Healthy mining minds

In an industry that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year, mining doesn’t stop for anyone.

While the average miner earns above average wages, many miners work longer than average hours, live away from family, and operate in highly dangerous or remote areas.

It is no wonder mental health issues are becoming increasingly prevalent in the industry.

Breaking the mould of keeping private life private, Australian Mining looks at some alternative ways to take care of employee wellbeing and mental health.

Pressure points
Living in remote communities
Not having a support network
Unsociable rosters
Heavy workloads

Drugs, alcohol and mental health

Mining FM recently reported on the issue of mental health in mining, looking at how the problem rears its head through the use of drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Mining is one of the most heavily tested industries for drug and alcohol use in Australia.

Every mining company has its own procedures for testing and management; some companies test all employees every morning as they pass through the gate, while others use random testing methods.

In an effort to curb alcohol issues, late last year Western Australia’s Pilbara mining region was slapped with tough liquor restrictions despite objections from mining giant Rio Tinto.

According to the West Australian, in an unsigned submission Rio said while it supported reforms it did not believe "heavy-handed" regulations were appropriate to address challenges the alcohol management group outlined.

"Appreciating that Rio Tinto's mine site accommodation villages are not general public alcohol supply points, the introduction of the recommendations related specifically to the sale of packaged liquor and the prohibition of the sale and supply of liquor before noon will have a detrimental effect on our employees' ability to enjoy a quality lifestyle while living and working away from home," the submission said.

Psychologist Cameron Brown from The Cabin rehabilitation centre in Thailand has worked closely with miners, treating many miners for drug and alcohol abuse and other mental health issues.

Discussing substance abuse he told Australian Mining that addiction is a sickness, not a problem to be dealt with in criminal proceedings. Rather it requires a multitude of strategies in order for it to be dealt with comprehensively.

“More and more research suggests that addiction is a brain disease, there are a lot of imaging studies of the brain that suggests addicts’ brains don’t work in the same manner that a non-addict’s does,” he said.

“There is more and more research to suggest that this is true but unfortunately it doesn’t make it all the way through to law or anything like that because it is so stigmatised, we are beginning to treat things like anxiety and depression as illnesses but when it comes to substance abuse we treat that as a choice, which the evidence doesn’t say that is true.

“The evidence suggests that it is actually a misfiring in the brain’s reward circuitry.

“It needs to be started to be treated as an illness rather than as a criminal offence.”

Interestingly Brown said The Cabin sees a number of miners “who have been able to keep up with work and a ruse of wellness for a long period of time until one or a number of factors in their lives fall down whether it be financially, socially or health related”.

Functional alcoholism or addiction Brown explains is when someone drinks or uses drugs to an alcoholic or dependent degree but is “able to stop drinking in time to get to things like their mining site, do their shift, and do their rotation”.

A notion that is extremely dangerous in the context of mining, especially as drinking to excess and then stopping suddenly can lead to conditions like excessive tiredness, nausea, and shaking, Brown said.

“They’re at risk of rapid withdrawals or extreme comedowns and then presenting on job sites we can see a safety issue, especially when there is heavy machinery involved, there is already a small margin of error in these circumstances, let alone if people are even slightly compromised due to their alcohol or drug use, and that’s not even being absolutely inebriated.”

Brown said in many instances the stigma that surrounds mental health is stopping miners’ from seeking treatment.

“Supervisors need to learn to recognise the indicators of poor mental health,” he said.

“We don’t see a lot of referrals from companies, because I think of the stigma and the nature of the illness means individuals may either lose their jobs or resign from their jobs.

“We mainly see people self presenting to The Cabin for treatment.

 “Some have taken extended time off, others have the support of their supervisors but aren’t necessarily sent by their supervisors which is an issue within itself because that stigma then remains and continues and so does that fear factor around asking for help.”

Testing the limits

Random drug and alcohol testing does defer some from dabbling in banned substances and it covers the company from an OH&S perspective but it doesn’t go a long way in treating the underlying issues.

