As the mining workforce transitions to automated operations controlled off-site, physical safety concerns are being rivalled by mental health considerations. In Australia, where mining skills transformation and flexible work are ahead of the curve, local CHROs must lead the way in creating a new type of safety focus and culture – one where wellbeing and mental health metrics are just as important as lost time injuries.
Accelerating the mining workforce transformation
With the pandemic increasing digitalisation and automation of operational tasks, the share of mining’s on-site workforce working remotely is set to increase rapidly. Australian mining companies are leading the world in the technology investment required to move people away from dangerous and challenging on-site environments and into intelligent operations centres.
As one CHRO told me: “In the future, we see our people working from three places: mining sites, lean hubs nearby that drive remote-centre operations, and the ‘anywhere office’ that will have enough intelligence and attractive infrastructure.”
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This staggering transformation will change the game in the mining workforce, creating new risks and opportunities for CHROs to grapple with.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that Australian miners will need to attract a new wave of employees to run their automated operations. The shift from mechanical to analytical skills and the requirement for miners to integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals in their strategies is compelling CHROs to look at completely new types of talent, including data analysts and climate scientists.
The pandemic has helped advance the much-needed diversification of the local mining workforce. Flexible and remote work policies are attracting more female employees, a group that has historically been under-represented in the industry. People with families, poor health, or other responsibilities and restrictions will also have a greater incentive to join the newly flexible mining workforce.
The challenge is to continue to find opportunities to create a more diverse workforce. The WEF 2020 Future of Jobs report highlights that women were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and that CHROs need to proactively work towards equality by ensuring that diversification is embedded in the new working culture.
To attract and retain scarce talent, CHROs must rethink the mining employee experience and culture, with a particular focus on:
Mental health – This is not a new issue for mining CHROs, but its context is changing. A study from Curtin University found one in three FIFO workers experiences high levels of psychological distress – a key factor affecting job turnover.
Screen-based work in remote centre operations, while physically less dangerous, can also take a heavy mental toll on employees. Australian miners became aware of this phenomenon during lockdown, as the novelty of remote work wore off, leading to a sense of fatigue. Many CHROs reported that employees were working longer hours, sleeping less and feeling burned out – and that remote work was exacerbating feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The fear is that, such emotions combined with the fatigue caused by the characteristics of remote work could lead to mental health issues. If a screen-based worker 700km from the truck they are operating in the Pilbara is fatigued or distracted, the operations risk will be significant. Mining companies must train their leaders to manage fatigue and mental health risks with the same laser focus they have on physical safety. It’s just as important for a remote operator to have had enough sleep as it is for their counterpart on site to be wearing protective eye wear or a respirator.
Managers must be vigilant in checking on workers and companies must provide ongoing support as ways of working evolve. This includes developing more softer “socio-emotional” skills to allow them to act with empathy and improve communication. We also expect CHROs to make use of biometrics signals (blinking, brainwaves and heart rate) and machine learning models to identify and warn of fatigue in remote operations centres.
Purpose – As miners compete with other industries for top talent, CHROs need to connect their employees with a purpose and values that resonate with the next generations coming into the workforce. Younger employees especially are looking for sustainable businesses that do good in the world and in their local communities. Mining companies need to clearly articulate their purpose and contribution to local and global communities.
Reskilling – The combination of skills shortages and miners’ social responsibility to its current workforce mean companies need massive reskilling efforts to both plug their own skills gaps and enhance the employability of those left behind. The key to success will be offering employees multiple routes to reskill. A 2019 Accenture study found about two-thirds of surveyed mining companies focused on reactive training where employees were given access to online courses. While such education pathways are important, mining companies should find a balance between proactive and reactive learning. Mentoring and reverse-mentoring schemes should be a vital component of reskilling efforts. Mining companies can enhance long-tenured workers' digital knowledge by pairing them with young colleagues. Similarly, young colleagues can gain industry knowledge from the long-tenured workers they are paired with. Such schemes can help mitigate the potentially negative impact of virtual learning and remote working on mental health by connecting employees in a constructive way.
To succeed with a transformed workforce, mining companies need a new organisational construct that operates with a completely different belief system. Companies thrive when they address the full range of their workforce’s needs — everything from their financial, emotional, mental and physical well-being to their sense of belonging and inclusion and their quest for purpose. Acknowledging and adapting to this reality will help miners operate with greater understanding and empathy, supporting the type of mentally safe working environment critical to their future success.
 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-05/fifo-workers-twice-as-likely-to-suffer-mental-health-issues/10585254
 Accenture Future Systems survey, 2019