The Fly-in, Fly-out mentality

The approach towards maintaining mental health for FIFO workers has come a long way in recent years, with more attention from the research being conducted to study the effects of extended camp life on the worker. But how long should a worker be away from their family? Australian Mining talks to three professionals who deal with these issues at the coalface, to get their take on the mental safety aspect of FIFO.

In 2013 Lifeline WA released a report on the mental health of workers in the fly-in, fly-out and drive-in, drive out industries.

One of the key findings from the interviews conducted during the course of that study was that most FIFO workers had minimal knowledge of the realities they would face once they started living the lifestyle of FIFO transit.

Of course, anyone can know what to expect, the fatigue, the isolation from friends, family and recreation, but how can people psychologically prepare for a lifestyle they’ve never experienced?

Tracey Munn is a FIFO wife, a mother, a counsellor and a psychologist.

She and her FIFO husband have been in a relationship for 30 years, a true success story of the benefits of the mining lifestyle, but at her clinic on the Gold Coast she sees the downside all too regularly.

Around 60 per cent of her clients are FIFO-related issues, requiring individual or relationship counselling.

“In general I’m either counselling miners who are away during the week, who need someone to talk to, and they’re severely depressed, or the partners themselves, who in many ways just aren’t coping at home,” she said.

“In the case of the workers I treat, their mental health issues aren’t usually particularly FIFO-related, but it’s just what happens, the problems get bigger as a result of being a FIFO worker.

“It’s a very neglected issue: Although there are counselling services around, there’s not so much in the way of crisis intervention.”

Tracey said part of the problem can lie with the way new FIFO workers react to the unfamiliar stresses of being away from their loved ones.

“A lot of men can’t cope with the emotional separation from their partner, so what they do is when they get to camp they switch off… They don’t return texts, they don’t communicate with their partner, they say “I don’t want to hear about what’s going on at home because I’m away, I’m working, and I’ve got enough stress as it is so don’t bother me with the problems at home.”

The duration of time away can be a major factor in the mental health of workers and their families, Tracey said, especially when it comes to relationship issues.

“I never hear from people who are two weeks on, one week off… it’s predominantly from people on four and one,” she said.

“In my professional opinion it shouldn’t go longer than three weeks, because the fourth seems to just tip situations over the edge.

“Whenever I hear from a partner at home, they always say they want to make a booking [for relationship counselling] because their husband will be home next week.”

Thinking of the Children

However, as Tracey points out, the FIFO lifestyle can be especially stressful for young families, due to the way children react to a parent being absent for extended periods.

Deanne Hislop ran into a problem with her young children two years ago when her husband started working away, and she began working on a solution that is now being used by families in over 12,000 homes in Australia, helping children to understand what FIFO is all about.

Her company, My FIFO Family, creates resources to help parents educate their children about the reasons why mum or dad has to go away.

“When my husband was at home, he would go out to the shops and my two year-old boy wouldn’t know if Dad was coming back,” she said.

“He couldn’t count, he didn’t know what 15 sleeps was, so he needed a visual aid to keep track of that.

“My little girl would come up with all sorts of things, she’d ask ‘What does Dad’s other family look like’, really heartbreaking things.”

Inspired by the need to help her children understand, she developed a range of educational products such as children’s books, activity packs and calendars that kids can use to keep track of working rosters.

“I also used to run a family centre in a remote mining town, so I’d been around this a lot and I understand the parents’ point of view, and the stress it can place on a family when the child isn’t well adapted to the situation,” Hislop said.

“We have a children’s book called My Boomerang Dad, and we also have bracelets for the older kids to wear at school, it’s a way of normalising it… this is a massive industry because there are so many kids whose parents work away.

When it comes to picking an ideal roster, Hislop values a lot of time spent at home.

“Two weeks on, two weeks off is the ultimate roster, but it’s really about work/life balance, it needs to be enough time to get enough work done at home,” she said.

“The longer the swing, the more pressure it puts on family.”

Managing the camps

Anthony Ward is an experienced camp manager and site counsellor, having managed 18 different camps for contractors such as Sodexho and ESS, and knows all too well that the issues of mental health in remote camps are related to several factors, including preparation for new FIFO workers, maintaining communication with family, and length of time away versus time spent at home.

His business, FIFO Counselling, specialises in providing onsite, phone and internet counselling support for FIFO workers.

“There are two different rostering situations: normally it’s two and one or three and one for production, and construction is normally four and one… There’s most definitely a greater impact on people who are away for four weeks instead of three,” Ward said.

“With two and one rosters I think that enough time to go away, work, come back and reconnect with family… two and one would be best for production, while a three and one roster would be best suited for construction.”

Staying connected with family through phone and electronic media is the most important part of maintaining one’s own mental health according to Ward, who has been organising a new series of workshops aimed at new FIFO workers and their families.

The workshops were designed to help people learn simple coping strategies and tools to prepare mentally, socially and professionally for the FIFO lifestyle.

“It’s about teaching people the sorts of things they will need to know to cope with FIFO lifestyle, such as how to use Skype or other mediums, some people don’t know how to use them, there are practical things to know like getting the correct internet dongle for 4G network,” he said.

“Sometimes new workers will withdraw from contact with their home life, so the key is making sure people prepare to stay connected with their family and community.

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