Support for mental health study

Kate Ashton

THE Sale-based Wellington Primary Care Partnership has secured funding to investigate the rarely examined link between mental health and shift work in regional areas.

A $485,000 grant has been awarded via the state government’s Mental Health Improvement Fund, part of the WorkSafe Work Well initiative introduced last year.

The fund has announced just five grants from a pool of more than 100 applicants, with the Wellington Primary Care Partnership the only regional organisation to be included.

Project manager Helen McAdam was “chuffed” their project was selected, and said many people may not realise the toll working shift jobs could have on mental health, particularly in regional areas where the lack of mental health services is a compounding factor.

“There’s often a disconnect between home and work because you may be working really odd hours, your shifts can change, so getting continuity at home, it can be really hard for some people to adapt,” she said.

“Often you can become quite socially isolated, and that social isolation can lead to anxiety or depression, all sorts of things.”

This negative impact may also be disproportionately borne by younger workers, who are more likely to be working more shifts, or less desirable shifts, as they start new jobs and move through their careers.

Rather than providing services to individuals, the project will work directly with employers in an approach which aims to strengthen employers’ responsibility for their own workforce — with Central Gippsland Health the first to sign up.

The funding will facilitate programs which target the well-being of shift workers, which could include additional training like mental health first aid courses, better shift scheduling practices, and changes to workplace design.

Wellington Primary Care Partnership executive officer Angie Collins hopes the project could be expanded to help shift workers no matter where they are.

“We want at least two or three employers to come on board for us to trial a whole gamut of resources and options that we will then work closely to test and review,” she said.

“At the end, we want to have a tool kit, that any employer can pick up and use in their environment, to improve the mental health of their shift workers in their own workplace.”

The project makes sense in Wellington Shire because of the large number of employers that use shift workers, including the Sale hospital, the prison, Esso, and logistics companies.

“There’s not much research done at all in Australia on shift work and there’s even less about rural and regional shift work,” Ms McAdam said.

“Our thinking is that, because we have less mental health resources in the regions, our shift work population is probably more disadvantaged.

“That’s why we are particularly interested in developing strategies that are going to serve a regional community, where you can’t just walk in and get a mental health service on demand.”

CGH chief executive Frank Evans said it was keen to work with staff to improve their health.

“Maintaining good mental health is extremely important in what can be a very demanding work environment, and we see this project as a very exciting opportunity for us to show leadership in the health sector,” he said.

After a 12-month trial at CGH, the project will be rolled out to other employers across Wellington.

Interested employers can phone Ms McAdam on 0438 164 528.

People struggling with their mental health can phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.