Breaking new corporate ground, WA-based earthmoving equipment supplier Emeco is among an emerging group of companies encouraging employees to feel comfortable opening up about suicide and mental health, even at work.
When moves to enhance its community engagement and workplace culture two years ago identified mental health was a big concern across the mining industry, the company zeroed in on that as an area where they could make a meaningful difference to the wellbeing of their 500-strong, mostly male workforce that operates across sites in WA, NSW and Queensland, chief executive Keith Gordon said.
"What we found is that mental health and suicide are issues that really resonate with people," he said.
"It has been staggering the number of people who have suspected there has been something wrong or troubling family members or work colleagues and they haven't known how to approach them.
"Being open and upfront about mental health has also helped people who have had experiences with family, a colleague or friend who have either succumbed or come close to suicide. They are just really relieved we are talking about it - there have been some quite emotional responses.
"Our workplaces are just a representation of the broader community and previously it has been a thing you just don't talk about, or hear about."
Mr Gordon said he had been pleased with the strength with which employees had embraced a series of workshops run by Lifeline that focused on the signs that a colleague, friend or family member might be struggling and how to have that first conversation and ask them 'Are you OK?'."
Powerfully also, an employee who had lost two sons to suicide had shared his experience and passion for suicide prevention with colleagues attending the sessions, Mr Gordon said.
"He talks about how to recognise the signs and that it is OK to ask," he said.
The company had also recently partnered with Lifeline Australia to fund trained telephone counsellors to man its crisis line from midnight to dawn, when people were particularly susceptible.
Fiona Kalaf, chief executive of Lifeline WA, which this week launched new research into the mental welfare of FIFO workers and families, said many employers were realising that mental health was as important a component of wellbeing as physical health.
"In this category Emeco is a real leader - it is supporting its teams internally but also supporting Lifeline and the broader community by sponsoring the Saving Lives Overnight program for callers to the 13 11 14 number from midnight to 6am," she said.
Although it was still early days, Mr Gordon said the company wanted to build a culture where employees felt safe to admit they needed help with their mental health, without being fearful it might jeopardise their job prospects.
"One of the things I have learnt out of this is that quite often with under-performing employees there is actually another issue at play - it is not necessarily that they don't have capability, it is that they are distracted and their minds are on other things.
"If you can create an environment where the employee feels safe to speak up, you can actually help the person, which is pretty powerful. You may actually find you are developing someone who is going to create real long-term value for the organisation."
To date 250 Emeco employees in Perth and regional areas, including Mackay in Queensland and the Hunter Valley in NSW, had attended mental-health and suicide-awareness sessions run by Lifeline. Plans included training key employees at each site so they were equipped with skills to recognise the signs and deal with a high-risk situation.
"We have a largely male demographic and a number of FIFO workers who spend regular time away from home and their support network. Lifeline tells us there is a higher susceptibility among that demographic, so we see mental health as an area worth investing in," Mr Gordon said.
Ms Kalaf said men were at four times more risk of suicide than women, so a male-dominated workforce statistically was at higher risk. "That's not a reflection on the quality or the calibre of that workplace or that employer," Ms Kalaf said. "This is a reflection of the community and the workplace is a microcosm of the community." * *