Shift work takes its toll on mining workforce

Unpredictable shift work rosters in the mining industry are having further reaching physical and psychological effects on workers and their families than first thought, new research has found.

The Australian Coal and Energy survey, conducted by researchers at Griffith University has highlighted the mixed experiences of workers in the sector.

“We saw a complex set of reactions among mining and energy workers to shift work,” professor David Peetz from Griffith University’s Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, said.

“Some were happy, others not.  Among those working shifts, views were evenly split on whether they wanted to abandon shift work altogether and go back to day jobs. However, most employees had very little say over their hours and shift arrangements – half had no say at all.”

According to the research 61 per cent of mine and energy workers had no say in how many hours they worked a week, 70 per cent had no say in their types of shifts, 74 per cent had no say in which shifts they worked on particular days, and 79 per cent had no say in start and finishing times. 

Peetz said lack of control over work hours is being attributed to increasing levels of depression among shift workers and resulting in an increased use of a variety of prescription drugs.

However, we can say at this stage that, for those workers who clearly want and are unable to attain fewer hours of work, there appears to be a significant impact on depression, and a greater use of sleeping tablets, antacids and anti-depressants.

“The respondents showed sleeping difficulties. And when you had lack of control combined with wanting to work fewer hours, it not only made mining and energy workers more likely to feel unsafe, it also had negative health effects, including on psychological health,” Peetz said.

The survey has also found that job quality is taking its toll on women in particular in the industry.

“A number of aspects of job quality were worse for women.  More female than male miners felt they had little say or feared losing their jobs,” associate professor Georgina Murray said.

Uncontrollable shift work is leaving employees feeling tired, emotionally drained and unsafe at work and the lack of control over working hours seems to be having a flow on affect when it comes to family life with approximately one third of reported cases saying couple’s working hours were ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ in sync.

“The lack of say was having a flow-on effect.  Their partners often confirmed that their spouses were indeed too tired or emotionally drained to function properly and that it affected them.  Mining and energy workers and their partners were less satisfied with their free time or with how much they felt part of their community than were the broader Australian population,” Peetz said.

Of those surveyed 50 per cent of employees were working more hours than they would prefer, with only 39 per cent working the number of hours they would prefer and just 11 per cent would prefer to be working more hours.

“This has major implications for labour turnover and costs.  Despite the high wages, the mining industry has one of the highest quit rates.  It appears many employees find the working arrangements too difficult and leave, while many who remain would rather work fewer hours,” he said.

Dr. Muurlink stated when respondents were asked about their reasons for taking on shift work 65 per cent cited ‘higher rates of pay’, 57 per cent cited blocks of leisure time, and only 29 per cent cited ‘more convenient for my domestic responsibilities’, while 23 per cent said ‘bosses aren’t around at night’.

However, the report found that 41 per cent said they would probably not give up shift work where 40 per cent said, all other things being equal, they would definitely or probably prefer to give up working shifts and get a daytime job without shifts.

Participants completed a 16-page survey examining the impact of role shift patterns on wellbeing and health, and their partners completed a 12-page survey.

Peetz noted a follow up survey will examine the same workforce in 2013 to further refine the conclusions.

“Wave 2 will be important as it will examine the same population in 2013.  Then we can make firmer conclusions.”

Australian Mining reported on mine site health earlier this year, stressing an alternative after it was found behind the tough exteriors many workers engaged in the mining industry in Australia experienced stress, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression.

This often goes hand in hand with physical symptoms such as an exacerbation of musculoskeletal problems and other existing health complaints.

Making good money has bitter sweet consequences.

For some workers, the dangling carrot encourages them to put up with a working environment they are having trouble adapting to even though they might be better suited psychologically to working in a lower paid job closer to home.

Ultimately both the organisation and the worker may end up paying a price for their stoic endurance as the stress begins to undermine their health, relationships and ability to function across both work and personal domains.

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