“We are looking at the safety of the mine in terms of those random drug tests, but it’s not about employee wellbeing,” Brown stated.

“At the moment we do see a lot of people who work in the mining industry who haven’t had any help or been caught in a dirty drug or alcohol screen, and they’ve been able to work through.

“In my experience I haven’t seen many people get caught by those tests.

“You have to question the efficiency of a random screening that doesn’t catch the people that it needs to,” he said.

Brown told Australian Mining that “one of the most commonly used illicit drugs for Australians is methamphetamine, which people use to a functional degree as well to keep themselves awake”.

“Marijuana is also used to [assist] come down and relaxation,” he said.

“We do find that alcohol is the biggest one, accounting for more than 50 per cent of the people we see.”

Jennifer Bowers is the chief executive officer of the Centre for Rural & Remote Mental Health Queensland, told Australian Mining that drug and alcohol use on site is usually a means of masking deeper issues.

“Drugs and alcohol are an issue and will only exacerbate a pre-existing issue or problem,” she said.

Bowers agreed with Brown stating that drug and alcohol testing isn’t the answer to dealing with mental health issues.

“People are getting very clever about circumventing drug and alcohol testing,” she said.

“Education and raising awareness of the consequences of drugs and alcohol and what they do to you mentally and physically is the best way to deal with it.

 “Any problem can escalate out of control if you’ve had a few drinks,” Bowers warned.

Male / female divide male-female.jpg

The majority of mining patients Brown treats at The Cabin rehabilitation facility are men.

He explained that this is not just because the majority of the sector’s employees were male but also because women are normally better at asking for help before a crisis.

“Research shows that women are better at self care and seeking out health when they need it, rather then men who tend to leave it until the problem reaches crisis point,” Brown said.

Remote and offshore support service company Compass provides holistic physical and mental programs for mine sites.

Australian Mining spoke to the company’s active and life coach Jessica Pereira who is currently based on BHP’s Area C exploration operation outside of Newman in Western Australia.

Pereira said when it comes to mental issues she sees a higher amount of males presenting.

“There seems to be more males with mental issues,” she said.

“Male suicide and depression rates are much higher.

“Females tend to suffer more from eating issues, whether it be over eating or otherwise,” Pereira stated.

Responsible rostering 

FIFO-rio-brockman.jpgWork rosters and shifts can cause depression and anxiety in miners, Brown stated.

But he was quick to reiterate that “research into the area of mining health is relatively small, but research into other shift work like doctors and nurses shows that there is a higher percentage in that population of things like mental illness, depression, and anxiety because of the effects shift work has on the body”.

“Work rosters don’t have a good affect on mental illness, and poor mental health does have a flow on affect to substance abuse,” Brown said.

Pereira said rosters have a significant impact on miners’ mental health. Prior to working on site at Area C she was based at BHP’s Port Headland rail project.

The majority of the workers at the rail project were on a 4 week on 1 week off roster, and she said it really took its toll.

“It was really harsh on the miners because there’s no life balance, all there doing is working,” she said.

“Drinking, social issues, relationship struggles, and fitness problems all began to arise.

Area C currently runs an eight days on, six days off rotation and the employees are on the majority seem much healthier, Pereira said.

“The longer the roster the worse it is,” she said.

Pereira said mental health issues are even more prevalent in offshore workers because of isolation issues, “they have nowhere to go”.

Home and away


Many mine sites are realising the importance of developing a “home away from home”, Pereira stated.

“In the last ten years there have been massive changes to health and lifestyle on mine sites,” she said.

“Mining companies are bringing in activities to keep miners interested and active, taking their minds off being away from home.”

This has included building movie theatres, ovals, driving ranges, organising fun runs, and scheduling yoga classes.

Periera said the shift towards healthier sites has largely been assisted by the WA mining boom.

Managing expectations

expectations.jpgMany workers entering the industry have unrealistic expectations about working conditions, pay rates and lifestyle, Brown explains.

“A lot of FIFO and DIDO workers tend to be career changes, so they may have expectations about the amount of money they can earn vs the amount of effort,” he said.

