Mental health awareness gains momentum

The mental health of fly-in, fly-out employees across Australia’s resource industry has come increasingly into the spotlight in recent months, and the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) says raising awareness and providing support initiatives is a core priority for Australia’s mining, oil and gas employers.

DURING the past decade of rapid resource industry expansion, fly-in, fly-out working arrangements have proven an effective solution for labour and skills challenges associated with large construction projects in remote locations.

Such working arrangements will no doubt be a central factor to Queensland’s next period of resource sector growth, as key projects like the Daunia, Caval Ridge and Carmichael coal mines come under construction.

However, while FIFO rosters can be highly rewarding for employees, such working arrangements also present unique challenges. With a Western Australian parliamentary inquiry examining mental health across the state’s FIFO workforce, it is important to reflect on what lessons are translated to the rest of the country.

One of the universal truths to emerge is that wellness support, FIFO awareness and mental health initiatives within the resource industry are gaining momentum.

For instance, national resource employer group the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) found that resource employers are implementing health initiatives benefitting FIFO employees long before they commence their first shift at the coalface.

“Heavy machinery and explosives are some of the health and safety risks familiar across the resource sector, but mental health challenges arising from remote locations and distance from friends and family also pose a potential hazard,” AMMA chief executive Steve Knott says.

“While there is still a fair way to go for our industry, AMMA has found that there is a widespread commitment to protecting the mental health of the FIFO workforce, from the recruitment phase right through to their last day on-site.”

Psychometric testing, medical examinations and open conversations between jobseekers and recruitment officers form just some of the proactive measures employers take to ensure their FIFO potentials are prepared for the challenges ahead.

“Though objective data suggests mental illness is no more prevalent in the FIFO workforce than in any other industry, resource employers continue to recognise this important challenge as one in need of ongoing attention,” Mr Knott says.

“It is also critical that the unique factors associated with FIFO work receive due consideration and continue to be managed by employers as part of the ‘whole-of-business’ mental health and workplace safety policies and initiatives.”

As well as implementing drug and alcohol policies and protection measures against fatigue, which can exacerbate mental illness, resource employers have invested extensively in on-site support facilities and initiatives.

On-site entertainment, such as cinemas and recreational halls have gained popularity across FIFO camps, and counselling services for finances, relationships and careers lend an insightful ear to help those in need of support and direction.

“Community engagement is also uncovering some powerful outlets to help FIFO employees escape the isolation often associated with FIFO arrangements and make meaningful connections to the local township,” Mr Knott explains.

“Investments in education, community training opportunities and local rental accommodation break down the barriers between resident workers and those that operate on a FIFO roster, and some resource employers encourage their workforces to volunteer locally during work times.

“Resource industry organisations which invest in the social fabric of the communities in which they operate consistently report improved well-being and quality of life, not just for FIFO workers, but for the wider resource workforce.”

However, despite the rallying support for mental health initiatives across the resource industry, Mr Knott says there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“AMMA’s submission incorporates feedback from a broad spectrum of stakeholders across the industry, many of whom work side-by-side with resource employees facing the unique challenges of FIFO lifestyles every day,” he says.

“Even one suicide in the resource sector or broader community is one suicide too many, and resource employers continue to gain access to external support networks that help to reduce that risk.

“For instance, FIFO Families is among the leaders in supporting FIFO workers and their loved ones to overcome the distance associated with FIFO employment, and AMMA’s own joint venture with beyondblue will soon see the distribution of an industry-specific toolkit to help employers stay on top of mental well-being at the worksite level.”

“It is also critical that the unique factors associated with FIFO work receive due consideration and continue to be managed by employers as part of the ‘whole-of-business’ mental health and workplace safety policies and initiatives.”

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