Uncontrollable shift patterns in the mining and energy sector may have far-reaching implications for the physical and psychological health of industry workers, a newly-released report says.

Researchers at Griffith University today released preliminary findings of the Australian Coal and Energy Survey. They highlight the mixed experiences of workers in the sector.

The first wave of the major two-part national survey, funded through the Commonwealth’s Australian Research Council under its Linkage program, was carried out from August to December 2011. Under the terms of the program, it was financed jointly by the ARC and the Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

“We saw a complex set of reactions among mining and energy workers to shift work,” Professor David Peetz from Griffith University’s Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, said.

“Some were happy, others not. Among those working shifts, views were evenly split on whether they wanted to abandon shift work altogether and go back to day jobs. However, most employees had very little say over their hours and shift arrangements — half had no say at all.”

Professor Peetz, Associate Professor Georgina Murray and Dr Olav Muurlink gathered data from close to 4500 survey participants including 2566 CFMEU members and 1915 partners.

“The findings in this report are very much preliminary,” Professor Peetz noted. “Wave 2 will be important as it will examine the same population in 2013. Then we can make firmer conclusions.

“However, we can say at this stage that, for those workers who clearly want and are unable to attain fewer hours of work, there appears to be a significant impact on depression, and a greater use of sleeping tablets, antacids and anti-depressants.

“The respondents showed sleeping difficulties. And when you had lack of control combined with wanting to work fewer hours, it not only made mining and energy workers more likely to feel unsafe, it also had negative health effects, including on psychological health.”

Associate Professor Georgina Murray said, “A number of aspects of job quality were worse for women. More female than male miners felt they had little say or feared losing their jobs”.

Dr Muurlink pointed out, “65 per cent cited ‘higher rates of pay’ as one of their reasons for working shifts, and 57 per cent cited blocks of leisure time. Only 29 per cent cited ‘more convenient for my domestic responsibilities’ — while 23 per cent said ‘bosses aren’t around at night’!”

“But workers with no say over their hours and shifts seemed to have more difficulty sleeping and be more likely to feel unsafe at work or on their way to or from work,” added Professor Peetz. “They were more likely to feel too tired or emotionally drained to do things they should at home.”

“The lack of say was having a flow-on effect. Their partners often confirmed that their spouses were indeed too tired or emotionally drained to function properly and that it affected them. Mining and energy workers and their partners were less satisfied with their free time or with how much they felt part of their community than were the broader Australian population.

“This has major implications for labour turnover and costs. Despite the high wages, the mining industry has one of the highest quit rates. It appears many employees find the working arrangements too difficult and leave, while many who remain would rather work fewer hours.”

Key findings:

– Workers completed a 16-page survey examining the impact of role shift patterns on wellbeing and health, and their partners completed a 12-page survey. Participants were randomly sampled from membership lists obtained from the Mining & Energy Division of the CFMEU. A follow-up survey will be undertaken in mid 2013. Financing was through the Australian Research Council’s nationally competitive Linkage Program for research.

– The majority of mining and energy workers (61 per cent) preferred to work less than forty-one hours per week.

– Some 50 per cent of employees surveyed were working more hours than they would prefer, even after taking into account how that would affect their income and other activities, while 39 per cent were working the number of hours they would prefer and 11 per cent would prefer to be working more hours.

– Some 58 per cent of respondents ‘sometimes’, ‘almost always’ or ‘frequently’ experienced difficulty falling asleep between successive night shifts and 62 per cent experienced such difficulties when their shift changed.

– In around a third of cases, the working hours of a couple were ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ in sync. Fifty two per cent of employed partners worked at least some weekends.

– 40 per cent said, all other things being equal, they would definitely or probably prefer to give up working shifts and get a daytime job without shifts, 19 per cent said maybe, and 41 per cent said probably or definitely not.

– 65 per cent of mine and energy workers cited ‘higher rates of pay’ as one of their reasons for working shifts and 57 per cent cited blocks of leisure time. Nearly half (48 per cent of respondents) indicated ‘no choice’ as one of the reasons.

– 61 per cent of mine and energy workers had no say in how many hours they worked a week, 70 per cent had no say in their types of shifts, 74 per cent had no say in which shifts they worked on particular days, and 79 per cent had no say in start and finishing times.

– While 25 per cent of those working the hours they preferred said they were, ‘often’ or ‘almost always’, rushed and pressed for time, the figure rose to 48 per cent among those who wanted to work fewer hours.

– Workers who wished to reduce their hours were about two fifths more likely to be using anti-depressants than those who were on the hours they preferred.

– Use of sleeping tablets was higher among workers who had no say in their hours.

– Shift patterns were complex, with over 70 distinct patterns of shift work found.

– When asked to what degree did they feel satisfied with “the amount of free time you have”, on a scale from 0 (low) to 10 (high), the mean score was 6.21 amongst mining and energy workers and 6.16 among partners, compared with a mean of 6.67 in earlier national data from the HILDA survey. When asked about satisfaction with “feeling part of your community”, the mean score was 6.41 amongst mine and energy workers and 6.53 amongst partners, compared to 6.78 in earlier national data from the HILDA survey.