“A lot of people come in and say: ‘All I’m going to need to do is drive a truck for 2 or 3 weeks and then I get a week off, how hard can it be?’ They don’t realise the effect long shifts have on their bodies, and living in remote and rural communities where they may not have regular access to other people,” Brown explained.

There seems to be a real disconnect between what a new employee expects the industry to be like and what it is.

“For a lot of FIFO or DIDO workers they think working in mining is going to change their situation, when in fact it turns out to be far more stressful then they thought it was going to be.

Brown recommended a few simple strategies which can be implemented to set expectations straight.

“Pre-emptive mental health checks can help, to make sure employees are aware of what they’re getting into.”

He said there needs to be more pre-filtering done by mining companies.

“The expectations can definitely be changed by a little pre-education,” he said.

Bowers operates on the front line of mental health in mining and told Australian Mining “psychological problems can lead to safety risks and accidents”.

“Psychological health is just as important as physical health,” she said.

“We’re not saying it’s terrible and everyone’s suffering, we’re saying there are ways of supporting people and we should be organised.”

Being organised and prepared is one way miners can help manage mental wellbeing.

“We write induction books so employees are well prepared, so you’re well prepared about what to expect onsite, to understand for the climate, the environment, how to plan for R&R, communicate with your family and plan your finances,” Bowers stated.

“If they are organised and they know what to expect their levels of stress and anxiety in a new and strange and remote environment is decreased quicker, they are well prepared.”

A good dose of reality

Taking an active approach to assist workers seek treatment is important.

“There is a stigma in the general population around seeking treatment, particularly for depression and anxiety,” Brown stated.

“We talk about things like diabetes and bowl cancer but when it comes to depression and anxiety people think it’s shameful because there is that stigma that people see it as a weakness of character rather than of physical ability,” he said.

Through the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, Bowers has developed an all encompassing and extremely positive mental health safety program especially for mine sites.

She said when dealing with mental health and wellbeing in a mining context the approach needs to be proactive.

The Minds in Mines program is aimed at changing the mental health culture on mine sites through positive tool box talks and training for staff and management.

“Dealing with mental health doesn’t have to be all negative, it can be a positive message,” Bowers said.

“It’s so much better to implement proactive programs so miners know how to recognise and deal with mental health issues not only in themselves but in their colleagues as well.”

Bowers recommended building protective factors into miners’ lives so they can “deal with problems before they arise”.

“If problems are recognised early and workers are encouraged to seek help it saves a lot of anguish for the person, family and improves productivity for the company,” she said.

Agreeing with Brown, Bowers said the big issue when it comes to wellbeing is the stigma that exists around mental health.

“One of the major problems for us to deliver the program is the stigma,” Bowers said.

Overcoming the mental health stigma starts at the top of the management chain Bowers explained.

“The challenge is the people who have the authority to sign off on these programs are not out on site, they’re in the head office,” she said.

“To actually sign off on an all company program that addresses mental health as significantly as physical health and safety is the challenge we face now.”

Serious mental health mental-health.jpg

Taking mental health seriously is one way for mining companies to improve attrition rates and safety statistics.

“If company’s take mental health seriously they will improve their retention rates and they won’t have as much churn,” Bowers said.

When it comes to mental health management Bowers explained that people in the mining and resource sector have been neglected.

“It’s not the core business of companies to look at the mental health of their workforce,” she said.

“There’s a huge void out there and if we talk to these people and encourage them take responsibility for themselves, their family and their whole life, it’s saving money and stress for them.”

But a positive and supportive approach is needed on site, and frankly Bowers said “it’s good management and improves productivity and profit for the company and ultimately it’s good for the government as well but I don’t think people understand the economics of it”.

“What we’ve found on site is once a company commits to a [mental health] program the support and recognition on site is fantastic,” she said.

Although some mining companies are more proactive then others, attitudes and cultures don’t change over night.

“What a lot of them don’t promote is a long term, sustainable and integrated mental health policies,” Bowers said.

