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Integrating psychological health & safety into the mining subconscious

Carly Leonida and Michelle Hohn talk psychological health & safety and the identification of psychosocial hazards, why they need greater attention in the mining industry and what companies can do about them

Safety is a non-negotiable construct in the mining industry today. It’s the number one concern on site and, when we think about safety, we naturally think of physical safety…

Am I wearing the right personal protective equipment (PPE)? Am I holding the handrails properly as I climb this truck? Have I looked both ways and doublechecked the coast is clear before pulling out onto the haul road in a light vehicle?

The importance of physical safety has been ingrained into the latest generation of workers to the point where we ask ourselves questions like this automatically, without even thinking about it.

The impacts of this are evident in the historically low number of safety related incidents that we see in established jurisdictions today. The necessity of physical safety is well understood, and its delivery a point of pride among teams.

But, over the past 12 months, I’ve heard more and more about the expansion of safety as a concept. And it makes complete sense. How can a workplace be truly safe if it’s not designed to support people’s mental health as well as their physical health? How can people give their very best physically, if they don’t feel culturally safe?

My exploration of this subject began when I read Deloitte’s 2023 Tracking the Trends report and quickly led me to this Northern Miner article by Michelle Hohn.

Hohn is a social performance and psychological health and safety (PHS) specialist as well as a registered counsellor. She has been a senior consultant to the mining sector for over 25 years. And, when I asked if she’d be willing to delve deeper with me on the subject of PHS in mining specifically, she kindly agreed.

CL: How did you become interested in psychological health and safety?

MH: I’ve always been inextricably drawn to human behaviour.

Reflecting back, I think my level of interest emanates from challenging childhood circumstances of my own; after which, I tended to be fascinated by what people said or did, often being curious about what may have happened to them along the way.

Michelle Hohn is Principal at Akashic Communications and a registered therapeutic counsellor

I knew from an early age that we are all influenced by a lifespan of experiences and environments, which affects how we view ourselves, our relationships, and the world, and impacts how we function in everyday life. So, this speaks to the psychological part.

Fast-forward to more recent decades and my social performance consulting work… my innate curiosity about people was an essential ingredient in stakeholder engagement processes, like materiality assessments for sustainability reporting, focus groups for gender research, and human rights due diligence.

One of the most revealing questions I would ask people was: ‘what keeps you awake at night?’ Because for every stakeholder, from the C-suite to affected community members, that line of inquiry got through the corporate speak and to the heart of the most personally worrisome and anxiety-laden issues.

And of course, worker and community health and safety in the mining sector have always been a top priority across the board. So, a variety of psychological impacts relating to workplace health and safety have always been a key source of input for my engagement work, even before they were formally recognised as such.

What is psychological safety and how does it differ from psychological health and safety (PHS)?

Cultural anthropologist Timothy Clarke is the pioneer of the term ‘psychological safety’ which he defines as “a condition in which you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished in some way.”

When we consider psychologically safe spaces in a general sense – regardless of location – we commonly think about places where we feel truly welcome and respected.

A psychologically safe workplace is one that promotes conditions leading to the shared belief in a culture where people feel that it’s okay to express ideas and concerns, take risks, admit mistakes, or speak-up without the fear of negative consequences.

By comparison, a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, as defined by the Canadian National Standard, is one that “promotes workers’ psychological wellbeing and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways”.

This subtle, yet distinct difference refers to the practice of identifying psychological (or psychosocial) hazards and the assessment (and elimination or mitigation) of these risks.

PHS is an approach which uses a hierarchy of controls and focuses on the prevention of potential harm to mental and emotional wellbeing through work-based activities.

What are some of the early PHS implementation challenges you’re seeing in mining?

The bulk of my clients are junior and mid-tier producers who generally have less internal capacity than senior mining companies. What I’m seeing in this space is a level of hesitation as to where to start: strategy, policy, procedure, or should they go straight to wellness programmes?

It can be difficult for companies to educate themselves, determine priorities, designate resources, and actually get started despite a strong desire.

There can also be a sense of nervousness from organisations if they believe they need to be somehow responsible for an employee’s overall mental health; or for ‘fixing’ a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.

Mining company personnel don’t have to become overnight therapists or resolve an entire global mental health crisis!

What we’re embracing is the recognition that there are certain aspects of work which can contribute to positive wellbeing and, on the flipside, there are factors relating to work design or activities which can cause stress, anxiety, and lead to negative impacts to mental health.

There is something a company can do about the latter in the same way they approach traditional occupational health and safety.

Identifying who within the company is responsible for spearheading the initiative also remains a challenge.

It’s important to recognise the interrelated nature of the promotion of worker mental health, identifying psychosocial hazards and assessing psychosocial risk in the workplace, and providing employee wellness support, programming, or benefits.

While taking initiative is great to see on the one hand, the tendency to over-simplify and ‘silo’ the topic of PHS into a single department makes things less cohesive on the implementation side and more challenging to monitor and manage over time.

I recommend companies create an interdepartmental working group, as early in the process as possible, that includes occupational health and safety, human resources, as well as members from executive leadership, and other relevant internal content specialists.

Does the mining industry face any special challenges when it comes to PHS?

