‘Harden up’ culture affecting mental health of FIFO workers

A study into the wellbeing of FIFO workers has found stress, anxiety, drug and alcohol use and a sense of helplessness are high among the workforce, prompting calls for companies to spend more on mental health.

A study 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, prompting calls for companies to spend more on protecting mental health.

The research 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.

The anonymous online survey of 924 fly-in, fly-out and drive-in, drive-out workers showed a higher prevalence of psychological distress among FIFO workers, compared with the general population.

The report’s author said companies employing FIFO workers need to address the "suck it up, princess" culture and develop services to address workers' mental health needs.

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.

But research also showed where help was on-hand, workers were reluctant to ask for help.

"Stigma is the main barrier to help-seeking, with the principal reason workers do not reach out for assistance being the fear of appearing to be 'soft', weak or unable to cope," she said.

The report also said workers felt vulnerable to intense scrutiny and intimidation by management and the threat of job loss.

They said they had no control after working hours and were not free to move around or have meals at times of their choosing.

"Workers did report a sense of powerlessness about their ability to exercise control over their lives in the tightly regimented confines of the FIFO working environment," the report said.

The report said workers also felt trapped because they were financially committed with their current income and could not quit.

The report recommended targeted support for FIFO workers including pre-FIFO training to show new employees what to expect and post-employment support to help for mental health problems.

However the report’s author also stated ‘in general, all workers reported that they get along very well with the people around them at work and at home’.

“They engage in effective coping behaviours more-so than non-effective ones,” she said.

“This suggests many FIFO workers have within themselves resilience and capabilites to manage the impact of their work arrangements on their mental health and wellbeing.”

The Australian Institute of Management WA will use the findings to develop, with Lifeline WA, programs to help managers and workers improve FIFO and drive-in, drive-out well-being.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said FIFO work was an established work practice for tens of thousands of people in the resources industry.

He said companies had introduced many programs including buddy systems, free counselling and in-room internet so employees could communicate with their family., The West Australian reported.

Earlier this year Australian Mining spoke to Psychologist Cameron Brown who said responsible rostering and managing workers’ expectations is essential in combating mental health issues.

Work rosters and shifts can cause depression and anxiety in miners, Brown stated.

“Work rosters don’t have a good affect on mental illness, and poor mental health does have a flow on affect to substance abuse,” Brown said.

He also said many workers entering the industry had unrealistic expectations about working conditions, pay rates and lifestyle.

“A lot of people come in and say: ‘All I’m going to need to do is drive a truck for 2 or 3 weeks and then I get a week off, how hard can it be?’ They don’t realise the effect long shifts have on their bodies, and living in remote and rural communities where they may not have regular access to other people,” Brown explained.

He said there needs to be more pre-filtering done by mining companies.

“The expectations can definitely be changed by a little pre-education,” he said.

 Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health CEO Jennifer Bowers told Australian Mining that “psychological problems can lead to safety risks and accidents”.

“Psychological health is just as important as physical health,” she said.

“We’re not saying it’s terrible and everyone’s suffering, we’re saying there are ways of supporting people and we should be organised.”

Being organised and prepared is one way miners can help manage mental wellbeing.

“We write induction books so employees are well prepared, so you’re well prepared about what to expect onsite, to understand for the climate, the environment, how to plan for R&R, communicate with your family and plan your finances,” Bowers stated.

“If they are organised and they know what to expect their levels of stress and anxiety in a new and strange and remote environment is decreased quicker, they are well prepared.”