“We need to make them aware it is acceptable to talk about it, to seek help early and to talk to your mates if you see they aren’t functioning normally.”

Technological wellbeing

The information age is here; many cannot be far from a smart phone, desktop or tablet device and there’s almost an app for everything, including as it seems, mental health.

Reiterating the idea that supervisors need to recognise signs of mental illness by taking a proactive and holistic approach the Mynds Performance App provides a means for monitoring employee wellbeing.

Already used in Australian Sailing and the NRL, an employee is able to use an ipad, computer or mobile device to benchmark how they’re feeling against almost 30 different human aspects, taking less then a minute, it grabs this data to quantify how someone is feeling over a period of time.

The user regularly benchmarks aspects like confidence, family and finances, ranking between one and ten at either daily or weekly intervals.

It is designed to turn feelings and states of mind into quantifiable, usable data.

If scores drop a red flag is raised with management and a green one if improvement is made.

“Anything that can objectively logged exactly how miners or sports people or what ever the case is going on for their supervisors, and make that process a little bit more streamlined and easier for them rather than having to do performance reviews or keeping an eye on someone for the entirety of their shift or what ever the case may be, I think that’s a great idea,” Brown said about the Mynds program.

The company’s director Mick Miller told Australian Mining Mynds is slowly being implemented in the business sphere because it can actively monitor team motivation and fatigue levels while keeping all the information confidential.

Mynds has been designed as part of a holistic approach to employee wellbeing, allowing managers to gain insight into how their team’s professional performance is delicately interwoven with their mental health and personal welfare.

Miller said the program lowered attrition rates as workers are able to indicate issues that need to be addressed, and management can see dips and rises in different aspects, enabling efforts to be made to address these elements.

One aspect that is benchmarked in the system and is proving to be quite a significant one for the mining industry is rest and recreation.

“If an individual or team’s rest and recreation scores are coming in really low it can indicate fatigue or tiredness,” Miller explained.

“By having this information on hand management can act before an accident happens.”

If a miner’s family score is low and a manager sees performance, morale or productivity is waning action can be taken to lift this score, like flying the miner’s family onsite for Christmas.

Miller said there is a direct correlation between Mynds’ data and KPI or productivity data and sick leave days but the Mynds program quantifies otherwise unquantifiable information.

“When all the little things are being addressed, employees perform more consistently,” he said.

Australian Mining's top tips for managing mental health

1. Look at physical health

Diet: Healthy eating, healthy mind. diet.jpg

Many mine sites have already employed dieticians to ensure meals provided are healthy and eating strategies are in place.

Pereira said on the BHP site she works on they have implemented diet plans and a traffic light nutrition system.

She said she goes through menus with the site’s chefs daily and labels food as eat most, eat moderately or eat less so miners are aware of what food choices are best.

Exercise: Active body, active mind. 

exercise.jpgGoing to the site gym, doing some laps in the pool, having a game of touch football with your colleagues or even gentle stretching in morning prestart meetings, all go a long way towards improving state of mind.

At BHP’s Area C Pereia said compulsory stretching exercises are done at pre-start meetings daily because “the more you work the more you shorten in your muscles”.

On site the miners are supplied with all the facilities and equipment needed to safety stretch and exercise including foam rollers, mats, fit balls, and an oval.

Pereia added that many weight and health issues are a symptom of poor mental health and that simple exercise can be a good way to promote wellbeing.

Manage alcohol intake

Limit alcohol consumption, it can increase the effects of fatigue and cause mental issues to be exacerbated.

2. Develop communication plans communication.jpg

Family – Talk to family members, be open and honest.

Articulation – Learn to communicate your problems or concerns.

Mates – Build a support network on site.



3. Take control of your finances  finance.jpg

Bowers explained that “finances put a huge amount of stress on people”. 

She recommended miners plan financial matters and be in control because “when you’re in control you know what’s happening, you can do something about it, it’s when it gets out of control that it becomes a problem”.


Jenniifer Bowers will be presenting at Australian Mining's Safety Conference, to register click here.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.