The increased odds of discomfort through harsh operating environments or harm through highly physical/industrial work in general can be stressful.

These can lead to increased exertion or even exhaustion, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, reaching for less healthy food choices, less motivation to seek recreational physical activity – all of which impact overall health, mental wellbeing, and workplace performance.

Additionally, remote work is ubiquitous due to the isolated nature of where most mineral exploration is conducted, and deposits are located. Remote work can also mean rotation, which is generally viewed as difficult; it can interfere with circadian rhythms, and can be just plain lonely, regardless of a person’s relationship status or family situation.

Being in the middle of nowhere can quietly consume concerned space in a person’s mind. If transportation is dependent upon prevailing unreliable, mountainous, weather conditions, for example, this can increase trepidation about getting out for rotational break.

It also carries the quiet notion of ‘if I do get seriously hurt, can we get out? And if we can get out, how long would it take for me to get to medical assistance?’

It may not be a critical worry in any given moment, but it can be a chronic/free floating one, constantly weighing on the parasympathetic nervous system.

In my personal experience, there also seems to be increased workplace pressure in the mining sector to not be the person making a fuss if there might be some procedural uncertainty.

Even if we’ve never been injured on the job or in transit, we can all recall times when we made it through a particular situation safely, but it could have gone very differently.

These events can be examples of both a lack of proper traditional health and safety controls and also one of an absence of psychological safety – where speaking-up or making an alternate suggestion is discouraged, ignored, or has potential recriminations, so we just get on the helicopter, for example.

Why is there still a disconnect, at times, between PHS and physical health and safety and how can we start to close that gap?

The gap is starting to close – albeit slowly. The COVID-19 pandemic shone more light on the importance of emotional and mental health as it relates to overall health, wellness, and performance, and there is a gradual decrease in stigmatisation when it comes to mental and emotional health concerns.

Physical safety measures are a given on mine sites across the globe. Controls to ensure psychological safety should be too. Image: Unsplash

The mining sector’s work culture and the holistic wellbeing of its workforce play a critical role in supporting ongoing capacity, optimal performance, and the vitality of its greatest asset – its people.

Everyone understands the importance of physical health and safety, and paradoxically, they also understand the potential negative impacts related to anxiety, depression, overwhelm, and burnout.

No one wants decreased productivity, or poor morale, nor do they want increased absenteeism, injury rates, or disability claims relating to mental health.

The gap will start to close organically as the next generation of mining personnel seeks evidence of more holistic systems of support in the workplace, as the notion of psychologically safe workspaces are normalised, and as PHS is integrated into occupational health and safety approaches and management systems as best practice models.

Where can mining companies look to for guidance?

At the policy level, the World Health Organization/International Labour Organization jointly released Mental Health at Work, an approachable document containing practical introductory guidance and key interventions on how to protect, promote, and support mental health at work, which are helpful overarching commitments.

The Canadian National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is another great starting place. This provides guidance and contains 13 factors within organisational control that when addressed effectively have the potential to positively impact worker mental health, psychological safety, and participation.

ISO 45003:2021 Occupational Health & Safety Management – Psychological Health and Safety at Work: Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks – is parallel and complimentary guidance to ISO 45001.

This makes it extremely straightforward to add psychosocial elements to existing occupational health and safety hazard identification and risk assessment, mitigation, and management processes.

If a company has operations in Australia or Mexico, they should be looking closely at the updates to the Safe Work Australia Code and new Mexican health and safety standards respectively that are currently being phased in, with schedules in place for when compliance must be met.

Specific sector guidance is still budding; industry associations including the Mining Association of Canada, the Association for Mineral Exploration, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, and the International Council for Mining and Metals, are all taking steps towards the formal inclusion of psychological health in definitions of health and safety, and integrating psychosocial hazard identification and risk assessment into their frameworks, protocols, principles, and guidelines.

Canada’s Mining Institute for Human Resources Council recently released Safe Workplaces for All, addressing sexual harassment in Canadian mining which contains foundational guidance for awareness and recommendations for change momentum for physically and psychologically safe workspaces.

How could advances in PHS help move organisations towards their larger sustainability and performance goals over the next decade?

Organisations can show their next level of care and concern for employee wellbeing by including goals of establishing a workplace culture that supports psychological safety.

They can also add PHS into their corporate performance goals, as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets into overall ESG strategies and frameworks.

The mining sector, on the whole, has been a long and strong leader with respect to sustainability/ESG reporting, within which organisations disclose their voluntary commitments to larger sustainability performance.

These include relevant disclosures for the promotion of worker health in the Global Reporting Initiative, as well as relevant contributions towards progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, within which, the recognition of promoting mental health is gaining increasing prominence.

A broader vision of safety

So, there you have it folks.

The next time you’re on site and are thinking about risks or making decisions related to your physical safety, make sure you stop and ask yourself some PHS related questions too.

For example, is there anything in the design or management of this work that could decrease my risk of work-related stress? And, do I feel fully in control of my workload?

We must all make a concerted effort to integrate PHS into our mindsets and day-to-day workflows if we want to embed it within the collective subconscious, and ultimately make mine sites safer, happier, more productive places to work.

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