on October 19th, 2021

Mental Health Month is recognized each year in the month of October. We are taking this month to raise awareness around the mental health and well-being of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers and their families.

Commonly used in the mining and oil and gas drilling industries, FIFO jobs involve employing contractors who ‘fly in’ temporarily to a remote location where they’ll work for a set period of time before they ‘fly out’ and return home.

Two FIFO workers standing in quarry

These roles typically pay quite well and avoid employees and their families having to entirely relocate to a town near the worksite. Many FIFO job contracts also come with accommodation and daily meals. Entire donga villages have been built around the FIFO way of life, and sites may be within access to utilities, adequate healthcare services, nearby restaurants, pubs, and entertainment centers.

However, FIFO workers also face unique mental health challenges. Whether these workers are engineers, miners, or first-aid responders, remote work can be isolating, create fatigue, and impact a worker’s overall wellbeing.

We took a look at the mental health challenges faced in the FIFO industry and highlighted some peer-reviewed solutions that are already being implemented to ensure workers in industries like mining are healthy, and above all happy.

Where It Hits Home

Fly-in fly-out (FIFO) work is an integral and ever-expanding part of the mining, and oil and gas industries throughout Australia.

Although FIFO work is current across the globe, in Australia there has been a lot of studies around the industry, how it affects family, and also ways to further improve the systems in place when it comes to employee health and wellness.

Studies have highlighted higher rates of mental illness among the FIFO workforce, with one in three FIFO workers experiencing high levels of psychological distress.

What are the unique circumstances that FIFO workers face?

Individual employees in mining, oil, and gas operations are highly susceptible to fatigue. It is specifically working hours, shift work, health, and performance that has piqued the interest of those studying the mental health of these employees. 

According to the conference paper, Fatigue In Fly In Fly Out Operations, it is the initial adjustment period after traveling that can impact employees the most. Following travel to a different time zone or a change from day shift to night shift, the circadian clock changes and needs time to adjust.

During this adjustment period, employees’ alertness and decision-making ability is affected. On most sites, workers’ are expected to work 12-hour shifts, with a combination of days and nights. It can sometimes take two to three swings to adjust to your roster.  

These employees and first responders share a lot of similarities in terms of the kind of work they are faced with, coupled with the grueling shifts associated with the work that needs to be performed. 

FIFO worker standing on mine site

Support for First Responders 

More than half of first responders are estimated to feel like they do not have enough time to recover after experiencing traumatic events – and this leads to an alarming phenomenon called ‘compassion fatigue’ where first responders, as well as FIFO workers, could start showing signs of no empathy towards others, being negative, having heightened sadness and grief and showing detachment.

A recent article, First Responder Mental Health, paints an even clearer picture that up to 7% of first responders develop clinical depression and that 37% of EMS workers and firefighters consider suicide. 

FIFO nurse scrubs
Photo by MedicAlert UK on Unsplash

To combat this, the same article mentions that reducing the stigma of mental health within the FIFO environment can make a major difference.

First responders themselves need to become astutely aware of the unique mental health challenges they might face in their line of work, and this should include prioritizing senior leaders to come on board to create concerted efforts to provide support for mental health within the system.

First responders need to feel safe in their work environment, and this means they need to know they have job security even when the ailments of mental health start to come to a head in their personal lives.

To ensure this there needs to be peer support that not only provides mental health education to FIFO but their families as well. When families understand the signs and symptoms of mental health in terms of isolation, sleep disturbances, and other factors, there are clear signs of improvement because there is support at work and home. 

Sleep, Stress, and Isolation

Rest has been identified as one of the major areas where FIFO workers struggle, with 50% of participants in one study reporting mild disturbances.

The lack of rest feeds into the fact that downtime, at home or with family, is impacted because workers feel they have to use this time to recover from their work schedule. A high number (40%) of FIFO workers report that they do feel lonely or isolated when ‘on the job’. 

Thanks to a lot of research, these issues and occurrences are being addressed, and many companies offer a lot of support – but often employees need to be able to self-access as well to ensure their well-being while working on-site. 

Anxiety can be one of the first signs of mental health problems, and when addressed it can help lessen more severe mental health problems like major depressive disorder.

Anxiety Symptoms

While FIFO workers are in a specific class, general anxiety symptoms and signs are also present when taking a holistic approach to determine their wellbeing.

