Top of mind: How Stanwell is overhauling the stigma around mental health

12 October 2021

As National Safe Work Month kicks off around Australia, and Queensland recognises Mental Health Week, it’s a reminder of the responsibility we all have in building a safe and healthy workplace – a responsibility that isn’t limited to physical safety. 

At Stanwell, the health and safety of our people is our greatest priority year-round. Our holistic approach integrates health and wellbeing initiatives across four key focus areas: core health, musculoskeletal health, physical health, and of course, mental health. 

We know that people living and working in regional and rural areas often experience challenges when trying to access mental health support services, and the difficulties of the past year and a half have amplified those challenges. That’s why we’ve introduced proactive initiatives like the Bunyarra program, which is breaking down barriers and supporting positive mental health outcomes for Stanwell employees and contractors alike at our Tarong and Stanwell power stations. 

The perfect storm 

In order to maintain the reliability of our electricity generation and keep power flowing to Queensland and Australia, Stanwell undertakes preventative maintenance – overhauls – of each of our generating units every four years. 

Each of these overhauls requires a generator to be turned off and taken apart piece-by-piece, with each section undergoing an inspection before being reassembled. A typical overhaul runs from six to eight weeks. It’s a challenging and high-intensity undertaking, with hundreds of additional personnel required to join the site-based workforce. 

Stanwell undertook three of these overhauls in the second half of 2020, including two at the Tarong power stations, located in the South Burnett. With quarantine programs limiting the availability of skilled and technical workers, many of the same workers took part in each of these overhauls.

Supporting their mental health and wellbeing was crucial – not least because the South Burnett is located within the Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service catchment area, which was found to have the highest rate of suspected suicides in Queensland in a 2019 report. The same report found that males living in remote and regional areas were the demographic at highest risk of suicide. 

On top of these existing risks, COVID-19 restrictions and the broader implications of the pandemic led to workers being unable to visit friends and family, and unable to find social outlets on their days off work. 

Despite the sense of loneliness and isolation these conditions could produce, we found that workers – both Stanwell employees and contractors – were reluctant to use our traditional Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services. 

That’s why, to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of our people in these challenging times, we decided to take a more proactive approach. 

A little more conversation 

Prior to one of our major unit overhauls at Tarong, we engaged Bunyarra Counselling and Meditation, a South Burnett-based organisation, to tailor a counselling program to our needs, that could be integrated with our existing EAP, Mates In Energy and leadership training programs.  

Owen Bevan, Acting Site Manager at Tarong power stations, says the Bunyarra program was designed to give our people the tools to know when to seek help, and how to identify red flags in peers. 

“We recognise that mental health interventions are more successful if they are proactive, at the front end, as opposed to responding after a mental health emergency,” he says. 

Michael Sanford, the Director of Bunyarra Counselling and Meditation, says the program was intended to engage workers who might be reluctant to reach out for help otherwise. 

“With traditional EAP services, you usually have to wait for a problem to escalate and become a crisis before some people will engage,” he says. “I think what makes the Bunyarra program different is that we don’t wait – we don’t operate from a reactive base model. Instead, we go out and engage people on an everyday basis, to break down the stigma of mental health and the stigma associated with counsellors.”

The key feature of the Bunyarra program is its visibility and accessibility to workers. It includes sessions advocating the importance of mental health and wellbeing, as well as targeted coaching sessions, and field-based counsellors interacting with workers throughout the overhaul. 

“People don’t know me as ‘the counsellor’,” Michael says. “They know me as Michael, and they know my colleagues by name, too, because we’ve established relationships by being there on-site and being available face-to-face on a day-to-day basis. We’ve normalised the wellbeing check-in without having to label it as such. 

“Because people are having regular conversations, we’re able to recognise when something’s wrong, and we can respond to relatively miniscule problems by having a chat and providing them with strategies to resolve the situation before it becomes large and overwhelming.”

The counselling services were provided for all employees and contractors on site (at the peak of the overhaul, 580 workers were inducted, with average daily attendance of over 200 workers). Over the course of that initial overhaul, 72 interventions – interactions with counsellors which required further support and action – occurred, including after-hours calls and repeat counselling sessions. 

Since then, the program has carried through to further overhauls, with hundreds of workers accessing Bunyarra’s services, on top of the general interactions, discussions and coaching conversations that occur in the field.  

“In all honesty,” Michael says, “it’s quite phenomenal how quickly and how actively people are engaging with the program.” 

But it’s not just in direct interactions with Bunyarra’s counsellors that the program’s impact can be felt. Michael says the program has led to Stanwell’s leaders and workers adopting Bunyarra’s N.I.C.L. ethos – Notice, Inquire, Connect and Link – in their interactions with each other. 

“If nothing else, we’ve created a conversation, and that conversation has broken down the stigma of people accessing support,” he says. “And that’s absolutely huge. It means we’re not talking about mental health behind closed doors anymore. We’re talking about it in the open, and with pride. We know it’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to get the support you need. It’s not a black mark against you, or some sort of deficiency in you as a person – it’s just another part of life that it’s okay to talk about.” 

Stanwell’s Owen Bevan agrees that the program has helped workers at Tarong power stations to open up and access the support they need. 

“A key part of the success of our Bunyarra program is that we have focused our efforts on taking away the stigma of mental health, so our people feel comfortable speaking up early with their mates and colleagues,” he says.

“We’re glad our Bunyarra program has had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of our people and contractors in the South Burnett.”