The unique challenges faced by regional workplaces
Had a good day at work?
This is a common enough question but hides a wide range of meanings. Work is important for our identity, our wellbeing, our health, our ability to participate in community activities and many other needs. Unemployment, underemployment, poor quality or insecure work can cause mental health problems which can be exacerbated in rural and remote areas.
Rural areas vary enormously but tend to have relatively small populations, long distances to other centres, dependence on a smaller range of (often primary) industries, and limited specialist services in health, education, and other fields. Rural economies can be fragile and rural communities seem to suffer disproportionately from drought, fire, floods, pests and economic setbacks such as trade embargos and commodity price changes. We term these factors rural adversity; they can occur in sequence or together, but they have a cumulative affect which can threaten income security, individual and family wellbeing.
Rural communities have a variety of types of employment including agriculture and supporting industries, primary industries such as mining and quarrying, various contractor and transport industries, main street businesses, rural professionals, health, education and local government staff. All of these have different job pressures and challenges to job security.
In some cases, employer decisions based on extraction costs and commodity prices such as coal, ore or metals can mean the loss of large numbers of jobs which cannot be replaced locally resulting in large numbers of people leaving town and demand for local services falling significantly. Climatic events can mean that farmers work for a year and receive no income.
A falling population means fewer children enrol for schools, with some communities deemed unattractive or too far from the coast and unable to attract or retain health workers. The current NSW government enquiry into rural health services is shining a light on communities that are unable to recruit doctors for local hospitals or where GPs are not available. Such losses and subsequent shortages tend to make communities less desirable and may contribute to population decline and ageing.
The workplace as a resource – what can be done?
While many of these factors are beyond the control of individual businesses or communities, there is a lot that can be done to foster workplace wellbeing and mentally healthy employees. Large organisations, whether public or private, can choose to develop policies and employment practices that promote job security. They can also provide mental health promotion skills to managers, supervisors and staff. They can recognise problems as they arise, or anticipate those that are likely to, through change processes and the provision of a range of opportunities for help ranging from face-to-face care to telehealth and digital mental health care.
We know that individuals need to be encouraged to seek care and that the first option may not prove to be the most acceptable or appropriate. Rural workers and their families are like everybody else; we do not always relate to the first health care professional, or type of treatment, offered. We may be concerned about confidentiality in a small place or the effectiveness of a treatment option.
In short, rural staff, supervisors and managers face particular problems, and we need to ensure that a range of effective solutions are available, widely promoted and trusted.
This article was supported by WayAhead as part of a series of guest articles from wellbeing experts, researchers and practitioners. Read more articles from the series here.
David Perkins, Director of The Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health
Professor David Perkins
CENTRE FOR RURAL AND REMOTE MENTAL HEALTH
Also published on LinkedIn