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Startling answers to Vale mine workers mental health survey

Clinical psychologist Dr. Michel Larivière presented the findings from the Vale mine workers mental health survey to a safety conference in Sudbury in April.

By LEN GILLIS

A survey into the state of the mental health of Vale mine workers in Sudbury produced some startling answers for the researchers looking into the mental well-being of those employees.

It was learned that mental health issues can take a toll in many ways that mine workers never imagined and included hundreds of employees reporting depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress, problems with sleep and even some having thoughts of suicide.

The study began in 2015 and involved the cooperation of more than 2,200 workers and the collaboration of the United Steelworkers union. Vale paid the cost of the study, estimated at $400,000.

Keith Hanson of Vale, who was the lead project manager for the study, said there were so many variables involved as the team tried to figure out what some of the root causes would be. He said the team gathered as much data as possible because up until now, no such baseline data existed.

The results of the survey were revealed at the Workplace Safety North Mining Health and Safety Conference held in Sudbury, in April.

PERSONAL TRAGEDY REMEMBERED

Keith Hanson, Vale’s lead project manager for Mining Mental Health Study, recalled a personal experience a few years back where a man he knew took his own life after telling friends that he was fine, despite having experienced some mental health problems.

Hanson said he was shocked to learn of the man’s death and it led him to wonder what he might have said or done to encourage the man to open up about whatever was tormenting him.

Whatever problems the man had, “he hid too good,” said Hanson.

What we need to do in our organization is in this work and the journey of this work is to be open and help allow people to be found.”

In the heavily male dominated industry of mining, said Hanson, no one likes to talk about mental health.

But that’s what this work is for.”

Hanson said all new data was required to fully understand what the mental health status was for Vale mine workers.

He said some of data was known such as 50 per cent of disability claims or long term disability (LTD) claims are due to mental health reasons.

Hanson said the concern was trying to find the cause. He said everyone knew that depression and anxiety are things that happen, but there was still no hard information on what causes it.

Hanson said he was asked to compare Vale’s numbers with the “benchmarks” that are out there in the mining industry.

I said, there isn’t any. I had no idea. There are no benchmarks to compare ourselves against,” said Hanson and added it was one of key drivers for the study.

On the clinical side of the survey, psychologist Dr. Michel Larivière stepped up. He is the former associate director for the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) at Laurentian University.

He thanked the participants in the study for their cooperation.

They’ve left us all with an important legacy of information about their lives and about their well-being. This is going to be of extraordinary value to generations of researchers and students and leaders, our community and the community of mining industry workers around the world.

They, the participants, have spoken the too frequently unspoken language of mental health. And we are grateful to them for their courage in doing so.

Larivière said the study began by seeking answers to four basic questions.

1-What is the state of mental health and well-being of Vale employees?

2-What factors are mostly strongly related to the mental health and well-being of Vale employees?

3-What factors predict an absence from work?

4-What factors are most involved in helping people return to work following an absence?

He said as the research team sought answers, they were pleased with the number of workers who took part in the survey.

EXCELLENT PARTICIPATION

We had a better turnout in this study than we do in most important elections in this country; municipal, provincial or federal,” said Larivière. He said that was important because of the issues being discussed.

We were talking about things that people don’t ever want to share and a lot don’t share with their family doctor,” he said.

The study included 2224 respondents from 25 different vale work sites in Sudbury. The average age was 43.6 years and the average work history was 17.2 years of mining experience, said Larivière.

In response to the first question about mental well-being, the condition reported most often was depression.

He said more than 56 per cent was reported as “normal” depression, followed by 18 per cent of what he called “mild” depression. There was nine per cent of “moderate” depression and more than seven per cent of “borderline critical” depression.

The findings also showed 2.3 per cent of “severe” depression and 0.9 per cent of “extreme” depression.

The study also showed that 10.6 per cent of the respondents with depression said they had “thoughts” of suicide.

They weren’t necessarily going to carry them out, but they had these thoughts from time to time,” said Larivière.

I don’t want that number necessarily to shock you. That number is not all that different from the general population,” he added.

A similar number of employees, 10.5 per cent, had indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder. He said it could mean that additional screening is required to determine the true nature of their problem.

The study also reported that many of the employees had sleep disorders. It showed employee sleep habits ranging from very bad (five per cent), to fairly bad, to fairly good and very good (more than 51 per cent).

There was a time when we all thought of sleep as a symptom of depression and increasingly now we tend to think of it maybe being a cause of it,” said Larivière.

PEOPLE ARE TIRED

What we have here is a relatively tired workforce,” he added, saying it was likely representative of the general population. The group reported an average of 6.2 hours of sleep each night.

In discussing factors that contribute to employees being absent for mental health reasons Larivière said this might include the perception of hazardous work, discrimination at work, working longer than eight hours, having a commute time longer than one hour, and feeling symptoms of burnout.

Also to be considered said Larivière are factors that will contribute to an employee successfully returning to work, after a mental health absence.

This included having good medical support, family support, availability of modified work, supervisory support, support from Vale occupational health, support from co-workers, support from friends and good mental health services.

That being said, Larivière also revealed there can be barriers to a successful return to work. He said this would include returning because of financial need. He added that any lack of support from the employer, from the supervisor and co-workers would be a barrier.

Larivière said the data will be helpful in determining the future treatment of employees struggling with mental health conditions. He added that the data will also be shared as a matter of public health with others in the mining industry and also with other medical researchers.

As the 45-minute presentation was wrapping up Hanson said the team created a five letter acronym – MINES – to guide future interactions when employees report mental health problems; M is for Monitor. I is for Intervene. N is for Normalize. E is for Encourage. S is for Support.

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