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Focus on Mental Health: 1 in 4 FIFO Workers are Affected by Psychological Distress

The Effects of FIFO on Mental Health - Western Australia - Mental Health Code

Mental health is a topic that is continuously brought up in workplaces and has started conversations around how workers try to manage their work-life balance.

A variety of workplaces have adopted a range of different programs, processes and ways to engage their employees to check in and as ‘are you okay’?

It starts with a decision to change behaviour and attitudes towards talking about mental health and highlighting how important it is to acknowledge not just the physical but also the psychological side of employee wellness.

Many organisations across multiple industries have taken action to address this, yet one industry, in particular, is seen to be a vocal advocate for adequate mental health management practices. The mining and mining services industry is one of the most demanding industries when you observe the environmental working conditions and the roster work schedules.

In Australia, the Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) culture is very much present, especially in Western Australia where large communities are either situated in rural areas where mining towns serve as their new home, or workers are based in central cities such as Perth and make the regular commute into the Northern regions.

These regular rostered commutes into ‘mining territory’ where temperatures can reach 40 degrees and above in summer, where employees go to work and are away from their families as a consequence, and where a normal day is 12 hours long. You puts together all these puzzle pieces and begin to think, what kind of effect all these, and more, factors have on someone’s mental state.

You also start to think whether there is enough being done to address this, not only from an organisational level but also a state and federal government level. For example, the Mental Health Code has been in development to assist with this.

Australia’s first Mental Health Code of Practice

WA’s Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston launched Australia’s first mental health Code of practice to help promote and maintain mentally healthy workplaces for FIFO workers in the mining, resources and construction sectors specifically. The Code focuses on the management of hazards and risks as they apply to FIFO workers.

Developed following extensive public consultation, the Mentally healthy workplaces for fly-in fly-out workers in the resources and construction sectors Code aims to address hazards and risk factors in FIFO workplaces.

Minister Johnston said “The Code identifies a number of potential hazards and risk factors, such as work demands and low levels of control, and it promotes strategies to deal with these issues.

“A positive, mentally healthy workplace not only benefits employees but also enhances an organisation’s reputation for supporting and respecting its workforce.”

Parts of the Code encourage organisations to adopt a risk management process to:

  • Identify potential psychosocial hazards
  • Establish a positive and supportive workplace culture
  • Provide suitable accommodation and rosters with sufficient time for rest and recreation

The Code was created following recommendations from a Legislative Assembly Committee report on the impact of FIFO practices on workers’ mental health. Government-funded research, released by the Minister for Mental Health in 2018, found

FIFO workers experience higher levels of psychological distress than non-FIFO workers

The Code of practice provides guidance on creating and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace through:

  • Providing an environment that promotes good health and wellbeing
  • The application of a risk management process to avoid or minimise the harm from psychosocial hazards and risk factors and develop a mentally healthy workplace
  • Developing response strategies (intervention) for workers when there are concerns regarding work-related stress or exposure to psychosocial hazards and risk factors
  • Providing an environment that supports recovery

It applies to workplaces in Western Australia that utilise FIFO work arrangements. This includes resources operations (minerals and petroleum sectors) that are engaged in activities such as exploration, construction, mining or processing, or support such activities (e.g. drilling contractors, facilities management); and construction work not related to resources operations.

Leading by example

Organisations adopting elements of this Code, such as BHP Billiton, has seen a positive effect. Mining recruitment specialists say BHP’s recent announcement that it will begin offering a drive-in-drive-out (DIDO) option for workers on its Pilbara mines was the latest example of companies thinking outside the square to ensure they remained attractive employers.

Belinda Honey, of West Perth-based human resources firm Livingstones & SHR Group, said companies were continually looking at the best ways to attract workers. “They’re moving away from regimented-style rosters to more personalised offerings that afford workers a better work/life balance,” she said.

The increase in flexible work arrangements, swings and rosters come as the WA mining industry begins to experience a shortage of skilled workers that is set to worsen as several big iron ore construction projects in the Pilbara ramp up. The problem is being exacerbated by large-scale infrastructure developments on the East Coast, which have sucked up the national pool of available talent, as well as fewer young people entering mining-related trades and professions and a tightening of the skilled migration regime.

