Corporate support for stronger mental health

With mental health challenges for mine workers increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has stepped up to provide more support for its workforce.

The number one focus of Australia’s mining industry is for employees to go home safely at the end of each day.

This doesn’t just mean that workers are physically safe – mental health is also crucial to workforce wellbeing.

While the focus on employee wellbeing has strengthened in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced fresh challenges for workforce mental health.

For example, some miners are on longer rosters and have been separated from their family and support networks due to travel restrictions.

The mining industry recognises that the pandemic, which has required companies to relocate employees, minimise the number of workers on site and institute longer shift cycles, has placed pressure on relationships and mental health.

During this stressful period, MATES in Mining encouraged mine workers to reach out to Connectors, who had been trained in their workplace to help keep colleagues safe.

The MATES in Mining program trains employees to assist colleagues affected by personal and work challenges.

The Connector model involves workers on site volunteering to help someone in crisis by connecting them to professional help.

MATES in Mining has also kept its helpline open 24/7 without interruption to provide case management support.

The charity organisation, supported by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), has run its volunteer program at more than 15 mine sites across New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Pilot programs were initially launched at Glencore’s Clermont and Glendell mines in Queensland and New South Wales, respectively, and have since been expanded to additional mine sites.

The initiative aims to raise awareness about suicide and issues that could cause suicidal thoughts, reducing barriers to help workers or friends going through a hard time by offering appropriate and accessible help for workers in need.

This model has proven to lower suicide rates in the construction industry.

According to the MCA, New Hope Group is another company to introduce a peer support program to support employees going through personal and work difficulties.

MCA chief executive Tania Constable says the success of the MATES in Mining pilots has resulted in a national rollout of the initiative, adding that workplace mental health programs are a sound investment in workforce wellbeing that delivers significant return.

This includes improvements in staff engagement and workplace morale, reduction in suicide and improved productivity, and employee mental health and wellbeing.

“Mental health programs can also improve organisational adaptability, general health and safety and reduce staff turnover,” Constable said.

“MCA encourages top-to-bottom leadership to create and maintain a mentally healthy workplace.

“Management should promote the importance of mental health and wellbeing to all workers in the minerals industry.

“This reinforces the importance of existing industry initiatives to preserve mental health, including the MCA’s leading Blueprint for Mental Health and Wellbeing Industry guide.

“Mining employers are also recommended to increase their capacity in identifying and responding to mental health issues in the workplace by understanding the supportive role of peers, workplace and culture.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics last year revealed that in 2017-18, 4.8 million Australians had a mental or behavioural condition, an increase from around four million in 2014-2015.

At Rio Tinto, a peer support program has been in place at its iron ore operations since 2012. The company provides mental health training for leaders, giving them the skills to recognise and refer employees for assistance as required.

Taurai Gusha, a Rio Tinto mobile mining equipment fitter at the Yandicoogina iron ore mine in Western Australia, is a peer supporter within the business.

Gusha says a healthy mind is important at work because it is also a safe and productive mind.

“(It’s) a mind that is able to identify hazards, and support other people around them,” Gusha says.

“It’s good to have a healthy mindset when we go home to our loved ones at the end of our roster. The healthier you are mentally, the better you are for yourself, your family and your team.”

Mental health is also a big focus at BHP, which focusses on reducing stigma associated with mental illness and raising awareness of mental health conditions.

According to the MCA, BHP implemented a program to grow the confidence of its leaders to initiate a conversation and advise on support.

Companies can also help by ensuring linkages with existing health, welfare and community services to support early access to assistance for mental health problems and promote recovery through return to work.

This article also appears in the September-October issue of Safe to Work.

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