A solution to COVID-19’s mental health ramifications

The Australian Resources and Energy Group (AMMA) provides an accessible solution to mental health burdens that is different to what the market already offers. Safe to Work writes.

Mental wellness has received extensive attention in the mining sector, but its importance is all the more emphasised now.

When COVID-19 struck and brought daily changes to mining operations, it affected the lives of people who have kept mining moving as a well-oiled machine during the crisis.

The mining, energy and resources sector is especially vulnerable to the life restrictions imposed by COVID-19 for four reasons.

“Our industry is characterised by a lot of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) operations, which means people are often spending long periods of time away from their first support network,” AMMA director operations Tara Diamond tells Safe to Work.

“They do have the support network that they can access to via work, but we know that FIFO rosters can be very challenging to some due to their physical distance from their base.”

A survey of 400 Australian workers, conducted by strategic consultancy, Engaged Strategy, revealed that 62 per cent of workers that were impacted did not have an effective support system in the form of counselling or additional job training from their organisation.

Over 50 per cent also struggle with negative emotions that could impact productivity.

The challenge rises with Australia’s harsh mining conditions and extreme temperatures. Workers are also required to be extremely careful for long periods of time in what’s considered an intense safety environment.

“They often need to be in full concentration and not to ruminate. They can’t always process things that happen to them or what people say to them in real time when they’re operating machinery or managing and monitoring equipment – they have to be so present in their job,” she adds.

“The level of concentration required is inherent in a lot of the tasks they need to perform.”

The fourth reason that workers are particularly vulnerable during the crisis is their predominance in a demographic that is most prone to mental health conditions and suicide, i.e. male between the ages of 35 and 60.

Diamond believes this is such a key factor as to why AMMA’s online mental health training program is important. While mental health condition is an issue for all industries, it is definitely an issue for the resources, energy and mining sector, she says.

While working hard to be more diverse and inclusive, the industry workforce has a disproportionate demographic more than other sectors.

“After all, every one moves through a continuum with a degree of mental wellness everyday,” Diamond says.

AMMA’s industry-first mental health program is designed to help reduce the stigma attached to mental health conditions.

The program took eight months to develop but when COVID-19 happened, it was converted into an online program that includes a coronavirus module. This provides people with the opportunity to unpack the impact of COVID-19 on mental health.

“Having this program will really help employers and individuals start to reduce the stigma and enable people to acknowledge that seeking help for a psychological injury or a mental health challenge is just as normal as seeking a treatment for a physical illness or challenge,” Diamond says.

“We’ve seen a particularly high level of engagement in this program because (mental health) is such a current and universal physical impact.

“Whether someone is working on site or elsewhere, (changes that are brought on by COVID-19 present) a universal mental health challenge. The impact is not just reserved to the workplace, economy or commodity prices.”

AMMA’s online training program offers key insights, practical activities and opportunities for participants to role play what can typically be difficult mental health-based conversations with employees, with mental health specialists as the subject matter experts.

Participants are also split into pairs virtually to practice initiating the conversations that can so often be challenging, scary and awkward, Diamond says.

This is hoped to give resources industry employees practical skills, but it doesn’t seek to replace mental health training.

AMMA director operations Tara Diamond.

“This program has been developed because mental health trainings that were available out there were really extensive,” Diamond says.

“There was a real gap in the market (for a program) that helps create awareness and provides practical training so that employers and employees can work together to reduce stigma and create mentally healthy workplaces.

“The goal of this program is not to raise a first responder or a mental health expert.

“Companies just want everybody to have the awareness and feel comfortable to seek support when needed, and for their colleagues to be able to identify a psychological hazard in someone and support them to get support.”

Companies have not only registered for the AMMA program, but also customised it for use across their sites.

“It’s struck a cord with the industry. But the level of engagement we’ve received is no surprise to us since we’ve done such an extensive pilot program and work with the resource energy advisory board to hone our content,” Diamond concludes.

This article also appears in the July–August edition of Safe to Work.