Psychological Distress: FIFO Workers Have Higher Levels

Psychological distress

Workplace mental health and well-being is a topic that is regularly in the media these days. Plenty is written about fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) workers. This working arrangement is under the microscope to determine if it has a negative effect on mental health. The research investigates the levels of psychological distress in remote mining and construction workers in Australia.

Almost 30% of the sample scored as having high or very high psychological distress compared to 10% in the overall Australian population. That’s three times as high as what it would ordinarily be.

Bowers, et al., concluded that the factors that contribute to these high levels need to be addressed and the stigma surrounding mental health problems reduced. The findings highlight the importance of early intervention mental health and suicide prevention programmes for remote mining, resource and construction workers.

Who Did They Survey?

Ten mining sites across Western Australia and South Australia were surveyed between 2013-2015 using an anonymous Wellbeing and Lifestyle Survey. The mines were both open cut and underground sites and the sample of 1124 employees also included workers on remote construction sites in and around the mines.

The survey used the K10 as well as self-reported overall mental health status, work, lifestyle and family factors. The authors correlated these results with their level of psychological distress. 93.5% were male and 63% were aged 25-44 years. Nearly half the respondents were employed on 2 weeks on/1 week off roster and one-third on 4 weeks on/1 week off roster.

The Study Findings

Research has found higher instances of mental health problems among FIFO workers. Workers on high compression rosters (1-4 weeks on/1 week off) report that the shift lengths are too long and that they affect relationships with loved ones, because of prolonged periods away from home. Lower levels of work-life balance are reported more by FIFO workers than any other Australian industry group.

Large Australian studies have also found significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety among FIFO workers than in the general population. Furthermore, the risk of anxiety and stress is twice as high for younger workers as it is for older workers.

This study found that high psychological distress was significantly more likely in:

  • workers aged 25–34 years and workers,
  • workers on 2 weeks on/1 week off roster,
  • workers who were very or extremely stressed by their assigned tasks or job,
  • workers who were very or extremely stressed about their current relationship, and
  • workers who were very or extremely stressed about their financial situation.

Workers who reported stress related to the stigmatisation of mental health problems were at the greatest risk of high/very high psychological distress. High psychological distress can affect concentration, productivity and workplace safety (click here to read about the high loss of productivity due to psychological distress).

Key Stressors

  • Missing special events
  • Relationship problems with partners
  • Financial stress
  • Shift rosters
  • Social isolation

Mental health practitioners have known about the mental health stressors identified in this study as these topics have emerged through their counselling sessions with FIFO workers. Because of this,  Tap into Safety has developed specific training courses around these key stressors. The platform has animated microlearning training courses that teach coping strategies for employees working on FIFO arrangements experiencing psychological distress.

This training is an excellent resource for mining/construction/transport/maintenance businesses to provide interactive training and support within their current well-being programmes. Find out what others are saying about Tap into Safety and read the case studies of how the training platform actively increases help-seeking, breaks down stigma and improves overall well-being.

Roster Length

Workers aged under 35 years were three times as likely to report high levels of distress than older workers. Workers whose relationships were under threat and who were separated were more likely than singles to have high levels of psychological distress. The factor most strongly associated with psychological distress was the work roster.  Those on 1 week on/1 week off or 2 weeks on/1 week off swings had about twice the risk of moderate psychological distress of those who worked 4 weeks on/1 week off.

An analysis of the data of workplaces using the All of Me solution confirms the findings of this study in that shorter rosters do not result in lower psychological distress. Transitioning from working away back to home life on the week/s off came with significant difficulties with workers sometimes having dual personas (person at work being different from person at home). All the more reason to educate workers around good transitioning strategies (click here to hear an interview with ABC Radio on FIFO and mental health).

See Tap into Safety’s courses for FIFO workers Transition to Home After a FIFO Swing and Working Away and Missing Important Events.

Stigma and the Fear of Reporting

Overall, the strongest predictor of psychological distress was fear of the stigma associated with mental health problems. Workers who reported being stressed feared being labelled, treated differently or having their job at risk, were 20 times as likely to have high or very high levels of psychological distress.  40% of respondents rated stigma as a source of their stress. Other research has shown that mental health injuries can go unreported for many months due to a fear of stigma and possible job loss (click here to read about under-reporting).

Supervisors, job tasks, shift length and shift roster affected distress levels. Workers who felt very or extremely stressed by their immediate supervisors were four times as likely to experience high psychological distress. Workers reporting job or task-specific stress, those stressed over the length of their shift and those concerned about their roster swing, were twice as likely to report high levels of psychological distress.

See our courses on pyschosocial safety including, Creating a Psychosocially Safe Environment.

Partner and Financial Stress

FIFO workers who reported stress in their relationship with their partner were eight times as likely to have high psychological stress. Those who reported financial stress were six times as likely to have high levels and those concerned about the remoteness of their living circumstances were nearly four times as likely to experience high psychological distress.

Implications and Recommendations

Given that 40% of FIFO workers in this study rated stigma a key source of their psychological stress, this finding is significant and echoed in other mental health research about the deterrent to help-seeking. The research clearly highlights the importance of early interventions and suicide prevention programmes based on improving mental health literacy.

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