Jim Huemmer, of roster optimisation firm Shiftwork Solutions, said mining employers were moving away from the traditional “two weeks on, one week off” roster to equal-time options such as 14 days on, 14 days off or seven on, seven off, or shorter. “Some workers are happy to work longer and earn more money while others are prepared to earn less to have more time at home with their families,” he said. “While operationally challenging, some employers are having to offer a number of options.”

Psychological side effects

More than 28% (1 in 4) of FIFO workers are experiencing high to very high psychological distress

according to newly published research by Rural & Remote Mental Health in conjunction with Edith Cowan University and Orygen (The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health).

The research found that the prevalence of high levels of psychological distress was more than two and half times greater among FIFO workers than the Australian population with workers aged 25 – 34 and those on a 2/1 roster most at risk.

Some of the other key research findings included high levels of stress among workers associated with missing out on special events (e.g. family birthdays), daily work tasks, shift rosters, and social isolation.

This research published in the Medical Journal of Australia is one of the most comprehensive studies undertaken into the prevalence and contributing factors of psychological distress among FIFO workers.

The research was undertaken by the Rural & Remote Mental Health through an anonymous Wellbeing and Lifestyle Survey of 1,124 workers in 10 remote mining and construction sites in South Australia and Western Australia. The research is also one of the few studies that has surveyed workers on-site in underground mines, open-cut mines, and construction sites. Rural & Remote Mental Health CEO Dr Jennifer Bowers said the stigma related to mental health remained a major issue for mining workers.

“Our research found that workers who felt there was a stigma attached to mental health problems on site were the workers at greatest risk of high psychological distress,” said Dr Bowers.

“We also found that work expectations, relationship, and financial pressures were all key contributing factors to high levels of psychological distress. This FIFO mental health challenge requires prevention programs along with early interventions and an industry-wide response, but on the positive side, we’re starting to see the major mining contractors and companies renewing their efforts in delivering comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention programs and support for workers.

Many of the issues are now well understood but it’s the targeted investment that now needs to follow from mining and resource companies to tackle the growing and often complex mental health challenges facing workers.

Cultural change is required within the mining sector and a commitment from management to mental health education, identification of champions and peer group support being vital to reducing the stigma associated with mental health.”

In response, Rural & Remote Mental Health is starting to see greater demand for its Resource Minds program which is specifically designed to help tackle the stigma of mental health, anxiety, depression, suicide prevention, relationships, and financial stress.

“Byrnecut Australia can confidently say we introduced a mental health program before it became commonplace and were pleased that we contributed to this valuable research” said Byrnecut’s SEQT Manager Peter Hallman.

“With assistance from RRMH, we will continue to educate our workforce as we have seen a reduction of stigma associated with mental health issues but there is still more work to be done. We intend continuing our relationship with RRMH and have plans to expand the program to new and existing Byrnecut sites” he said.

Role of risk management processes 

As previously covered, the Mentally healthy workplaces for fly-in fly-out workers in the resources and construction sectors Code aims of practice provides guidance on creating and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace through multiple avenues. One of them is the application of a risk management process to avoid or minimise the harm from psychosocial hazards and risk factors and develop a mentally healthy workplace.

There are multiple options you can consider to document and manage your workplace observations; this is where a risk management platform becomes very useful (and no, Excel spreadsheets don’t count).

Software, in particular, is serving as an advanced tool and is now being tailored made and therefore will enable you to assist in having one designated place to capture everything from employee records, health and safety, wellbeing, risk, compliance and more.

There is a great variety of software systems to capture and manage data for employee, stakeholder, risk, health and safety, and compliance needs. A platform solution can make your work a lot easier, save you from spending too much time on documentation and reporting, streamline and simplify your processes:

To keep you focused on what’s most important – the health, safety, and wellbeing on your workforce

Having a platform to assist you in managing these, such as INX Software, can also help in providing greater visibility and monitoring capabilities. This way you have all your data and information all in one place – a single source of truth.

An integrated software solution such as INX Software can be the answer to your workforce management needs. INX offers a range of products to cover areas across people and contractor management, OHS, risk, compliance, OHS, stakeholders, environmental, and logistics. What makes INX different from other software is their integrated solutions approach and their product end-to-end cover.

If you’d like to find out more about INX Software and their solutions, go here >


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