FIFO Workers Suffer Higher Rates of Mental Health Issues: REPORT
Separation from loved ones, isolation, long shifts, disrupted sleep, lower living standards, onerous rules on and off the job and a “suck it up” culture has seen higher rates of metal health issues in FIFO workers, according to a 2013 Lifeline report.
The report states that a significant number of FIFO workers had “poor coping mechanisms such as reliance on stimulant drinks, illicit drugs and alcohol”.
However the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) said initial results from a 2014 WA Government inquiry into the mental health of FIFO workers – commissioned after nine WA miners took their own lives within one year – found no evidence of higher rates of mental health issues.
What is agreed upon is there is a stigma in the mining community associated with mental health problems with workers unlikely to seek assistance through official channels.
Perhaps most indicative of the FIFO culture is the acronym being changed to “Fit In or F#@k Off” and sold as bumper stickers in Karratha.
With families the main support network for workers, it is separation from them and longer rosters that were found by Lifeline to be the largest contributors to stress, especially among workers with partners and young children, while there is generally a lack of preparation for the realities of FIFO work.
Nicole Ashby, Managing Director of FIFO Families, an organisation that advises resource companies and assists people to prepare for life as a FIFO worker agreed family separation was the hardest and that preparation was critical.
“We offer an induction to the lifestyle and help people understand what it will be like,” she told ProChoice.
“You will miss consecutives birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and other milestones. We help people understand how they can adjust to that.” Ashby said the most important coping mechanism is communication, suggesting tactics such as emailing teachers so as to be involved in children’s education and setting up a computer in the kitchen with constant Skype streaming.
However she added that communications are often limited. “All sites have a landline but not all sites have mobile reception or Internet,” Nicole said, adding that some oil rigs have only a landline with workers allocated 10 minutes of conversation each day.
Someone who has had plenty of experience living and working in mining areas is 46 year-old site manager, Owen Bunter. Living with his family in Karratha up until late 2014, he has recently transitioned to a FIFO role while his wife and two children live in Perth.
“I miss my kids and my wife… my sense of being alone is far greater now,” Bunter told ProChoice. “We speak on a daily basis and I find out what they are up to but it’s obviously different.”
Bunter said he is lucky that he has a strong social network in Karratha as a result of his three years as a resident and that it would be much harder without that history.
“Where possible, you’ve gotta try and get out and develop friends in town… to develop perspective and context.”
“I always encourage people to join some sort of club to develop a social outlet other than their work.”
However Bunter said people’s ability to handle the challenges of FIFO life largely came down to the support companies’ offer and their hiring decision.
“Not just assessing their skills but are they going to be friendly and are they going to fit in?”
Ashby said there has been a large improvement in companies acknowledging family separation but that there is a lot more work to be done.”
“FIFO can be a great work and lifestyle choice but you need the right tools and education to make it work.”