Wellbeing In the Australian Mining Industry

The work mining requires is often unique, and therefore presents unique wellbeing challenges. This article provides a quick snapshot of the overall state of wellbeing in the sector and ideas on how to best approach those challenges.

This article is part of a series by Healthy Business, where we leverage our health and wellbeing expertise to explore research and offer our own insights in order to help some of Australia’s most important industries.

With recent changes to national requirements around workplace health and safety, it’s more important than ever to look after the mental and physical wellbeing of your workers. To do that, you first must understand them. This is complex in all industries, but it’s particularly complex in the mining sector because there’s huge variance in the shape of employment.

Mining is an industry where you have fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) blast hole drillers operating in the same company as a full-time office-located business systems analyst. Given this every company is going to have unique circumstances and would benefit from an internal review.

That being said, there is broad research we can turn to that is relevant to all Australian mining companies.

The overall picture

Compared to other Australian industries, mining has relatively high levels of physically and mentally healthy workers. This is according to a 2023 report prepared for the Western Australian Government by Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Work Design, Towards a healthy and safe workforce in the mining industry: A review and mapping of current practice.

The data the report drew on came from The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey (HILDA), which is a nationwide survey and so provides fairly broad, self-reported data. It’s a good indicator, but doesn’t offer an intimate look at what’s really going on.

It’s worth noting the data doesn’t contain all good news. By comparing results from 2005 and 2010 with those from 2020, it found that there were “signs of increasing psychological distress among the sector’s workers”.

A closer look

A subsequent report from The Centre for Transformative Work Design (also for the WA government) reviewed the academic literature , so it does have more of a fine grained perspective. Here are some of the most interesting findings:

● A 2018 study found that miners were 2.5 times more likely to experience anxiety and depression than construction workers.

● A different 2018 study found that “a greater proportion of workers reported feelings of mild (7.1%) or moderate (5.9%) anxiety, compared to depression (3.5% across any levels of depression)”. In other words, miners are more likely to experience anxiety than depression.

● A 2021 study examined burnout and reported that miners were “worse across all facets compared to general prescribed cutoffs”. Meaning they were more “emotionally exhausted”, had“ higher levels” of reported “depersonalisation” and had “a lower sense of personal accomplishment”.

● Research from 2015 examined Western Australian FIFO and discovered that 36% “experienced levels of depression, anxiety and/or stress which were above clinical cut-off levels. That is, more than one in three FIFO miners met the clinical threshold for psychological distress.”

The discrepancy between what was self-reported in HILDA and what was found in other studies seems to reflect something that happens in other countries.

For example, staying on the topic of FIFO workers, a review published by BMJ Global Health looked at research from across the world and found that while rotation workers generally perceived their physical health status as good, compared to the general population there were higher rates of people who were overweight or obese.

This review also found a dynamic where, when rotation workers are off-site, they tend to drink more. Then, when they’re on-site, they tend to smoke more and have poorer sleep. Especially over a longer period of time, (Healthy Business has a case study of a mining company experiencing similar issues, where great results were achieved.)

Causes and solutions

The second report from The Centre for Transformative Work Design breaks down the contributing factors for the mental health of the mining industry.

● Individual influences: As you would expect, every individual has a different baseline for mental distress and different coping strategies for how to manage situations and circumstances that cause stress. One study found that training in mindfulness-based stress reduction had positive effects.

Job level influences: The report found that “regular and day shifts and shorter and even-time rosters were significant predictors of better mental health in FIFO workers”. For those on night shifts, one study reported that workers felt they got better sleep if their shift ended before daybreak. Interestingly, a different study found that working regular shifts (rather than rotational) were not unique predictors of distress. It seems that the nature of the work and the way the company handled it might be a large factor.

Job role/occupation: As you might expect, different roles had varying levels of distress associated with them. Apparently mining operations and truck drivers had higher levels than admin roles, and even other onsite roles (mechanics/fitters/etc). Poignant for all organisations, one study found managers of all stripes were more prone to distress.

Team/site influences: Not surprisingly, workplace violence, harassment, and bullying contribute to increased odds of psychological distress. A culture of stigma and fear of loss of employment can lead to reluctance to discuss mental health issues or seek support. Specific initiatives implemented at the site level – one involved personal development programs and another a team-based mental health program – can result in improved mental wellbeing.

There is a lot more research into other causes, including the role of organisational culture and workplace policies. In general this pointed to a broad principle which seems intuitively correct regardless of the industry – companies that prioritise worker health and safety across the board tend to see much better outcomes.

Healthier… and wealthier

It’s worth mentioning that the better outcomes companies see aren’t limited to the happiness of their employees. A focus on wellbeing protects both your people and your bottom line, because poor health outcomes increase absenteeism. To see how much it might be affecting your company’s finances, you can use this free calculator (some details required, but kept confidential).

Do you want to improve wellbeing in your company?

Healthy Business has had tremendous success in partnering with mining companies to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of workers. Our consultative, tailored approach and ability to provide everything from individual coaching and group-based solutions to psychosocial hazard support and more typical EAP work means we aim to go beyond tick-box solutions.

Improving the health of workers leads to healthier and wealthier businesses. That’s not just what the research says, it’s our mission. Get in touch today.

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