Coping with mental health issues in quarries

The Mine Safety unit in the New South Wales Division of Resources and Energy has lent its support to an industry-wide focus on the causes and prevention of mental health issues for the quarrying and mining industries.

For Kylie Newton, the practice leader for health and human factors in the Division’s Mine Safety unit, mental health is an area in which she aims to promote clearer understanding, open communication and better outcomes.

Having previously worked as a mental health nurse, Newton has extensive first-hand experience that she brings to her current role assisting workers and employers to better manage mental health issues.

“In the past, mental illness wasn’t something spoken about openly,” Newton told Quarry “Many people will know someone who has been affected by depression, anxiety or suicide, so this is something that needs to change.”

According to Newton, the prevalence of mental health disorders in Australia is at a record high, with data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicating that almost half of people aged between 16 and 85 will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime.

“We need to be more aware of our own mental health and also encourage our fellow workmates, family and friends to talk openly about their mental health issues,” she said.

Perceptions of ‘weakness’

Last year, a series of suicides within the quarrying and mining industries raised concerns that more needed to be done to address the specific mental health issues of workers in the sector.

Studies have shown people in the mining and resources sector (which includes quarry workers) work in a physically demanding environment with long hours, heavy work and challenging conditions. 

A study by the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health also found that workers in these industries “perceive themselves as generally tough and proud and do not readily disclose personal problems nor admit to mental health issues”.

Newton stated one of the most challenging tasks for an employer was assisting a worker with a mental illness. “Managers may struggle with how to approach discussions because it’s difficult to deal with situations which may make us feel uncomfortable,” she said.

“From personal experience, the best way to handle these situations is to be open and honest. Don’t be afraid to tackle the situation. Ignoring the situation will only make it worse. It is also important to understand that the individual may not always take up advice, guidance and support. It may take some time before the individual is ready to receive the appropriate care. Try not to over-analyse the situation or your response.”

Recognising symptoms

The Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW) defines mental illness as “a condition that seriously impairs, either temporarily or permanently, the mental functioning of a person”.

Symptoms that indicate there is a mental health condition are:
•  Delusions.
•  Hallucinations.
•  Serious disorder of thought form.
•  A severe disturbance of mood.
•  Sustained or repeated irrational behaviour indicating any of one or more of the above.

Mental health conditions include:

  • Mood disorders, especially depression.
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Personality disorders.
  • Dementia and organic brain disorders.
  • Schizophrenia, bipolar and other related psychotic disorders.
Making an assessment

In making a mental health assessment, Newton recommended operators look at contributing factors in the quarry industry. These factors are indicative of how well an individual copes with stress.

“Each person will have different coping mechanism to the same stressor and consideration should be given to the provision of effective controls, guidance or support,” Newton said.

Contributing factors that should be considered include: 

  • Shift work and hours of work.
  • Fatigue.
  • Lack of workplace flexibility.
  • Working away from home.
  • Financial and family pressure.
  • Hazardous tasks.
  • Bullying and harassment.
  • Isolation.
  • Monotonous and repetitive tasks.
  • Environmental extremes.
  • Intense concentration and potential dangerous outcomes from loss of concentration.
  • Injury and illness.
  • Increased productivity demands.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle including poor diet and lack of exercise.
  • Lack of praise and recognition (high remuneration was seen as the motivating factor). 1

Of all the factors, Newton said that the impact of shift work, hours of work and fatigue was an area that needed to be considered by the quarrying sector.

“Even though the evidence is only anecdotal, feedback from employees indicates that it is common for quarry workers to work five days a week, 10 hours a day, as well as most Saturdays. This equates to the equivalent of a 60-hour working week.

“When you consider travel and sleeping hours, there is limited time or opportunity for workers to spend quality time with families and loved ones,” Newton said.

What can employers do?

As each case is different, there is no manual that clearly states what should happen, but Newton said it is important that full support is provided no matter how tough the situation may appear.

Employers and managers can provide a supportive workplace by:

  • Being empathetic.
  • Not being afraid to ask or talk to the worker.
  • Ensuring the worker has a proactive GP who is willing to liaise with the workplace.
  • Establishing a realistic, individual action plan for the worker. The action plan provides a list of work that enables the worker to complete set tasks. The action plan needs to be feasible and provides guidance to the daily activities.
  • Speaking to an employee assistance professional that is willing to go above and beyond expectations. The focus should be placed on smaller local providers who can provide immediate advice and services if required.
  • Accessing other organisations that may be able to provide additional support and guidance, such as Black Dog and beyondblue.
  • Taking action. If the individual is unclear, erratic or their behaviour is unusual and you are concerned, seek help immediately.
Lessons from mining

Newton noted that groundbreaking research currently being undertaken by the University of Newcastle and the NSW and Queensland coal mining sectors could also benefit the quarry industry. The university project includes a successful intervention program based on the model delivered to the construction industry, which is co-ordinated by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s Mates in Construction program.

For more information, visit the Mates in Construction website or read the NSW Minerals Council Blueprint for Mental Health and Well-being

More reading
1. McDaid D, Curran C, Knapp M. Promoting mental well being in the workplace: A European policy perspective. International Review of Psychiatry. Taylor & Francis, 2005. Also see Bowers J. (nd). Building mental health and well-being in the mining and resources sector, ACRRMH.

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