Exercise and start talking: tips to help improve FIFO workers’ mental health

FIFO workers are being urged to implement six simple strategies in order to stay mentally healthy.

Avoiding the wages trap, keeping the lines of communication open and staying physically fit are among the steps workers can take to improve their mental health, according to industry support group Mining Family Matters.

Founder of the organisation Alicia Ranford said World Mental health Day was an ideal time for FIFO workers and their families to focus on improving emotional resilience.

"All families feel the strain of trying to balance competing work and lifestyle priorities – throw FIFO into the mix and it can really increase the mental pressure," Ranford said.

"At Mining Family Matters, we believe strong relationships are a vital part of preventing stress, anxiety and depression." 

Simple strategies suggested by Mining Family Matters psychologist Angie Willcocks include:

  1. Be honest about how you're feeling and tackle problems as a team. Many problems that arise are symptoms of the FIFO lifestyle, rather than relationship problems.
  2. Set shared goals.
  3. Don't assume that your life is tougher than your partner's. (Life is not a competition – you're both exhausted.)
  4. Get financial advice to ensure good wages are saved and invested wisely, instead of being trapped by large debt.
  5. Exercise regularly – it will improve the health of both body and mind.
  6. Try to keep the lines of communication open when you're apart (and if you don't feel like talking, explain why in a loving way).

Numerous studies into the wellbeing of FIFO workers has found stress, anxiety, divorce, drug and alcohol use and a sense of helplessness are prevalent among the workforce.

A study last year  by Lifeline WA and Edith Cowan University psychologists, found a number of issues affecting FIFO workers’ mental health.

Workers reported suffering from high stress when working away, particularly for those with young children, disrupted sleep and fatigue from long shifts, feelings of vulnerability on site and a sense of powerlessness when away from home.

Lifeline WA chief executive Fiona Kalaf said although there was a major focus on the physical safety of workers, there was a limited focus on the emotional and mental health of employees with one in five workers claiming their industry did not have on-site mental health or counselling facilities.

In August the West Australian parliament unanimously backed an inquiry into the link between FIFO mining rosters and suicide.

The initiative has been met with relief from many in the FIFO community, who believe that it is time for an investigation of the impact working FIFO rosters can have on mental health.

The Education and Health Parliamentary Standing Committees will examine the problem with focus on "systemic issues", such as the contributing factors leading to mental illness and suicide in FIFO workers, current legislation and policy for workplace mental health in WA, and improvements to current government initiatives.

Willcocks said seeking help was important, and that people needed to take responsibility for their mental health.

 "Good mental health isn't about feeling happy every day of our lives – it’s normal to occasionally feel down or worried," she said.

"The ups and downs of life bring ups and downs in mood as well, and this is definitely true for those who work away – or for those whose partner works away."

Meanwhile a new project to assist with men’s mental health is to be rolled out across a number of urban and rural workplaces by Men@Work as part of National Mental Health Week.

The project will allow men to develop personalised mental health plans on a smartphone app, and use them to improve wellbeing.

It will be trialled among 60,000 men who work in areas such as farming, construction and emergency services.

The program will also see managers receive training to help them develop the confidence to approach a worker they are concerned about.

The project is funded by beyondblue with donations from the Movember Foundation. It is one of eight being delivered as part of the Movember Foundation’s $22.3m Australian Mental Health Initiative.

If you’re suffering from emotional distress, call Lifeline: 13 11 14