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Laura Tyler, Chief of Staff and Head of Geoscience
Women in Mining WA Conference
Perth, 9 September 2016

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak at this important event.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet and their elders past and present. I also extend that respect to any other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people joining us here today.

As someone who once witnessed a group of men down tools when I walked onto the level because having a woman present was bad luck and having once been told that working underground was no job for a woman, I am a passionate advocate for the role of women in mining and the work of WIMWA to encourage women to increase their presence in the industry.

I am also pleased to have the opportunity to speak on a topic that is very important to me – being true to yourself and your mental health.

I am sure that the timing of this conversation is no accident – coming as it does the day after RUOK Day – the day when we are encouraged to reach out to those around us and ask that most simple yet most powerful of questions: “are you ok?”

And I think it underscores the importance of talking about mental health every day – not just on special occasions.

Of course mental health is important in every field, not just mining. But in an industry where female representation is significantly lower than I think any of us would like - and despite more women joining the industry every year - it can be an isolating place to work and that’s why it so important that we have these conversations and come together to offer each other support.

If I think back to not all that long ago, the idea that mental health would have featured on any mining related conference agenda was almost unimaginable.

But increasingly it is a topic of conversation around dinner tables, board tables and in mainstream media and I am delighted that the mining industry is taking it seriously and stepping up.

Of course that increased focus is in part because of the good work of organisations like RUOK and Beyond Blue. But it is also driven by the fact that one in five people globally are expected to experience a mental health illness such as depression or anxiety in any given year, and according to a recent Bureau of Statistics study, 45 per cent of Australian’s between 16 and 85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

They are staggering numbers and we cannot ignore them as an industry or as a society.

Yet, while it is becoming more acceptable to talk about the problem in a broad way, it seems that the biggest challenge for individuals in talking about their own feelings or concerns is the stigma associated with mental ill-health.

Sadly, it seems that too often a sense of shame or embarrassment prevents people from asking for help.

While most of us have no hesitation in going to the doctor when we have a sore throat or an unusual lump or bump, mental health manifests in different, less visible ways. This makes it hard to talk about and sometimes easier to ignore.

Worse – because of the stigma associated with mental ill-health, too often the easiest way to avoid anticipated discrimination or an expectation that your commitment or capability will be drawn into question, is to simply tell no one.  

However this clearly has implications for the individual concerned and their loved ones, it also has consequences for employers and workplaces, in terms of absenteeism, presenteeism, and it inevitably impacts productivity.

So it is in everyone’s interests that we break this stigma down.

At BHP Billiton this is something we are taking extremely seriously and regardless of where our people are located, the area of the organisation in which they work or the type of work they undertake, we are determined to create an environment that is safe and protective of health and wellbeing.

Our mental health framework is a company priority and a key component of the broad organisational culture we are striving to create. It is built around four key focus areas:

  • Culture – actively supporting wellbeing at all levels and reducing stigma associated with mental ill health;

  • Capacity – enhancing our ability to identifiy and respond to mental ill-health;

  • Prevention – developing skills to build resilience and positive mental health to prevent onset; and

  • Recovery – ensuring workers with mental ill-health have access to the resources they need and are actively supported in their return to work.

We believe that as an employer, we have a responsibility to make work a place where people feel safe, valued and supported. And I know we are not alone in the industry in taking positive and proactive action.

The Minerals Council of Australia has taken positive steps through their mental health blueprint and there is widespread support for initiatives like RUOK Day and Movember across the industry. This is to be applauded.

However, while these kinds of initiatives are essential to creating a supportive culture that tackles the stigma and misconceptions associated with mental health, I also believe that one of the most important ways we can all make a difference is by being true to ourselves and demonstrating authentic leadership.

By that I mean acting and behaving in a way that is true to yourself and who you are. All of the time. And creating a space that says to your teams that they too should be authentic in who they are at work.

Because I believe it is only when we are truly being ourselves that we can also truly be our best selves and be happy at work and at home. And when we as leaders are being true to ourselves, we give our teams permission to do likewise.

But while this is easy to say, it is often difficult to do!

One way we can all do that is by admitting that we are all fallible and by sharing our own personal stories of adversity. Sometimes it is also about just acknowledging that we don’t always have all of the answers.

