"We're much more cognisant of taking into account the stresses that people are under. Our leadership team go out of their way to make sure we provide the support that people need to get themselves well."

About the initiatives

Caterpillar is the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives. Its Australian operation includes a manufacturing facility for mining equipment in Burnie, Tasmania, that employs around 600 people.

Caterpillar launched a mental health first aider program in 2011, which has grown from a team of 16 in the first year to about 30 people in 2013. Mental health first aiders comprise a mix of workers across the company – from forklift operators to facility managers. Each has undergone a two-day mental health training session to help them identify signs of poor mental health or stress, approach colleagues who may be struggling, and provide follow-up information and support. Staff are selected for the program based on their approachability and trustworthiness.

Mental health first aiders identify themselves at the start of the company’s daily morning meetings, reinforcing the importance of the role and reminding people that help is easily accessible.

Caterpillar has an onsite EAP officer who proactively approaches staff who are perceived to be under stress. This officer also advises team leaders about potential sources of stress on their workers, encouraging the team to be proactive about any niggling matters.

How the initiatives came about

Caterpillar’s safety record at its Burnie facility has been strong, with a low number of lost-time injuries. However, the safety team noticed that people presenting for relatively minor first aid treatments were taking a long time to rehabilitate, and that the same people presented for treatment over and over. This pattern suggested that people might be experiencing other issues that were contributing to their physical health.

Following discussions with the facility leadership team, a series of mental health training sessions were introduced to improve the physical safety of the workplace and ensure employee wellbeing.

Benefits and outcomes

Benefits and outcomes include:

  • a steady decline in the number of physical first aid treatments (from 300 in 2011 to 46 treatments year-to-date in August 2013) and applications for stress leave
  • positive feedback from employees who participated in the mental health first aid training. Participants described the impact of the initiative as ‘tenfold’. A testament to the success of the training is the long waiting list already in place for the next session
  • a much stronger sense of camaraderie at the workplace; staff look out for each other and are more mindful of themselves and their colleagues
  • first aiders have found the experience to be rewarding – given the choice, most have retained the role and anticipate volunteering in the program indefinitely
  • workers who sought the help of mental first aiders (including those close to suicide) have expressed great appreciation for the program and the support it gave them
  • employees' families have voiced their appreciation of the support through the program and EAP.

Recommendations, considerations and lessons learned

Challenge: Mental health first aiders initially underused

Action: 

  • Make employees aware of mental health first aiders in daily meetings so people are constantly reminded that support is available

Challenge: Taking time off work for mental health training

Action: 

  • Getting people to attend the two-day training sessions is easier if people realise the value of the program
  • Rather than making it a compulsory event, gain interest by ensuring there is sufficient promotion and information illustrating the value of the training 

Challenge: Staff lack resonance with mental health topic and facilitator 

Action: 

  • Find a suitable facilitator/psychologist to run the program
  • Ensure the facilitator/psychologist understands the business, the dynamics of the workforce and issues relevant to the company

Challenge: Making the mental health first aider program accessible

Action: 

  • The informal tone of the program makes it easier for workers to approach mental first aiders
  • Reinforce that it’s not a prescriptive process laden by policies or reporting – it’s more about a casual chat between friends

Challenge: Choosing suitable mental health first aiders 

Action: 

  • Choose people who are approachable and have integrity (they are trustworthy and maintain confidentiality)
  • It’s about finding the right people, rather than incentivising people

Thank you to Fay Jackson who facilitated the Mental Health First Aid training at Caterpillar Mining.

Ralph Cobban
Caterpillar Underground Mining

Ralph Cobban
Environmental Health and Safety
Caterpillar Underground Mining