Miners: be mindful of mental health

Research has quantified the incidence of depression in workplaces across several industries, but there is no such data for mining. Michael Mills reports.

One day mankind will look back in amazement at how long it took us to truly understand how mental health affects our daily lives.

It has only been in the last decade that Australians have begun to see how widespread and debilitating depression is. 

According to beyondblue, a not-for-profit organisation aimed at tackling the condition, depression will affect one in every five adults at some stage of their life. 

More than one million Australians experience some form of depression, anxiety or related substance-use disorders each year, making it second only to heart-related illnesses on the list of disabilities in this country. 

These disorders can also have a profound impact on the bottom-line of a business. 

beyondblue estimates depression accounts for three to for days off work per month for each person experiencing it. 

“That’s over six million working days lost each year in Australia,” the organisation said. 

“Untreated depression can result in a significant reduction in work performance.

“The disorder accounts for more than 12 million days of reduced productivity each year, with more serious implications for work safety.

“It is estimated each employee with untreated depression will cost their organisation $9660 per year.”

According to beyondblue national workplace program manager Therese Fitzpatrick, mental health problems can also compromise occupational health and safety.

“Depressed workers can have difficulty concentrating on the job and can have trouble getting a good night’s sleep,” she told Australian Mining

“This can all have an impact on a worker’s physical capabilities and this can obviously have implications for safety.”

But while mental illness can have an impact on a business, it must be said that the workplace can also have a strong affect on a worker’s mental health. 

“A recent study carried out by the University of Melbourne, showed that job stress could lead to a two-to-three-fold increase in the likelihood of someone experiencing mental health problems,” Fitzpatrick said. 

This study, Job strain, was published in the BMC Public Health journal in 2008. 

It suggested one in six cases of depression among working Victorians was caused by job stress, which amounts to more than 21,000 preventable cases each year.

Of course, these figures apply to workers from all types of jobs in all industries, so the next logical question would be to ask how prevalent the problem is in the industry. 

There has been no research published in Australia to date that quantifies depression and mental health problems in the mining industry. 

“While there has been some work done with mining companies about the issues that arise from depression, there is no thorough research on the condition in that industry available at the moment,” Fitzpatrick said. 

“It is a really interesting area, so it would be great to see some research carried out.”

However, Fitzpatrick said the nature of the work in the mining industry could definitely cause depression and mental health disorders. 

“It really depends on the person’s role, but there are a number of factors that could have an impact,” she said. 

“You have to keep in mind different people are affected by different things.

“Some workers are exposed to high physical risks which can have an impact, while others are isolated from their families and could work in environments where there is less social support.

“Shift work has also been shown to have an impact on mental health and of course there are long shifts in the mining industry.”

The main goal of organisations like beyondblue and The Black Dog Institute is to increase awareness of the condition and eliminate the stigma surrounding it. 

While, once again, there is no research into the level of stigma towards depression in the mining industry, comparisons can be made with other sectors.

“There is an often a higher level of stigma in male-dominated environments and subsequently people are less likely to seek help,” Fitzpatrick said. 

“There can be a sense that having depression or a disorder is sign of weakness in these workplaces. 

“There is often more incidence of stigma in rural and regional areas and many of those suffering turn to alcohol and other substances to manage the symptoms”

There is no doubt that mining is a male-dominated industry largely located in rural and regional areas. 

Dean Laplonge, the director of Perth-based communications firm Factive, has been researching how gender behaviours among mining workers can have an impact on safety. 

“There has been research of the men who work in other highly masculinised industries, such as fire-fighting and the military,” he told Australian Mining

“This research suggests the way men in those industries understand and play out their masculinity does indeed have an impact on their overall well-being and happiness.

“In these industries, as in the mining industry, the way a lot of men construct their identity is through highly defensive mechanisms.

“What I mean by this is that their sense of who they are relies on keeping things which are not normally associated with being a ‘real man’ at a distance.”

According to Laplonge, this means these workers have been hesitant to discuss “soft issues” such as their health and mental and emotional state. 

“Men who want to be seen as and see themselves as real men will do anything to be seen in this way because they fear being seen as weak,” he said. 

“So, fire-fighters will run into a burning building knowing it might kill them, because the thought of not going in and being labelled a pussy is even worse in their minds. 

“The constant pressure to sustain the real man image can lead to psychological issues, or so the research argues.”

According to Fitzpatrick, beyondblue has been working with several mining companies of various sizes to raise awareness among their workforces. 

“Both the managers and workers will how to approach these issues with their colleagues so they can get the help they need,” she said. 

“Our aim is to make it okay for people to seek help and work out what support they need to get it.” 

Fitzpatrick said the mining industry was beginning to realise how mental health fits into overall occupational health and safety. 

“The mining industry has obviously taken physical health and safety very seriously for a while now,” she said. 

“But we would like to see mental health taken just as seriously as part of the overall health and wellbeing of staff.

“There has been a real shift by people within the industry in recent years, saying this is something that needs to be considered.”

Laplonge believes it is vital that awareness be built from within by the workers who are actually there. 

“Do not bring in professionals, as strange as it sounds,” he said. 

“The men who are already there need be involved in discussions at the crew level. 

“Professionals can observe the discussions, but the men must be left to do the talking.

“They need to tell their stories; ‘I have had depression, this is what it felt like and this is the impact it had on me and my family’.” 

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