Keeping Mentally Healthy in FIFO Work is everyone’s responsibility. Heavy drinking after a long-hard day is an easy trap for many FIFO workers. Workers routinely bring (sneak) in their own alcohol. Despite ‘Camp Rules’ restricting the amount and strength of alcohol for sale. Workers have many ways to fool the daily alcohol breath test. It is vital that FIFO camps and employers support workers to develop coping and decompressing skills in order to support keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work.
Working long hours over repeated days, sometimes 28 days in a row. FIFO work by nature is highly compressed. Using massive machinery and equipment is the norm in Mining and Construction. These mechanical monsters are unforgiving if something goes wrong. Combine this with the hazardous conditions of worksites, worker fatigue, and the human desire to short-cut and disaster looms imminently at every turn. Workplace health and safety can only do so much to keep workers safe. The Human factor is always unpredictable. To keep mentally healthy workers need repeated and ongoing physical as well as mental health support and check-ins.
FIFO Working Conditions are Extreme
Working conditions for FIFO Workers are extreme. They are outdoors or underground all year round. Add the pressure to achieve deadlines and targets from management and companies their job becomes immense. Research in Western Australia has discovered that best roster for FIFO to aid psychological distress is a 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off roster. With the highest psychological distress is seen in workers with 3 or 4 weeks on, 1 week off.
Mining and Construction companies routinely utilise the 3 and 1 roster, particularly in more remote areas for workers, and this system results in the worst mental health for workers. Add to this, travel time home during the time off, and then recovery time, and workers report that they may be really only able to enjoy 3-4 days with family and loved ones. Keeping Mentally Healthy in FIFO work should be the responsibility of both the employing companies, and the workers.
Companies use this compression model because it is cheap for them. Even when they pay for travel on top of salaries, it still works out a cost effective way on paper to get the job done.
Putting financial considerations aside for a moment, let’s look at the culture of FIFO and the coping behaviours that workers develop to keep mentally healthy in FIFO work.
FIFO Camps – There are 2 clear groups:
Group “A” – Effective Coping and Decompressing
Workers arrive at the camp with a stock of their own food such as protein powder, juice, fruit, nuts, etc. They also bring personal items such as a photograph, laptop and reading material to occupy their time. Their plan is to smash the gym either morning, or evening (or both), eat the high protein, low carbohydrate options in the dining room, and develop friendships with like-minded people on the camp site.
Group “B” – Maladaptive Coping and Decompressing
Workers arrive at the camp with at least a couple of cartons of VB, and a couple of cartons of cigarettes. They too bring personal items. Their plan is to drink enough to get to sleep each night, eat the hot bacon and eggs breakfast each morning, and the protein and carbohydrate options in the dining room. They too develop friendships with like-minded people on the camp site.
BOTH groups are seeking camaraderie, community and connection within FIFO camp life. BOTH have a pattern of coping mechanisms to manage their stress and mental health.
Keeping Mentally Healthy – Positive or Maladaptive?
Group “B” long-term is clearly going to have a poorer health outcome over time. They have developed what is termed ‘maladaptive’ coping strategies. These men are seen arriving on-camp after shift, heading straight to the bar, and buying their limit. From there they may go to the dining hall, or continue drinking inside or outside their room. They often falling asleep before or after showering, or in their work clothes. This is particularly visible in camps where FIFO workers work day shift only.
Different ‘maladaptive’ coping strategies are seen in parts of the mainstream community. For example, self-harm strategies often seen in young people. These youngsters cut, bite, burn, or hit themselves.
This behaviour is not specifically meant to cause death. Rather it is a reaction to stress and an inability to cope with life circumstances. They have learned no other skills or behaviours to manage their stress, or they wish to be part of their group by fitting in.
FIFO camp culture is one of excessive drinking which can be likened to self-harm. BOTH examples are responses to a stressful of the situation. BOTH examples are culturally acceptable in the group the person belongs to. FIFO workers need to be supported in coping and decompressing to stay mentally healthy. Training in this area both initially and ongoing can help.
Research is extensive that there is actually no safe level of drinking.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation recommend no more than 10 standard drinks in a week, and 4 in any one day . Yet, FIFO workers, on return to camp regularly consume more than 10 standard drinks EVERY DAY when in camp. Alcohol is a significant cause of injury and ill health, violence, family breakdown and loss of productivity in Australia.
