Fly-in fly-out workforce practices in Australia: The effects on children and family relationships

CFCA Paper No. 19 – February 2014

Implications of review findings

In this next section implications of the findings of this review are presented. Implications are outlined for policy makers and practitioners in the area of family relationships, research, current or potential FIFO families, and mining organisations themselves.

Implications for policy and practice

There is a clear need for those engaged in policy and practice related to family and relationship support to be aware of the challenges faced by FIFO workers and their families and to be able to respond appropriately to their unique needs. Some organisations already offer services to support FIFO families and a number of resources are outlined in the resources section at the end of this paper.

The national mental health organisation beyondblue is trialling an innovative mental health service model, which will provide psychological support services to people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety. The universal program, entitled NewAccess, is designed to reach people who currently have difficulty accessing existing services, including FIFO workers. The model includes guided self-help mental health programs (either online or via "bibliotherapy"8), un-guided self-help information, as well as referrals to community and welfare services and to local social and community groups. In addition, the Australian Government Department of Health, as part of its Delivering Mental Health Reform package, is funding beyondblue via Taking Action to Tackle Suicide, which includes initiatives to:

  • increase community awareness and health promotion;
  • increase access to the information helpline;
  • expand access to workplace based programs; and
  • support mental health workplace training, research and advocacy.

These initiatives may form the basis of responses from family and relationship services. Programs that reduce stigma and address mental health needs would provide support groups for FIFO families in both source and host communities, for families considering the FIFO lifestyle and for ongoing post-employment support services. These suggestions are supported by the Lifeline WA report (Henry et al., 2013), which also calls for further targeting within the FIFO community for groups such as divorced workers.

Courses that assist FIFO workers and partners to manage the transition between work and home and include parenting and relational and lifestyle skills, particularly for new employees and their families, may be beneficial (Gent, 2004). Sibbel (2010) also recommends the further development of psychosocial and material resources for individuals and families to reduce role demand and benefit relationships and wellbeing. She acknowledges, however, that the willingness or desire of families to use these supports is likely to vary according to individual and family needs (A. Sibbel, personal communication, June 14, 2013).

One of the challenges is not only providing these services but encouraging workers to make use of them, rejecting the stigma and peer pressure to "tough it out". As such, part of the policy response could include a public awareness campaign, including, for example, workplace seminars, posters and a social media campaign using case studies and details of resources available.

The limitations of national data on FIFO/DIDO work practices, as mentioned in a previous section, may be relevant to governmental reviews on health and other services, for example the proposed National Mental Health Commission review of current mental health services and programs.

Implications for research

As outlined in this paper, there are many factors that determine the success or otherwise of a family's adaptation to the FIFO lifestyle. A significant investment is needed in primary research to develop a better understanding of the complexities that determine outcomes for FIFO families. Aspects of the FIFO lifestyle that could be further examined in relation to outcomes for families and children include:

  • the impact of different roster cycles;
  • the characteristics of families who choose, and adapt successfully or not successfully, to the FIFO lifestyle;
  • reasons for entering the FIFO lifestyle and the impact of these on outcomes (e.g., economic reward vs appeal of the lifestyle);
  • age of children at entrance to and exit from FIFO lifestyle;
  • nature or quality of child/ren's attachments with absent/present parent;
  • partner's expectations of the FIFO lifestyle, and whether these have been met;
  • the impact of access to various types of communication, and the frequency of contact;
  • how mental health problems may arise, how they may vary over time, and how to address any reluctance to seek help;
  • age and employment lifecycle stage of FIFO worker, and lifecycle stage of the family;
  • role of at-home partner in buffering effects of FIFO lifestyle for children;
  • mediating effects of any available support services (e.g., Mining Family Matters) and/or help-seeking behaviours; and
  • availability of support networks in communities for the at-home partner.

The pathways to outcomes would be best measured longitudinally over a number of years, ideally with baseline measures taken prior to commencement of FIFO employment.

Further research with control or comparison groups and research that is multi-level - engaging with the FIFO worker (both male and female), the at-home parent and children at different developmental stages and ages - is needed. A research focus on issues particular to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander FIFO workforce would be a welcome addition, for example, the effects of taking workers away from country, family groups and support networks.

There are a number of studies currently underway that will contribute to the evidence base:

  • Murdoch University is conducting research on FIFO workers and partners in Australia, investigating a range of different aspects of the FIFO lifestyle. Results from this study are expected late 2013.
  • The Working Parents Research Project, based at the University of Queensland's Parenting and Family Support Centre, aims to investigate the impact FIFO and DIDO work has on children and families in Queensland. Results from this project are due in early 2014.
  • A lifestyle survey of FIFO/DIDO employees and their partners is underway at the Central Queensland University, which will examine work and roster satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, family dynamics, and perceptions of family functioning.
  • Centacare in Townsville is also conducting a quantitative survey of 30 FIFO employees and their partners and 11 local stakeholders.

