Sketches of Work Design by Lynne Chapman
Our new research report to help improve the mental health and well-being of FIFO workers has found a third, 33 per cent, experience high levels of psychological distress compared to only 17 per cent of non-FIFO workers.
The research report, Impact of FIFO work arrangements on the mental health and well-being of FIFO workers, was funded by the Mental Health Commission and is one of the most comprehensive FIFO research studies undertaken in Australia. The research involved:
a review of 59 existing studies of FIFO work.
surveys of more than 4000 current and past FIFO workers, and FIFO partners
in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of FIFO workers and their partners
a study of 200 FIFO workers that tracked their experiences five times across a swing
Three things are clear from this research.
First, FIFO workers are a group at risk for mental ill health. Compared to a specially designed benchmark group, and, in some cases, Australian norms, FIFO workers in the study experience:
greater psychological distress
higher scores on some measures of thoughts about suicide
greater incidence of burnout
poorer psychological well-being
lower sleep quality
and higher levels of risky drinking & other drug use
In part, the greater mental health risk of FIFO workers stems from their demographic profile, being mostly young-to-middle aged men in lower education, who are a more vulnerable group.
However, even taking account of these demographic risk factors, FIFO workers experience significantly poorer mental health: this is a very clear and consistent finding.
The second conclusion of our research is that many factors shape the mental health of FIFO workers. Although one third suffer high/very high distress, about one third of the sample have reasonably low levels of distress, which means we can ask who is more likely to be distressed, or what factors make a difference to FIFO workers mental health.
Some factors are about the FIFO workers themselves, such as their coping style
Some factors are related to the workers’ family situations, such as the quality of one’s relationships
Most crucially there are work site, team, and organisational factors that affect the mental health of FIFO workers – many of which can be changed. Example predictors of poor health and well-being include:
Having rosters with very long times on site
Being on permanent nights
having unsupportive supervisors
exposure to bullying
perceived job insecurity
a culture with negative attitudes about mental health
This brings me to the third clear finding from this research and that is – much can be done. We have made 18 detailed recommendations.
Some recommendations aim to help FIFO workers and their families who are already suffering – we need to make sure those experiencing high distress are not stigmatised, and are properly supported.
We need to prevent the emergence of mental ill-health amongst FIFO workers, and that means addressing some of those factors I mentioned earlier, such as rosters and culture, and even simple things like having access to a landline to be able to call home.
Finally we recommend strategies to not just prevent mental ill health but to promote positive well-being at work. For example, as a quick win, the research shows that those FIFO workers who socialize with others on site, even something as simple as a bbq, do better psychologically.
Acting on these recommendations matters. Action is important from a compliance perspective – enacting OSH laws. Action is also key from a business perspective. For example, analyses of the resources sector show that investment in mental health interventions pay back more than five fold. But most importantly, acting on these recommendations is important because FIFO workers are part of our West Australian community – they are our brothers, sisters, fathers, children, friends - so we need to ensure FIFO worker are well and that their work does not cause harm.
Our research team hopes that the input of the many FIFO workers and partners into this research is honoured through evidence-based action.
Our upcoming event: FIFO workers' mental health and wellbeing - What can we do?
Sharon Parker's statement at press release