Knowing that someone has had a similar experience or faced similar challenges can be the most powerful tool to reduce stigma that we have available to us. And knowing that we are not alone can often be the confidence booster someone needs to speak about their own troubles.

That confidence can be hard to find, especially if you are different or don’t easily feel part of the team – for whatever reason. As humans we are driven to want to be accepted by the group we are in – when we are not accepted or seen to be different it can make us uncomfortable or stressed.

I know myself how that feels. It can be one of the most alienating and challenging experiences one can ever face. It was for me when I started at work.

In preparing my remarks for today I was reflecting on my career and the experiences I have had as a woman at work. I have always worked in male orientated environments – at school I was one of 6 girls in maths. At uni I was one of 10 girls in geology. When I started work in civil engineering I was often the only woman on a site. And then in mining again I was often one of only a few women at an operation. At more senior levels, I am often the only woman in a meeting (particularly when it is production related!) and it can get tiring!

I touched on some of this in my opening remarks, but I was also thinking about the things I have done to fit in from time to time.

When I first started work I was often very uncomfortable…as a natural introvert, working with lots of people who were so different to me was very stressful – to fit in I accepted the odd cigarette and ended up a fully-fledged smoker for a number of years.  Not because I particularly liked cigarettes but because by taking it up I was able to send a message that I belonged – that I fit in on site. It was a great conversation opener.

However, it wasn’t a great decision for my long term health and it was a stressful façade to maintain. I suppose it helped with my relationships on site but it was never authentic – it was driven by anxiety and concerns which now seem crazy, but to my 20-something-self felt real.  I hated the smell, the cost and how it made me feel at the end of the week.

Many of us have changed the way we show up in order to fit in – hopefully not by starting to smoke - but changing the way we dress, the way we speak or by hiding a bit of who we are… And to what cost?

On one level, it is a natural reaction (we strive to fit in!). But on another, it’s a failure of leadership… it sends a message that the key to success is to be just like everyone else. And it is something that we can all stop right now – by simply drawing a line in the sand and committing to embrace and celebrate difference wherever we find it.

Fortunately, being a woman on a mine site is not as ‘different’ as it once was but it can still feel isolating if you are one of only few, and for others in our community these challenges remain.

For many Indigenous as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, for example, we have a long way to go to ensure that our workplaces are as inclusive as possible.

The data shows that LGBTI people have an increased risk of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, self-harming and suicidal thoughts. Compared with heterosexual people, same-sex attracted and transgender people have higher psychological distress and significant levels of anxiety.

This is something we must address, to help make our workplaces safer for LGBTI people and to celebrate the value that can be created through a diverse workforce.

It makes sense not just in terms of creating the right kind of culture – but we also know that when our workplaces are more diverse, inclusive and collaborative, they are safer and we are able achieve superior performance results. 

As an example, at BHP Billiton our Employee Perception Survey has shown us that operations where our people feel their culture is inclusive and strong, safety and productivity results are up to 15 per cent higher. 

Finally, for us as leaders, being true to ourselves also gives us the flexibility to be true to our people as well. Because when we’re not trying to maintain a façade or performance, we can be more mindful and better able to connect with and listen to all our people.

We cannot underestimate the value of connection and the importance of being able to share experiences like we are here today. It is great for our mental health!

I would encourage each and every one of you to think about how you approach work each day, whether you truly are being true to yourself and to reflect on how much more you could have to offer you teams and the people you love if you find a way to be more authentic.

Conclusion

As I thought about the closing for this short talk, I reflected on whether I still feel stress as a woman in the workplace – thirty years on from my first experiences.

I believe that I am resilient and stronger than I ever was.  I have found that being myself has made me a happier and stronger person.  But there is one place I still feel out of place…at my children’s school.

We are maybe a little different as a family…my husband is the principal contact and I have been greeted by other mothers with the catchphrase, “Oh you’re the mother” and once “we thought your husband was a widower”…again the doubt of my twenty-something self rose to the surface.  I am not fitting the criteria of the group!  But now I am stronger and more resilient and I have found other working mothers in the same boat.

So we must build our resilience, share our struggles and build cultures that allow us all to bring our best selves to all the spheres of our lives.  In that way we will be successful, pave the way for the next generation and be happy.  And that is the most important part of our role as leaders.

Thank you

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