Implications for current or potential FIFO families

The key message for families who are considering the FIFO lifestyle that arises from the literature is the importance of thoroughly reviewing the benefits and challenges of the lifestyle (see Box 1), what the impact is likely to be on individuals within the family, and impacts on the family as a whole. The FIFO lifestyle does not suit everyone. The Inquiry found it was helpful if the at-home partner was supportive and independent of the FIFO worker and that, in general, unmarried couples or families with teenage children fared best in a FIFO arrangement.

Box 1: Benefits and challenges related to FIFO employment

The literature clearly indicates that there is a unique set of benefits and challenges to parental FIFO employment.

Documented benefits of a FIFO lifestyle include:

  • high income;
  • independence for worker and partner;
  • quality, extended time at home;
  • ability to schedule appointments at home during leave;
  • meeting new people;
  • travelling to new locations;
  • clear separation between personal and work life;
  • ability to maintain regular exercise on the job; and
  • access to healthy foods on site.

Challenges related to a FIFO lifestyle include:

  • emotional and functional adjustment to leaving and returning (including roles undertaken);
  • loneliness and isolation;
  • hopelessness;
  • on site physical exertion and fatigue;
  • reduced communication;
  • absence at family events;
  • difficulty for at-home parent to undertake work or study;
  • reduced social opportunities; and
  • the FIFO worker having restricted capacity to get home in a family emergency

Sources: Clifford, 2009; Fresle, 2010; Gallegos, 2006; Henry et al., 2013; Sibbel et al. 2006.

If the decision is made to take a FIFO job, then families need to be prepared by finding out about the potential work site and the resources and supports available for FIFO workers and their families both at the work site and in the home environment. Box 2 outlines some of the key considerations in supporting families through the transition to the FIFO lifestyle. Families need assistance to develop strategies to minimise the disruption to the family and to maximise the communication. By anticipating stressful periods and engaging pre-determined strategies, stress, anxiety and depression may be minimised. Families should also be aware of pressure points, such as the absence of the FIFO worker at special occasions and the transition periods between work and home.

Box 2: What can be done to improve family transition to FIFO lifestyle?

The more informed couples and families can be on what to expect when entering into a FIFO lifestyle, the more prepared they can be to deal with issues as they begin to arise. Sibbel et al., (2006) provided a number of key points to consider in the recruitment process, including:

  • Provide adequate and accessible information about the actual site and position being offered.
  • Include relevant questions about implications of FIFO employment during the interview process.
  • Include the applicant's partner in the process where possible.
  • Investigate the applicant's ability to adapt to living in a remote location, with the possibility of a site visit prior to final acceptance of a job role.

Implications for mining organisations

According to the studies included in this review, organisations that employ a FIFO workforce and provide flexibility with rosters, low work-to-home ratios, access to timely and private communication options and good accommodation and facilities will have happier FIFO workers and families. From an organisational perspective this would reduce turnover and increase productivity.

A major challenge for many organisations is to avoid a culture that stigmatises help-seeking behaviours and instead promotes and provides access to counselling and support groups and actively encourage employees to participate.

The studies in our review included several specific strategies that organisations with a FIFO workforce could consider, including:

  • The development of a parenting resource including communication strategies, how to manage children's behaviour, and how to facilitate positive interactions (Gallegos, 2005, cited in Henry et al., 2013).
  • A Tool Kit for Surviving Fly-in/Fly-out Relationships was developed and evaluated by Watts (2004). The Tool Kit was adapted from a brochure developed by Lifeline and the Centre for Rural and Remote Health that focused on Surviving the Drought, and redrafted after consultation with local mental health professionals within the region. The researchers then sent the Tool Kit to contacts on the research database to evaluate its usefulness. The evaluation found the Tool Kit to be generally helpful and accessible (Watts, 2004).
  • Specific induction training for issues such as transitioning between work and home (Gent, 2004) and pre-employment preparedness and awareness to facilitate informed choice (Hoath & Haslam McKenzie, 2013).
  • The New Access and Taking Action to Tackle Suicide resources offered by beyondblue mentioned above should also be considered.

These resources could be provided through pre-employment packs, inductions or industry websites. It was also suggested that a mentoring scheme in which FIFO families assist others with social activities and provide assistance with techniques for stress and fatigue management could greatly benefit FIFO families (Gallegos, 2005, cited in Henry et al., 2013).

Footnote

8 A carefully selected reading program designed to improve mental health problems.