There has been years of research about FIFO rosters and the stress they place on families and relationships. In Australia we’ve had formal inquiries both in Western Australia and Queensland. Several recommendations have been made to improve conditions and support FIFO workers and their families. Late last year research was published and conducted by Peta Miller et al (2018) that investigated the suicide risk and social support for Australian resource sector workers on FIFO rosters. In this post we begin with presenting their key findings and recommendations and you can download the full paper here. In addition, this week the Western Australian (WA) State Government released the long awaited Code of Practice – mentally healthy workplaces for fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers in the resources and construction sectors. We’ve reviewed the Code of Practice recommendations and propose the steps to be taken to move forward and make changes.
A lack of social support leads to an increase in suicidal thoughts
Research over two decades indicates that workers in the Australian resource industry (mining, construction and services to mining) experience higher levels of psychosocial distress. Workers are more likely to be stressed, anxious, depressed, indulge in illicit substances, have higher alcohol consumption levels and are more prone to suicidal thoughts. There are several factors why this group has poorer mental health than other workers, these include
- predominantly male workforce
- heightened bullying
- machismo and stigmatization against mental illness
- regular absence from partners and extended family
- limited access to onsite health services
- lack of social support.
Family support is a cornerstone to social support that contributes to reducing psychosocial distress. Reports suggest that FIFO workers may experience difficulties in developing and sustaining social relationships. Feelings of hopelessness can surface when social support is missing and these can develop into suicidal thoughts.
The study measured the level of hopelessness in 150 FIFO workers in the Australian resources sector. The average age of the respondents was 35 years, and two thirds were male. The social resources of the participants fell into four distinct regions, that were conceptualised as ‘affection’, ‘companionship’, ‘confiding’ and ‘practical help’. All of these components of social support were associated with hopelessness.
The lower levels of social support and greater sense of perceived hopelessness tended to lead to Australian resource workers seeking assistance from mental health professionals.
Almost 25% had sought assistance in the previous year and their results indicated an elevated suicide risk.
Creating mentally healthy workplaces for FIFO workers
The WA State Government have been developing the Code of Practice for FIFO workers mental health to support the development and maintenance of mentally healthy workplaces. The Code of Practice is underpinned by risk management processes that are widely used in other areas of business. The aim is to identify psychosocial hazards and risk factors and provide support measures to help protect FIFO workers’ mental health and wellbeing.
The Code of Practice defines a mentally healthy workplace as one that prevents or mitigates harm by
- promoting positive practices at work that support mental health and wellbeing
- identifying then eliminating or minimising work related psychosocial hazards by managing their associated risks
- intervening early to support effective coping strategies when individuals or groups of workers are showing signs of distress
- facilitating access to appropriate services and health management options such as recovery at work or return-to-work support.
A commitment from leaders
The Code of Practice places a strong focus on leadership and workplace culture and suggests that leaders (managers and supervisors) in the organisation should demonstrate a commitment to supporting worker mental health. Training in knowledge, skills and how best to support employees is recommended to develop a mentally healthy workplace culture. Training that relates to intervention and rehabilitation is important (e.g. mental health awareness and suicide prevention) and should target preventative strategies to eliminate or reduce harm from psychosocial risks.
The role of risk management
The Code of Practice uses the risk management process to identify psychosocial hazards and risk factors and assesses according to:
- Work design factors such as job autonomy, task variety, skill utilisation, job significance, task identity and job feedback.
- Work and travel arrangements with rosters that allow sufficient time for rest, recovery and recreation to disengage from the work environment and the opportunity to socialise. Even-time and shorter rosters (e.g. one week on, one week off; eight days on, six days off) are recommended to improve better mental health and wellbeing.
- Accommodation villages should be designed to encourage socialisation, while also considering requirements for peace, privacy and safety. To minimise sleep disturbance, as far as practicable, sleeping quarters should be located away from communal areas, with comfortable beds, soundproofing, air conditioning and blackout curtains.
- Access to reliable communications infrastructure where workers can contact family and friends during the working day.
The Code of Practice suggests controlling psychosocial risk factors using the hierarchy of controls, just as an organisation would do when controlling safety hazards and risks.
In the Code of Practice, table 6.1 provides a helpful list of strategies and control measures that organisations could use; we’ve listed some of them below.
- Educating leaders on intervention strategies and how they can be implemented
- Promoting a workplace culture that is inclusive, destigmatises mental ill-health and encourages help-seeking behaviour
- Educating the workforce on identifying the early signs of distress and what to do
- Educating workers on healthy coping strategies and the provision of supporting resources
- Access to confidential counselling (e.g Employee Assistance Programs)
Monitor and review
Monitoring for psychosocial hazards and risk factors is important as results can be used to trigger corrective measures, including early intervention, if necessary.
Organisations need to analyse data from a number of different sources including, but not limited to, hazard, incident and investigation reports, complaints, surveys, consultations, alcohol and drug test results.
Missing from the data source list, but noted as recommended actions, in the Code of Practice is education and training. Through conducting education and training that generates real-time results you can gauge staff, or groups of staff, in early mental health decline. It’s also a way for organisation to offer a confidential support service to promote help-seeking.
Where to from here?
With one third of FIFO workers reporting high levels of psychological distress, the introduction of the Code of Practice is a step in the right direction by the Government.
Implementing mental health education and training that generates real time results, provides help seeking support, and is confidential and easily accessible is the right step forward for organisations.
Tap Into Safety have Mental Health training modules that include two specific FIFO focused topics of ‘Away at key times’ and ‘Transition to home’ that can easily integrate with organisations existing safety training or wellbeing programmes.
Animated scenarios reinforce positive coping strategies
Each module presents the user with customised animated stories of typical workplace issues. These issues can impact on the mental health of the individual and those around them. Helpful coping strategies are taught to users to address emerging issues, before they escalate.
Measure early indicators of stress, anxiety and depression
The animated stories are coupled with a personal and anonymous questionnaire to assess stress, anxiety and depression levels. A link to your Employee Assistance Programme and third-party support providers is available to the user to seek help.
Insights into your organisation’s mental health
The reporting platform tracks stress, anxiety and depression levels across an organisation and provides de-identified data that isn’t tied to an individual. Analytics draw comparisons between inter-organisational groups and compares results to the general population. Organisations can identify and address early leading indicators of rising mental health decline, before they affect performance.