Mental health in the mining industry: expert response

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New research into mental health among FIFO workers aims to help develop policies and strategies to improve it.

The University of WA will study the wellbeing and mental health impacts of FIFO arrangements on workers, after receiving a $500,000 grant from the West Australian Government.

The Wellbeing and Mental Health in Fly-in Fly-out (FIFO) Workers and their Family Members project will explore aspects such as separation from family, travelling, rosters, team factors, leadership and general experiences on site, through anonymous surveys of FIFO employees. “Asking these questions will help us identify the particular attributes of FIFO workplaces that make a difference for mental health,” said project manager Dr Lauren Fruhen.

“A key aim is to identify positive and negative workplace experiences as well as strategies used by individuals, families and organisations to buffer against potential FIFO challenges. Without insights into the workplace aspects that shape the FIFO experience, targeted strategies and initiatives focused on protecting and enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO workers and their families cannot be provided.”

Results of an MPi poll which ran in October found 83 percent of respondents had either suffered mental health issues whilst in mining or knew someone who had. Just over 50 percent said their company was supportive and offered genuine assistance while 46 percent said it did not. Several reported they or others had had their contract terminated after struggling with depression or personal issues. Workers in the poll raised other issues that impacted their mental health including inadequate fatigue management, long rosters onsite, family issues, depression and bullying.

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Mental illness doesn’t discriminate

Dr Fruhen said it was important to remember that mental health was not a ‘niche concern’. Every year one in five Australians will experience a mental illness. Mental health, like any other health condition could develop, change or improve over time.

“It is important to acknowledge mental health issues as a reality that needs to be accepted and positively managed without stigma,” Dr Fruhen said. “That also means that those who have mental health issues and are receiving treatment or have had issues in the past should not be excluded from the workforce.”

The UWA project will identify not only what contributes to mental ill-health but also how positive wellbeing and mental health could be protected and actively supported. Investigating deeper into the specifics of how FIFO work and workplaces can affect mental health should help employers and companies to develop programs and strategies to improve outcomes for workers and their families.

It’s not just in the interests of their workforce – a NSW State Government study discovered that mental health and wellbeing programs were found to have a return on investment between $1.56 and $4.01 for each dollar they cost.

“This shows that there are benefits for companies beyond prevention and protection,” Dr Fruhen said. “So we can encourage employers to not think of the costs for mental health and wellbeing as an expense, but rather as an investment.”

The project’s findings will be reported back to the Mental Health Commission and insights generated by the research will inform workers, companies and governments on the issues associated with mental health in FIFO workers and how to best tackle those issues.

FIFO workers and their families can take part in the anonymous survey by visiting the project’s website.

Stephanie O'Brien
Mining People International