A significant number of mine workers are experiencing concerning levels of stress, anxiety and depression, according to new findings from the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) in Sudbury.
Those details – gleaned from data collected as part of a three-year Mining Mental Health study – were shared by Caroline Dignard, a PhD student at CROSH and Laurentian University, who is studying the issue as part of her thesis.
“When we’re comparing the mental health of mining workers, they’re having things like higher rates of psychological distress when compared to broader workforce data sets,” Dignard said during a Jan. 22 online presentation as part of CROSH-Con, an annual symposium featuring student research.
Historically, she noted, occupational health research has tended to focus on physical health – respiratory disease, or the impact of noise, heat and vibration on health.
Yet, an estimated 500,000 Canadians miss work in any given week because of mental health-related problems, she noted.
That can lead to lower productivity, a higher job turnover rate, poor worker engagement, and job dissatisfaction.
“Most importantly, from a health and safety perspective, is the increased risk of a workplace accident or injury,” Dignard said.
“We know that workplace injuries can have some pretty serious outcomes, and so it's important to recognize that we need to mitigate mental health problems within the workplace to reduce this risk of accident.”
Based at Laurentian University in Sudbury, CROSH conducts research into issues relating to occupational injury and disease experienced at workplaces across Northern Ontario, working closely with government, labour unions and workplaces to offer solutions.
In 2015, in partnership with Vale and the United Steelworkers Union (USW), CROSH led researchers in Mining Mental Health, a three-year study that examined the mental health of USW workers at Vale’s operations throughout Ontario.
The initial results, released in 2019, showed that, among the 2,224 workers surveyed, 56 per cent were experiencing symptoms of a mental health issue, which ranged from depression to suicidal thoughts to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dignard’s thesis looks specifically at stress, anxiety and depression amongst these workers.
“How many people are experiencing concerning levels of stress? How many people have symptoms that suggest the likelihood of anxiety or depressive disorder? What are the things contributing to this?” Dignard said.
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Overall, she found that 23.3 per cent of workers surveyed had levels of stress considered to be concerning, and women were more likely to report moderate to severe stress levels than male workers, she said.
Stress levels were highest in workers aged 30 to 49 and lower in workers aged 50 and up.
Being underground also had a significant impact.
“What we found is that workers who spend more time underground were found to be more stressed,” Dignard said.
When it comes to anxiety, she found that 5.9 per cent of participants had symptoms considered to be concerning, and levels were higher in women than in men.
That’s not unusual, however, since women tend to experience anxiety disorders in general, she noted.
Dignard said there was no difference in anxiety levels between underground and surface workers.
Looking at depression, Dignard found that 12.5 per cent of workers had symptoms consistent with clinical depression.
Women experienced more symptoms, although this isn’t unusual because women also tend to experience depressive disorders more frequently than men.
Workers in the middle age category once again experienced higher levels of symptoms than those in older workers.
Dignard said it’s important to consider that a number of factors can influence a person’s mental health.
“When we’re looking at the mental health of workers, we need to remember that, at the end of the day, a worker is a person,” she said.
Lifestyle choices, relationships, and the ability to balance home and work life can all play a role, along with the work environment, demands, schedule, job satisfaction and more.
“So we can’t separate the individual from the worker,” Dignard added. “It’s just one person and we need to look at the whole picture.”
Though her findings are preliminary at this point, Dignard said her future work will involve further breaking down the numbers.
She'll next compare stress, anxiety and depression levels by shift work and look at what’s predicting a worker's stress, anxiety and depression.
Her research will also examine potential contributing factors divided into categories, such as biological (gender, age, ethnicity), psychological (lifestyle choices), and social (work characteristics).