenistic efforts in dealing with mental illness in its workforce.
“There is a lot of written information, apps, phone-in services, et cetera, but these are of little benefit on the whole to those suffering acute depression and anxiety,” he said.
Some mine sites have on-demand psychologists, brought in for acute situations, others have chaplaincy and Employee Assistance Programs.
Mr Miller, who contributed to the parliamentary inquiry into the impact of FIFO work practices on mental health, said psychological support must be as accessible as possible.
He said mine sites needed trained crisis support staff on hand.
“I understand and envisage what a person would be going through in a state of anxiety, what it would be like trying to access help,” he said.
‘Committed to workforce’s wellbeing’
The chief executive of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA, Paul Everingham, said while the state’s resources sector was committed to the wellbeing of its workforce, mental health interventions must be specific to each project.
“The varying size and nature of resource sector projects, spanning exploration, construction, production and closure means there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental health in the workplace,” Mr Everingham said.
He said an on-site psychologist would be a single element of a broader suite of measures to support mental health and wellbeing.
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