Mining’s largest worker well-being blind spot? Psychological health & safety 

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After over 25 years of working in and consulting to the mining industry, I’ve grown accustomed to the need to create compelling arguments to put a variety of internal and external social performance topics higher-up on the organizational radar screen. Factoring in ample time for thoughtful review by leadership and to obtain buy-in for the less technical considerations of running a mining company is prudent.   

However, even I have been surprised at the time it has taken to fully recognize the significance of mental health at work in the sector. This odd gap predominantly exists despite increased attention to recruitment and retention strategies, an elevated desire to contribute to positive worker experiences, and the industry’s longstanding drive for exemplary physical health and safety performance. Combine this with the rather commonsensical notion that our ability to be fully present, perform optimally, and be considered “healthy” should include mental and emotional well-being, the slow adoption curve of psychological health and safety at work is a perplexing blind spot. Our heads are, after all, attached to our bodies.   

Even prior to COVID-19, the larger mental health problem was increasingly apparent, and global figures were already jaw-dropping. According to Mental Health at Work (a World Health Organization/International Labour Organization joint policy brief), in 2019: roughly 301 million people lived with anxiety, 280 million people lived with depression, 703,000 people died by suicide, and 15% of working age adults had a mental disorder.  These world-wide numbers are not only sobering but being pre-pandemic also make them very conservative three years out.  

Michelle Hohn

We can see these impacts in a tangible way using a national example and shifting focus to the financial burden of the Canadian mental health crisis. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, total health insurance claims in 2021 were $40.8 billion; including $13.4 billion in prescription drug claims, $7.2 billion in long-term disability, $1.6 billion in short-term disability, as well as $600 million in specific mental health claims. (That last category is up 45% over the previous year and up a remarkable 75% since 2019).  This equates to about 500,000 Canadians in any given week who were unable to work due to mental health issues.  

Just how many of these health impacts and how much of these costs belong to the mining sector? Truth is, we don’t know. Psychological health is not yet included in definitions of occupational health and safety across the board, and for the most part, mental health at work is not yet measured or monitored in any meaningful way in the industry. What we do know is that it took a global pandemic to catapult unprecedented levels of isolation, anxiety, depression, uncertainty about finances, and declining optimism about the future to the forefront of human existence. We also know that this universal event advanced the issue of worker mental health from a “soft” human resources topic into an operational reality that is forever changed and can no longer be overlooked. And we can presume there is no reason for mineral exploration or mining to be exempt from worker overwhelm, burnout, absenteeism, increased accidents and injury, or hefty health insurance claims.  

What is PHS? 

Canada took an impressive lead, forming The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013) in 2013.  Championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, this inaugural formal guidance was also the first global standard to provide a systematic series of guidelines, tools, and resources for organizations to promote mental health and prevent psychological harm at work.   

Psychological safety is defined by the standard as “the absence of harm and/or threat to mental well-being that a worker might experience.” The document contains 13 factors within organizational control that when addressed effectively have the potential to positively impact worker mental health, psychological safety, and participation. Some of these factors include: organizational culture, respect and civility, workload management growth and development, recognition and reward, psychological and social support, and the protection of physical safety. A psychologically safe workplace is also commonly interpreted as one that promotes conditions leading to a shared belief and culture where people feel that it is okay to express ideas and concerns, take risks, admit mistakes, or speak-up without the fear of negative consequences. 

A psychologically healthy and safe workplace is defined as one that “promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.” This subtle, yet distinctly different term goes further and refers to the identification of psychosocial hazards and the assessment of psychological risks – it speaks directly to the prevention of potential psychological harm through work-based activities. 

Why has it taken so long for psychological health and safety to become mainstream and fully integrated? 

One possible reason relates to western social culture in general, which permeates into workplace culture.  No matter how far we think we have come in the support of mental health, both the virtues of hard work and the appearance of “having it together” remain highly valued. Rewards tend to be linked to the achievement of measurable goals and timed outcomes regardless of how employees are feeling or coping at work or at home.   

In the mining sector specifically, another hurdle is limited capacity. The majority of junior explorers and pre-development companies have very few employees at all, let alone dedicated staff to take this on. There is no human resources position, no budget allocation, and the very people being asked to start taking a look at mental well-being may themselves be overwhelmed or burned-out.  

Even with increased resources and personnel, it can be difficult to determine whose responsibility it is to spearhead this initiative. Part of the responsibility challenge is that intuitively, organizations often think the natural “home” of mental health is within the human resources department. Part of this rationale makes great sense, however, to go beyond the promotion of mental wellness to the prevention of psychosocial risks, these cross-cutting topics require HR to collaborate with occupational health and safety, executive and board leadership, and other key internal content specialists, which is more complex and time consuming than single-department issues and makes ownership challenging and adoption slow. 

Not sure where to start? Here are some stage-appropriate ways to foster a psychologically safe workplace and to integrate psychological health and safety at work: 

Entry Level Steps 

Foundational steps for companies of all maturity levels include: staying up to date on local labour laws (which are increasingly incorporating elements of psychologically safe workplace factors and psychosocial hazard identification and risk management),   

embedding respect in corporate values and Codes of Ethics or Conduct, having a Respectful Workplace or Harassment Prevention Policy in place (as well as clear complaint/complaint resolution procedures), including psychological health in the definition of health in Occupational Health & Safety policies and management systems, and promoting work/life balance. 

Engage early and engage often. Organizations of all sizes need to know if their employees feel they are in a positive and healthy place of work and to understand how to proactively promote worker well-being. Furthermore, decision-makers need to acknowledge employee-informed input to effectively manage psychosocial risk hazard identification and the likelihood and severity of associated risks to mental health across diverse and global workplaces. 

Be proactive. Don’t let a traumatic or tragic event be the motivation to get on the psychological health and safety adoption curve. Headline news involving major accidents, serious injuries, and fatalities is the most unfortunate of all reasons to initiate a re-think of better safeguards and systems. 

Intermediate Actions 

Junior and mid-tier producers have some increased capacity, personnel, and budget resources, and could consider: ensuring Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs) are in place and include specific support for mental health; incorporating aspects of psychological health and safety into induction training, day-to-day operational activities, and into supplier codes; embedding it into sustainability strategy and ESG frameworks (including in company goals, targets, and compensation structures); integrating psychosocial hazard identification and risk assessment into enterprise-wide risk management systems, adopting voluntary international and sector psychology health and safety protocols, standards, and guidance, and communicating their performance in all forms of reporting.  

Advanced Initiatives  

Senior mining companies are increasingly providing their workforces with a wider and more innovative range of tools and resources to improve mental health literacy, manage stress, and support building resiliency. Their more robust human resources departments can ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies map with psychological safety factors, facilitate more thorough engagement exercises such as wellness surveys or an independent workplace assessment to focus resources in the right areas to drive positive mental health impacts. More comprehensive OHS departments can normalize a psychological health and safety culture and can fully commit to the mitigation and management of psychosocial risks and promoting well-being at work through alignment with ISO 45003:2021. 

While psychological health and safety may seem like yet another new dimension of workplace social performance, the concept of holistic wellness is not. The mining sector’s work culture and well-being of its workforce –– including emotional and mental health –– play a critical role in supporting ongoing capacity, optimal performance, and the vitality of its greatest asset – its people. The business case is overwhelmingly developed: It’s time for full buy-in. 

Michelle Hohn is a sustainability, social performance, and psychological health & safety specialist. She has provided extensive advisory services to international mining companies, and is a Registered Counsellor.

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