FIFO Workers are significantly shortening their life. Their quality of life is reduced long-term due to weight gain, high blood pressure, etc. Also, their overall health is affected poorly. Ultimately, this must be reducing their ability to perform their jobs to their maximum potential.
So what are other countries doing?
In the UK the oil rig industry has a complete ban on alcohol on the rigs. In addition, drug testing is random and routinely undertaken. Smoking is only allowed in clearly designated areas and as far away as possible from sensitive machinery. In the UK generally, it has become culturally unfashionable to be a smoker
A recent study in Canada flags that workers away from home are at their best when they have high-quality and nutritious food, comfortable living space, recreation, entertainment, fitness alternatives, camaraderie and security.
This report goes on to explore that a healthy environment needs to be created in camps and living areas to provide better conditions to increase morale and lifestyle for workers. It concludes that while there would be some additional costs to this initially, the benefits would be more than reaped in reduced turnover, improved safety and increased productivity.
How does this compare to Australian FIFO sites?
Australia is acknowledged as the FIFO capital of the world. Yet, the mental health issues, loneliness, isolation, poor food, compressed workload and toxic male culture STILL contribute to ongoing problems in FIFO camps and amongst FIFO workers. FIFO camps exist and are being built in many regions of remote and rural Australia, and yet the underlying issues are apparent everywhere. FIFO camps have an atmosphere similar to the ‘Wild West.’ Rules routinely ignored, violence, alcohol and gambling problems barely concealed but simmering just below the surface. Keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work is essential to reduce the thousands of suicides and PTSD statistics in Australia.
FIFO workers lose freedoms by the shared-close living space. Their eating hours are regulated, their entertainment options are nil or few. Rules and restrictions are always a cause of dissension. Human nature dictates that rules are needed to prevent a dystopian ‘Lord of the Flies’ community. Restrictions needed to prevent anarchy and to protect people. In fact, these rules are put in place to protect FIFO workers from themselves. Physical as well as mental safety plays a vital part in keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work.
Alcohol and the Brain
The brain needs dopamine or feel good hormone to remain mentally well. FIFO Workers routinely resort to alcohol as a quick substance to provide this good feeling. It works really well for a while. Unfortunately, over time the effects can lead to disorganized cognitive function, behaviour changes, aggression and lack of control over emotions. In fact, amongst FIFO workers, 17% of FIFO workers injured themselves or somebody else because of drinking. This is double the number of mainstream community (8.5%).
Many FIFO workers readily express concern about alcohol and drugs being used to cope with the challenges of FIFO work. This suggests that many FIFO workers are aware of the problems, but unable or afraid to change the underlying culture.
Excessive alcohol consumption over long periods reduces the brains ability to problem-solve, and to reason. Further creating a ‘rebellious’ atmosphere on FIFO camps. Further fuelling bad behaviour, poor food choices, and ‘angry man’ syndrome.
Time for a change.
FIFO Workers must accept personal responsibility for their behaviour. Standing up to bullies at camp by refusing to conform to the existing culture of drinking. Many FIFO workers have financial or personal goals to achieve so they are already trying to build a better culture and life. Mental Health Training is also proven to reduce stress and support better wellbeing. Keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work is also the responsibility of the employers.
FIFO workers who develop a plan with achievable goals are reported to have better mental health. Training around the FIFO lifestyle including partners further enhances wellbeing. Fortunately, this training is now available. Employers can utilise this training as part of induction and orientation. In addition, companies should provide ongoing reminders about keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work.
Mining and Construction companies also need to review how they structure their systems. Employing more workers or teams so that rostering can be more effectively rotated towards a 2 on, 2 off standard has to be considered. Keeping Mentally Healthy in FIFO work can be improved by standardising this practice.
In conclusion – Keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work – Australia can and should do it better
Australia can, and should, lead the way in changing the FIFO culture and truly improve outcomes for this workforce. Mental Health in FIFO training for both workers and partners should be the minimum standard that companies aim for.
In conclusion, FIFO camps are here to stay. As long as there there is a demand for raw materials, and while new infrastructure is being built. Let’s embrace this reality and seek to be world leader in this phenomenon. Australia need to do it better, it’s a challenge for mining and construction companies.
FIFO workers need to do it better, it’s a challenge for them also. Keeping mentally healthy in FIFO work is everyone’s responsibility.