The isolation and travel lockdowns as a result of COVID-19 are seeing employees who are working away from home endure longer periods separated from their families. For example, many mining companies have increased their FIFO rosters, requiring their employees to extend their time away on site. Also, there is an increase in social distancing within mining and construction employees and their interaction with local communities.
These isolation measures help to decrease the risk of the spread of the coronavirus, but they also cause employees to experience an increase in isolation and difficulties in managing relationships.
FIFO work that requires employees to be away from loved ones increases the strain on family relationships. There is substantial research that shows that this working arrangement is difficult to manage for both the employee and their family.
For this article, we look at a study into the mental health of FIFO employees working away and the impact that isolation has on managing relationships. The study highlights that isolation occurs across several levels, between the worker and their peers; between the worker and their direct supervisors and between the worker and their families.
FIFO Working Arrangements Impact Mental Health
The mining industry is one of the most physically and psychologically demanding occupations, and many employees work FIFO rosters. There is evidence to show that mining personnel experience more psychological and physical symptoms of stress in their first year of work, compared to most other industries.
The increase in stress is mainly due to long work shifts, typically 10-12 hour days across 14 consecutive days. Previously, where rosters were either 8 days onsite and 6 days off, or 14 days onsite and 7 days off, COVID-19 has seen an extension to longer rosters as the norm. A recent commentary in the media has mining bosses stating that there is an unrealistic expectation that employees who work underground, for example, can physically and mentally sustain more than 10 days straight.
Also, employees who are employed on FIFO arrangements report a higher incidence of psychological strain and family relationship issues, compared to their residential colleagues.
See our article, Psychological Distress: FIFO Workers Have Higher Levels.
COVID-19 Increases Remote Work Isolation
For employees working away on long rosters, for example, 4 weeks onsite, communication to family and friends can be problematic. It is not uncommon for accommodation camps to have poor mobile phone reception and there is competition at peak times. Interrupted and inconsistent communication can have a real impact on the relationship with families back home.
Due to reception issues in employees rooms, privacy is made more difficult and forcing employees to conduct personal phone calls in common areas. A further issue is time zone differences with employees forced to call loved ones very late at night at the completion of their shift.
Working longer rosters with limited opportunities to communicate with family increase the stress for FIFO workers. Many feel that they are unable to help in an emergency. Also, longer rosters mean that these workers often miss important family events. This places strain on the employee and their loved ones back home, and for those with children, the child is often disappointed.
It is a fairly common practice for FIFO workers to be placed in different rooms for each worked roster. This motel style of accommodation extends the issue of isolation because they are unable to create a home environment in an often somewhat bland room decor. Many would like to place some homely decorations on the walls, for example, family pictures. There is also typically minimal visual stimulation outside their rooms.
See our article, Are Family Friendly FIFO Rosters the Answer?
Pressure on Relationships
The long rosters make communication for the partner of employees on FIFO rosters more difficult both on-site and off-site. The lack of regular and quality communication with their partner’s on-site, filters into the relationship, placing a strain on the family with some leading to breakdowns in marriages. Some workers often feel like strangers in their own homes due to not being able to communicate via any medium (landline, mobile, internet, skype etc.) while working away on site.
The feeling of isolation is a real problem because of the long shifts, poor reception, roster cycle and location. FIFO workers can feel very alone, and this can extend over long periods.
COVID-19 isolation requirements are also showing a rise in anxiety and lonely feelings, moving to depressive thoughts among the general population. Social connection is encouraged to reduce feelings of loneliness, but when that is limited, such as the case of FIFO workers, there is likely to be an impact on mental health and relationships.
FIFO workers can also experience higher levels of irritability and stress because of the long daily shifts and rosters. Fatigue and tiredness can transfer to the home environment, and families need time to adjust when the FIFO worker returns after working away.
See our article, COVID-19: Reduce Your Employee’s Anxiety.
Training on Managing Relationships and Finances
The study found that there is a strong need for more training, specifically around issues of financial planning and realistic issues the workforce will face in regards to their health and well-being. Many training and education methods are ad hoc or learnt through experience whilst on the job, or discussions with colleagues. The study reported that there was a strong suggestion that the workforce needed more education and training on these key issues while employed as a FIFO worker. Further, there is a growing need for more re-integration training for workers to return to the ‘real world’ after working away, such as mental health awareness training and family-work adjustment training.
Tap into Safety helps employees working away on FIFO rosters to understand the signs and symptoms of declining mental health with dedicated online and mobile-friendly modules on the training platform.
See our article, Strategies to Improve FIFO Workers Mental Health.
FIFO work that requires employees to be away from loved ones increases the strain on family relationships and on personal mental health. The isolation and travel lockdowns as a result of COVID-19 are seeing employees who are working away from home endure longer periods separated from their families. For example, many mining companies have increased their FIFO rosters, requiring their employees to extend their time away on site. Also, there is an increase in social distancing within mining and construction employees and their interaction with local communities.
The study found that there is a strong need for more training, specifically around issues of financial planning and realistic issues the workforce will face in regards to their health and well-being. There is a growing need for more re-integration training for workers to return to the ‘real world’ after working away, such as mental health awareness training and family-work adjustment training.