Study finds patterns of psychological distress, alcohol use and social disconnect among Australian mineworkers

Mental disorders, including mood, anxiety and substance use, are extensive throughout the world with one in three affected by such disorders in their lifetime. In 2010, the global cost of mental disorders was estimated at $US2.5 trillion, including indirect costs such as lost productivity and income.

In Australia, in 2013-14, the estimated cost of mental disorders to the public and private sectors and individuals was $974 million. The annual cost as a result of lost productivity was $11.8 billion, illustrating the importance of actions to address mental disorders in the workforce and society. As most adults spend one-third or more of their lives at work, mental disorders present a considerable challenge for workplaces.

Researchers at the University of Newcastle, have just released the findings of a study into workers employed in one of Australia’s largest industries. With 234,000 employees, the mining sector contributed significant export earnings of $226 billion in 2017-2018, or approximately 7% of Gross Domestic Product.

The study methodology

The study used survey data from 3,056 participants across 12 Australian mines with data collected between 2013 and 2017. Australia’s peak mining body, the Minerals Council of Australia assisted with the recruitment of the participating mines.

In confidence, paper-based surveys of 10-15 minutes duration were conducted with participants on mine sites.

The participants

Of the more than 3,000 participants, 88.3% were male and 41.8% were aged less than 35 years. Half were single (50.5%) or were in households described as couples with children (48.3%) and had a trade/apprenticeship/diploma qualification (49.3%).

Most participants were ‘fly in, fly out’ (FIFO) employees (79.8%) and had a permanent or ongoing contract (80.44%). The major employment categories were professional (35.7%), labourer (31.2%) and trade worker (12.7%).

Key findings

Psychological distress within the Australian mining industry is well documented, with miners experiencing significantly higher levels of psychological distress when compared to data from other workplaces. The survey revealed a number of important trends which largely reflected the very nature of mining work.

A combined 44.4% of participants in the mining survey reported moderate, high, or very high levels of psychological distress. This is significantly higher than the 27.2% reporting the same levels in a gender and age-weighted sample of employed Australians.

The report says male-dominated industries such as mining are susceptible to a wide range of challenges with workplace factors recognised as a contributing aspect to the development of mental disorders. Mines typically operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with employees often working 12 hours or more on rotating shifts.

The Australian mining sector has witnessed a trend towards remote access employment, often requiring workers to ‘fly in and fly out’ or ‘drive in and drive out’, which sees them regularly separated from family and social networks.

Relationship separation tends to result in increased loneliness across ages and genders, with men having a greater susceptibility compared to women. Men who are recently separated are 13 times more likely to develop loneliness than married men.

The survey revealed 42.1% of respondents described their alcohol use as in the ‘risky or hazardous’ category (34.2%) or ‘high risk or harmful’ category (7.9%).

Extended periods of not seeing loved ones, missing out on special events due to work commitments and long working hours all culminate in increased social isolation, which is prevalent in this demographic. This disconnection has been associated with increased rates of mental disorders.

The report says ‘considering the demographics of the mining sector and the male-dominated nature of the industry, this is alarming due to the increased vulnerability of psychological distress experienced by the group.’

More than 10 per cent of survey participants reported a history of anxiety (11.2%) and depression (12.3%).

The survey found work patterns had an impact on the workers’ health and wellbeing. Those on rotating shifts felt greater levels of psychological distress than those on fixed shifts with a similar trend for FIFO and non-FIFO workers.

Conclusion

The study found poor social networks and psychological distress are increasing challenges for the mining sector and highlight opportunities for the industry to address and respond within the context of health and social welfare for their employees. It suggests the problems identified in the survey could be targeted through strategies to engage employees with peer-related support initiatives such as MATES program or through steps to strengthen the connection with home and family support networks.

 

The study: Factors associated with patterns of psychological distress, alcohol use and social network among Australian mineworkers was conducted by Dr Carole James, Dr Mijanur Rahman, Aaron Bezzina and Brian Kelly from the University of Newcastle, NSW.

This excerpt is from an article recently published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Leave a Reply