Poll results: How does the Australian mining sector treat mental health?

According to numerous recent studies by mental health support groups and insurance companies, mental health is becoming a more commonly talked about issue.

We touched on the issue in an email we sent out to the mining industry and were surprised by the strength of the response. We received dozens of comments. Here is a small selection:

  • One respondent was in a senior role and directly involved with four mining workers who committed suicide on site, which in turn affected their own mental health.
  • Another said spending money on enquiries into the mental health of mining and FIFO workers was a waste of money and “why not just leave the industry for those who like the isolation and enjoy it”.
  • Another respondent said they had resigned from the industry because they’d had enough of the FIFO life, despite being well-paid and relatively happy. “Perhaps I was responding to subliminal signals that a change was needed?”
  • And this: “Those who are suicidal or stressed… are not suited to the job or have gotten too greedy and got into too much debt and now they can’t handle it.”
  • And, finally: “I have suffered with post-traumatic stress, major anxiety and depression and I work hard. I have a love and passion for my work. Sadly, all these companies that banner being all about helping mental health and having so much support to help people, in my experience, frankly don’t care.”

A diversity of views — and that’s just a handful. We received many, many more.

So, we wanted to gauge perceptions of mental health in mining, including the industry’s treatment of mental health. So, we made the topic the subject of our latest poll on the Mining People International Polling and Media Centre.

We asked:
“Have you (or has anyone you know) suffered mental health issues whilst in mining?”

The results of our mental health in mining survey

Approximately 130 or so respondents, admitted either suffering themselves, or knowing someone who suffered mental health issues. We then asked those 130 people two very simple questions, with the following results:

1. What action did you (or they) take?
a)      Did nothing 26.2%
b)     Resigned 15.9%
c)      Sought support from outside the industry 23.8%
d)     Accepted help from the company’s employee assistance program 34.1%
2. Would you say the company was supportive and proactively offered genuine assistance?
a)      Yes 51.6%
a)      No 48.4%

Perception versus reality of mental health in mining

Now we firstly need to acknowledge that the answers to question two, are not necessarily a reflection of what the mining industry is actually doing. How people rate any employer’s response to any mental health condition could be as much their perception as it is the reality of what occurred — particularly if they were referring to someone other than themselves. That said, close to half of those companies being put in the “non-supportive” group seems like a big number.

It made me wonder how my own business would be rated if our staff were asked the same question.

So, is this about mining or workplaces generally?

It’s hard to tell whether the data our survey collected is comparable to workplaces generally or whether it’s specific to mining. However, a 2010 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found 25% of workers took time off each year for stress-related conditions (which obviously does not cover all mental health issues).

We can say though that there is no suggestion that the mining industry is any better or worse than workplaces generally. A 2015 Safe Work Australia study found 6% of all workers’ compensation claims in Australia were for mental disorders and the most at-risk professions were “first responders” like police and ambulance drivers, welfare and community workers, prison officers and public transport drivers. Mining and resources was not listed among the sectors within the study.

The ‘head in the sand’ response seems alive and well. In the end, we need to concede that this survey delivered much ambiguity and raised more questions and, so, not being anywhere near expert in these matters, we decided to confine our observations to the most straightforward and unambiguous facts.

On that basis, what we can clearly see is that an awful lot of people who suffer mental illness of some form simply feel no alternative other than to either quit their job and tell no one about it, or to ignore it. In fact, in a clear 42% of cases, the mental health sufferer did exactly this.

This must surely mean there is an enormous cost being absorbed by workplaces, as well as considerable angst being bottled up inside the sufferers.

The human experience of mental health in mining

We also invited people to make anonymous comments if they wished, and we received more than 100 personal remarks.

Firstly, we do not claim this work can be categorised as anywhere close to rigorous and defendable research, given the ad hoc nature of the comments and the fact we did not ask people to reply to structured questions, other than the two simple questions. We did, though, feel it was important to give voters the chance to “speak”.

There was one very clear result of this: the comments from people who shared their issues with others, either their employer or their workmates, fell into two very distinct categories with little in the middle.

At one end of the “perception spectrum” was that people felt incredibly let down, discriminated against, even bullied, and in more than a few cases lost their job as a result.

At the other end of the “perception spectrum” it seemed there is a good number of companies who were incredibly supportive and went the extra mile.

It seems this issue is not yet a mature one when it comes to assessing how it is being dealt with, but rather sufferers either find themselves in a really supportive environment where others are not afraid to discuss the issue, a culture most likely supported and promoted by enlightened management, or they find themselves completely alienated, most likely because management doesn’t yet accept the need to play any role, or in fact might even be somewhat afraid to acknowledge it.

So, in conclusion, having started out to understand how the mining industry viewed mental health, I am not sure we answered that as distinct from all other industries. Perhaps that is less important at this stage? Perhaps the more important broader public response to this issue is that we might all be sitting close to one or the other end of the perception spectrum?

I know if I think about my own experiences and observations, I would describe them as: “deny, deny, deny, deny, deny, deny, then — BANG! Give in and get it.”

If you feel compelled to disagree with this summary, based on how you personally respond to the issue of mental health, and you don’t believe that perhaps up to half of people still fall into the ‘deny/afraid’ end of the perception spectrum, then I would challenge you by asking ‘how would you know?’ Because I’d be pretty certain that if you are still at the deny/afraid end of the spectrum, you probably didn’t even start reading this article let alone get to the end of it. (Which is completely understandable.)

For the MPi team, these results — and the comments we’ve received to both our original email and this poll itself — are an indication to us that mental health is an issue to which the mining industry needs to pay close attention. We’ll be doing the same, with more coverage to follow in the MPi Newsroom in the coming weeks and months.

Steve Heather

Managing Director & Principal Executive Search

Mining People International