Three condensed signs of anxiety are as follows:

  1. Physical signs: A clear sign is panic attacks, hot and cold flashes, elevated heart rate, someone experiencing a tight chest (it feels as though they can’t breathe), sleep problems, or general edginess.
     
  2. Psychological signs: Someone talking often about fear, showing constant signs of worry, catastrophizing situations, and obsessive thinking tied to negative situations.
  3. Behavioral signs: The avoidance of situations that makes someone feel anxious. Avoiding situations can impact work, studies, and your social life and lead to imbalances.

Any of these signs are an indication of someone’s mental health being impacted or that someone is likely struggling.

FIFO worker stands next to airport window

Easier access to help for FIFO Workers

A strong internet connection can be integral to FIFO workers’ mental health. Not onlydoes it allow access to family and friends, but also therapeutic activities that can lessen the strain of remote work.

Factors linked to the well-being of fly-in, fly-out workers explores a variety of positive changes that influences general wellbeing. From a human resources perspective, it has become important to raise awareness of some of the potential challenges that are part of the FIFO lifestyle. This needs to be done from the outset through information booklets that address the potential challenges of FIFO work and the relevant support.

On-site there should be easy-to-access information about anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues problems faced by employees.

Currently, there is a push for online services for workers with dedicated websites that enable employees to assess their stress levels. This ties to a system that can provide medical and counseling assistance. It also allows for the monitoring of employee wellbeing. 

Success in Addressing the Needs FIFO Workers Face

One paper, Managing suicide risk for fly-in fly-out resource industry employees, that was part of a project to look at the mental health of FIFO workers already showed favorable research that gives guidance for employers to ensure workers can cope with the unique environment of FIFO work.

One of the major areas that showed good results was compressed roster schedules when workers are on-site for more than three weeks. When workers feel like they don’t have control over their schedules they might face increased distress.

By organizationally adjusting rosters to accommodate workers’ needs after some time could assist not only the management of occupational stress but reduce extreme scenarios like suicide. The onus is placed on companies to provide resources and also flexibility for workers. 

Removing the barriers of mental health, and also providing reassurance that when speaking up on potential mental unwellness is also showed to improve workers’ relationships not only with their employers but also within their families – that helps reduce general stress.

Effective induction before working is also important to give workers realistic scenarios in which they will work. This will allow workers to know their expectations, but also what support they will have in their specific work environment.

Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

It’s Not Just the Workers

For many FIFO workers, they leave behind their family when working on-site. They, too, can experience mental health issues that often go unnoticed.

In 2018, the Impact of FIFO work arrangements on the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO workers delved into the mental health issues faced by FIFO partners. The research displayed how FIFO partners and children suffered as a result of FIFO work patterns.

One-third of FIFO partners showed high or very high levels of psychological distress, more than double the average percentage of women. This is equal to the mental health impact experienced by FIFO workers themselves. FIFO partners with children admitted that being a ‘de facto single parent’ caused them to feel lonely and overloaded. The separation could often feel sad, difficult, and emotional without their partner there for support.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened this already worrying situation. Border closures as a result of the pandemic have seen prolonged periods of separation between FIFO workers and their families, with many not being reunited for months at a time.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

There are many resources to which you can refer for information about mental illness. Helplines, websites, and government mental health information services provide a range of services. Find out more information.

FIFO Focus is an Australian-based organization that is dedicated to minimizing mental health and well-being risks associated with FIFO employment. Their aim is to minimize mental health harm to FIFO workers, support their families and improve outcomes for FIFO employers.

References:

Swensen, Kira & Keady, Timothy & Voss, Maren Wright. (2021). Importance of Investing in First Responder Mental Health Communities spend thousands of dollars on first responders to protect them physically: body armor for law enforcement officers, heat resistant gear for firefighters, gloves, and reflective clothing for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel.

Beyond Blue, 2021. Anxiety Signs and Symptoms. [online] Available at: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety/signs-and-symptoms

Sr, M.A. & Harris, Jill & Everingham, Jo-Anne & Kirsch, Philipp & Arend, S. & Shi, Shirley & Kim, J.. (2014). Factors linked to the well-being of fly-in, fly-out workers. 40-43. Milne, Philippa. (2015). Resource curse or cure? On the sustainability of development in Western Australia. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management. 22. 10.1080/14486563.2014.998599.

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