General News — 04 August 2012
Mental disorders shadow the boom

Alcohol problems and workplace bullying and harassment in the mining sector have escalated dramatically in the past 12 months, and reflect widespread mental health issues and job stress in the sector, according to a consulting psychologist.

Research by national corporate and clinical psychologists Davidson Trahaire Corpsych (DTC), the largest provider of employee assistance program services in Australia, shows a 258 per cent increase in alcohol issues and a 148 per cent increase in workplace bullying and harassment.

The data also reveals a 136 per cent increase in work satisfaction issues, a 131 per cent increase in depression; and an 85 per cent increase in domestic violence issues across the sector.

“The mining sector is at much greater risk of mental health issues and it’s not about the numbers of people involved, it’s about the nature of the work that people are doing,” says DTC chief executive Michele Grow.

“You have people working long days, day after day after day … There are significant issues around alcohol in particular. You put all of those factors together – isolation, fatigue, alcohol – and you are starting to increase all of the factors that are more likely to create issues for people. You also have a much higher male presence in the workplace and males are far less likely to seek support.”

The vulnerability of NSW mining workers to mental health illnesses, including depression, anxiety, stress and substance use disorders, was highlighted in a report by the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health that was launched at a recent workplace safety conference in the Hunter Valley organised by the NSW Minerals Council.

The report says illnesses such as depression and anxiety are costing the state’s mining industry $320 million to $450m in reduced productivity, and that mental illness costs a single mine $300,000 to $400,000 a year. It says 8000 to 10,000 mine workers experience a mental health issue over a 12-month period.

Yet many mining companies do not accept mental health issues pose a financial or safety risk to their organisations and workers, and don’t have policies in place to address them.

Grow says mining companies need to provide more on-site assistance for mining employees – in a strategic, not reactive, manner.

“One of the expectations of a number of companies within the resources sector is we don’t need to provide support services on site because people will access support when they are off shift,” Grow says. “But that doesn’t necessarily happen. If someone is away for a two, three or four-week stint, people need to access support as and when the problems arise.

“The need to think differently about the provision of services for people on site is really quite important.”

DTC offers employee assistance programs at several fly-in, fly-out (FlFO) sites and the one-on-one sessions are always fully booked, Grow says.

“Where organisations will start to put FIFO on-site services in place is generally after there’s been an incident like a fatality, or after there’s been an injury. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t wait until after there’s been an incident.”

Although many of the FIFO mine sites are alcohol-free, alcohol abuse off-site is increasingly common.

“There are people who will do a FIFO shift and fly back off-site for 10 days or two weeks and they spend a very large amount of that time with alcohol, and that’s unfortunately helped by the fact they are well remunerated,” Grow says.

Mental health research – by the Bureau of Statistics, BeyondBlue and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health – testifies to an industry-wide problem, which needs to be addressed head-on by organisations, she says.

“I expect pretty much all of the numbers you look at are underestimated because there’s still a level of stigma attached to mental health issues. There are a number of people who will not disclose they have a mental health issue.”

Mining companies must work to destigmatise mental health issues, and ensure there is a culture of acceptance within their organisations, Grow adds.

“Mining companies are very focused on physical safety but they also have to focus on psychological security.

“One of the issues that is increasing at an alarming rate is job stress or work-related stress. There are lots of conversations about resilience but one of the crossover points between stress and depression and anxiety is that job stress is linked to a two to three-fold increase in the presentation of depression or anxiety.

“The real concern is the number of people either taking time off or (have) injuries, or moving to a compensation claim, when a lot of that could be avoidable from the perspective of providing a workplace that looks after the health and wellbeing of employees.”

Grow says mining companies should invest in educating and training managers to deal with mental health issues and provide resilience training, provide general awareness information and materials on mental health issues, and ensure employees and managers know they can access support through their employee assistance program, as well as from other key resources such as beyondblue.org.au

As first appears in The Australian, 4 August 2012

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