Over 2,000 people die by suicide each year in Australia which is double the country’s road death toll. Suicide is the leading cause of death in men aged between 25-44 years. In 2014/15, research, carried out by Edith Cowan University (ECU), surveyed 629 fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers from 143 different resource companies. The study found that over one-third (36%) of participants experienced depression, anxiety and/or stress symptoms, this being more than twice the rate for the general population.
67,000 workers are employed on a fly‐in, fly‐out basis in the resources sector and these figures may not include all the ancillary services to the sector. Such a large group of people is obviously going to contain a diverse cross‐section of the population in terms of age, life experiences, expectations of work, and mental and physical health background.
Six studies have measured mental health among FIFO workers with proper diagnostic tests. The results have been mixed, showing not all FIFO workers will experience mental health problems – about 70% don’t, but the key mental health issues have been found common in all the studies:
- Feelings of isolation and loneliness: this reported across research studies regardless of education level, profession, or roster duration.
- Stress, which gets worse for some people during the home to work transition periods. · Depression, which is likely to influence employment performance and increase risk of suicide.
- Anxiety that affects sleep, concentration, employment performance and causes irritability.
- Substance misuse – while mining companies are excellent at testing workers for drugs and alcohol on site, some FIFO workers use substances on their R&R period. The use of drugs indicates that these employees have limited coping strategies. Drug use often increases in stressful situations and can interfere with work tasks and hence safety. Even if the drug has left the body before FIFO workers return to site, the after effects are still present.
- Sleep problems – most FIFO workers work 12 hour shifts. Less than 6 hours of sleep affects their mood, coping ability and concentration.
- Limited social networks have been identified by research as a real issue with FIFO workers. In remote locations, there are often limited means and time for communication and signal may be poor. When they go back home, their friends are working and there’s a sense of disconnection. Having limited social support is likely to impact on workers speaking to someone about mental health problems when they need it and so feelings of isolation and loneliness are intensified
The lead researcher, Philippa Vojnovic from ECU’s School of Business said the ECU study highlighted the need for robust support systems to be in place at FIFO workplaces. She lists her 5 Key Takeaway Points:
- FIFO work does not cause mental health problems, it exposes workers to risk factors
- Suicidal behavior requires professional help
- Organisations must know their responsibilities for worker mental health
- Organisational strategies do have positive impacts on mental health and suicide rates
- Stigma about mental health and suicidal behavior needs to be reduced”
Mental health management in the workplace is increasingly recognised as essential. This is partly due to the benefits of good mental health, but also because the costs of mental health problems are devastating. There is also an association between mental health problems and accidents at work.
Mental health at work must be approached in a similar way to that of physical health and safety. Organisations can manage and improve workplace mental health by:
- Demonstrating an active commitment to the mental health of their workers as an industry priority.
- Developing an emergency response system for any worker experiencing a mental health crisis.
- Promoting awareness.
- Reducing the stigma associated with mental illness
- Implementing Employee Assistance Programs.
- Implementing strategies to support employees with mental health issues such as reducing workloads or adjusting work roles or schedules
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- Philippa Vojnovic: Managing Mental Health and Suicide Risk among FIFO Workers in the Australian Resources Industry.
- Mine Safety Journal
- Beyond Blue Enquiry into Mental Illness in FIFO Workers
- Western Australia Legislative Assembly Discussion paper