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Long hours, physical work and isolation: FIFO workers are at increased risk of mental ill health

Recognising that FIFO workers and their partners are an ‘at-risk group’ for mental ill health, in April 2019, the federal government released Australia’s first fly-in fly-out (FIFO) code of practice, ‘Mentally healthy workplaces for fly-in fly-out workers in the resources and construction sectors’, to address hazards and risk factors in FIFO workplaces.

What is the extent of the issue?

The basis of the new guidelines was the extensive research into FIFO work practices in Western Australia (WA) and their impact on employees and their families conducted by the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University, in collaboration with the Centre for Transformative Work Design, the Mental Health Commission of WA and the University of WA.

While some reported positives like feelings of camaraderie with their colleagues, an overwhelming number reported experiencing ‘high’ or ‘very high’ psychological distress (33%) in comparison to non-FIFO employees (17%) and average Australians (10%), as a result of many factors relating to their working environment including loneliness, bullying, lack of job security and perceived lack of autonomy. They were also more likely to drink alcohol excessively, use drugs and engage in other negative coping strategies.

On average, FIFO workers report higher levels of psychological distress, have more frequent suicidal thoughts and are more likely to experience burnout

This not only creates a risk to employee health and wellbeing, it also has a serious impact on business continuity. It is estimated that FIFO work provides more than 60,000 jobs in WA alone, with more than 240,000 people (9.3% of WA’s population) directly affected by FIFO work. Mental illness is now the leading cause of both sickness absence and incapacity benefits in most high-income countries.

Dr Laura Fruhen, Lecturer at the University of Western Australia and one of the lead authors of the report said, “Finding out more about the extent of the issue was always a key outcome of the project. Importantly, our study also identified factors that can protect and potentially threaten FIFO worker mental health. These insights recognise that FIFO work can be designed well and can guide change around this type of work.”

The internet is awash with posts relating to anecdotal evidence and documented experiences of FIFO workers. Dan Hunt from the Mental Health Workplace Blueprint cites several examples including, lack of time to exercise and socialise, reduced contact with family, and working in 60-degree conditions often underground, which he states are all “contributing factors to poor mental health.” He refers to his mining colleagues as ‘FIFO soldiers’, risking serious physical and emotional danger for extended periods of time onsite.

There are also tragic cases like that of 25-year-old FIFO worker, Rhys Connor, who committed suicide at a mining camp in 2014 after suffering from a period of depression. According to a parliamentary discussion paper, Conner intentionally avoided seeking help from onsite services due to fear of being labelled ‘unfit for work’. The stigma associated with mental illness, as well as pressure on site managers to meet certain targets, creates an environment where, even when support is offered, employees feel unable to make use of it , anxious they may be ‘given a window seat’, a euphemism in the industry for employment termination.

With suicide occurring at a rate three times greater for men than women, and because the overwhelming majority of workers in the mining industry are male, the female perspective is frequently overlooked. Although some report that times are changing: “now you are almost just considered to be ‘one of the guys’, rather than ‘just a female’”, others describe ‘horrendous’ conditions, where sexual harassment and discrimination are prevalent.

This article also raises the question of why workers continue to work in such conditions. According to reports, like many FIFO employees, Rhys Conner continued working FIFO to cover financial debts, a well-documented phenomenon known as the ‘golden handcuffs’. Families become overstretched financially and workers are forced to continue FIFO employment to maintain their lifestyle, “regardless of their stress and dissatisfaction with it”, unable to return to non-FIFO income levels.

What does the code of practice mean for employers?

The Government’s new Code of Practice advises FIFO employers to implement various practices including creating a supportive culture through education of leaders and employees, undertaking a comprehensive risk assessment to identify all foreseeable psychosocial hazards and designing jobs that support the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce, for example, by allowing more autonomy and task variety.

However, there is concern that because the Code of Practice in its current form is only a list of recommendations, rather than mandated legislation, they will not do enough to protect workers.

What practical steps can employers take to safeguard their workforce?

CEO of national campaign group, R U OK?, urges business leaders to do more to foster workplace cultures that encourage peer-to-peer conversations about wellbeing, “championing it in a genuine, authentic way”. There is no need to wait for Government legislation.

Others believe that while campaigns like R U OK? increase awareness of the importance mental health, asking a person in an anxious, traumatised or depressed state to discuss their problems can be overwhelming and even harmful, that education of individuals on how to ‘self-regulate’, proactively taking steps to create an internal sense of balance until the time is right to seek help, is more effective.

Based on the research by the Future of Work Institute, practical recommendations for companies to consider to ‘mitigate illness’, ‘prevent harm’ and ‘promote thriving’ include:

  • Developing a culture that prioritises mental health where leaders demonstrate genuine commitment to improving the mental health of their workforce
  • Reducing stigma through education and sharing of experiences from a diverse range of people (including leaders) who have experienced and overcome mental health challenges
  • Providing support services to FIFO workers and ensuring details are accessible through several mediums and also to family members
  • Preparing new FIFO workers and their families for FIFO work and providing information on the benefits and challenges of a FIFO role and lifestyle prior to employment so they can make informed choices
  • Providing reliable communication options and fostering connections with home through infrastructure and flexible work arrangements, as well as other initiatives like support groups, family days onsite and connections to other FIFO families
  • Implementing rosters and shift structures that optimise mental health and wellbeing by providing adequate time off for sleep and exercise, as well as providing permanent rooms at accommodation sites that employees can ‘make their own’, and monitoring the impact of these measures
  • Reviewing camp rules and regulations, and assessing the impact on mental health; providing a greater level of autonomy for FIFO workers during time off onsite to encourage trust and responsibility
  • Reducing the perceived threat to job security and increasing financial literacy to reduce dependence on FIFO work, supporting employees in finding alternative employment at the end of mining projects
  • Identifying and implementing strategies and interventions to enable FIFO workers to thrive to increase employee wellbeing; like any employees in any environment, this will also improve engagement, organisational innovation and productivity.

Rio Tinto has already implemented many of these steps, implementing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP, developing peer support initiatives and providing mental health training to leaders of all levels, to help employees to build their resilience and reduce perceived stigma in reporting any issues.

BHP works with mental health charity Beyond Blue to develop company-wide communications and has implemented an Employee Perception Survey which includes a number of leading indicators on mental wellness to assess progress; in the last reported survey, employees accessing their EAP was 47% higher than other iron ore companies serviced by the same EAP provider.

Zain Wadee Executive General Manager – Operations at Harrier believes that the responsibility for employee mental health cannot be underestimated. He said, “It is essential that employers recognise that looking after the mental health of their workforce is just as important as looking after their physical health. Creating an authentic workplace culture that encourages positive mental health and making sure that employees have access to support when they need it is as critical as providing protective clothing onsite.”

Focusing on mental health is not only good for workers and their families, but also for productivity and business outcomes. If you’d like to learn more about how you support the wellbeing of your workforce, please get in touch.

Focusing on mental health is not only good for workers and their families, but also for productivity and business outcomes. Creating an authentic workplace culture that encourages positive mental health and making sure that employees have access to support when they need it is as critical as providing protective clothing onsite.