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

CFCA Paper No. 19 – February 2014

The influence of contextual factors

The effects of the FIFO/DIDO lifestyle on families and children are likely to be influenced by a number of contextual factors, which are described in this section.

Two categories of factors are discussed. Organisational factors take into account a range of work-related circumstances from both an organisational and individual viewpoint. Individual family factors provide a contextual understanding of the reasons a family chooses to undertake the FIFO lifestyle, and how the structure and life stage of individual families can create unique challenges.

Organisational factors

The Australian mining industry consists of many different forms of principal ownership, each with its own set of organisational policies and practices that vary according to the mine location (i.e., solely FIFO, solely residential, or a combination of the two); the life stage of the mine (from exploration through to construction and operating phases); the commodity being extracted; and myriad other idiosyncrasies that underpin company structure and philosophy (Australian Securities Exchange, 2013; Beach, Brereton, & Cliff, 2003). Some of these factors are considered in this section in order to give a macro-level context to the experiences of FIFO workers and their families. It is important, however, to recognise that workplace policies and practices identified at one location cannot be generalised to all locations, due to the heterogeneous nature of the mining industry (Sibbel, Sibbel, & Goh, 2006; Solomon, Katz, & Lovell 2008).

Management practices and workplace policies

Management of any company that utilises FIFO labour requires a level of expertise, specialist knowledge and skills that frequently go beyond those of a residential business operation located within a major city or regional centre (Sibbel et al., 2006). Management decisions can vary across a range of issues, such as:

  • working out how to design a village facility within a coastal town, at an inland town-based or an inland remote site;
  • how to allocate accommodation to workers;
  • ensuring the provision of healthy meals;
  • making sporting and social activities available;
  • managing employees who are not coping or experiencing family or relationship issues, mental health problems or excessive drug or alcohol use; and
  • work-related fatigue.

The size of the organisation may also impact on the ability of companies to implement workplace policy that acknowledges and addresses the specific needs of FIFO workers and families. Large organisations are more likely to be able to provide access to the diverse range of resources needed to manage these challenges well, but smaller mining companies may lack the financial leverage to source the diverse range of expertise needed (Hutchins, Di Cieri, & Shea, 2011; Sibbel, 2010). Hence, the individual experiences of FIFO workers (and subsequently their families) are in part influenced by the types of services that mining companies are able to provide.

Flexible workplace policies

Flexible work practices acknowledge that workers' personal circumstances can change over time as they move through different life stages (i.e., marriage, children, family commitments) and deal with family and personal health issues as they arise. Experts in the field indicate that flexible styles of management, for example the development of policies that meet the changing needs of FIFO workers, are more likely to retain employees than organisations that are inflexible (Sibbel et al., 2006). Inflexible workplace policies are more likely to impact on the FIFO worker's ability to respond to changing family needs, which in turn can affect a worker's level of focus at work. Interviews conducted with Human Resource Managers across four mining sites revealed that while workplace policies vary from site to site, few companies promoted flexible policies around leave options, ability to work from home during a family crisis, or responsiveness to worker demands for shorter roster cycles (Gallegos, 2006).

Flexible workplace policies are important for all workers with families, however they are particularly salient for FIFO workers, who would benefit from having access to contingency plans that allow them to get home quickly in the event of a family emergency. This type of provision would alleviate the level of stress associated with not knowing what plans could be put in place if such an emergency was to arise. This issue is frequently cited in the literature as a concern for FIFO workers and their families (Bradbury, 2011; Clifford, 2009; Henry, Hamilton, Watson, & McDonald, 2013; Sibbel et al., 2006; Sibbel, 2010).

Workplace culture

Issues related to the workplace culture in a FIFO environment can have adverse impacts for FIFO employees and lead to higher workplace turnover and lower worker productivity (Beach et al., 2003). Families may also experience negative impacts associated with workplace culture (Denniss & Baker, 2012). There are frequent references in the literature to workplace culture or attitudes that are linked to negative experiences for the FIFO worker, and these are outlined below.

FIFO worker status

The literature strongly supports the notion that in FIFO workplaces, contract employees (those employed by subcontractors to the mining industry) are treated differently from employees directly hired by the mining operator. Examples provided in the literature include contract employees being placed on longer rosters, allocated poorer standards of accommodation, expected to give up their seats on a flight home at the last minute, and receive fewer benefits (Clifford, 2009; Gallegos, 2006; Sibbel et al., 2006). In addition, the level of assistance provided to workers employed by companies that are contracted to mine operators is reported to be considerably less than that provided to employees of owner-operator companies (Gallegos, 2006). Moreover, Beach et al. (2003) reported that the level of workforce turnover is far greater for contract workers compared to mine operator employees, with suggestions that longer and more compressed work rosters3 and limitations on use of camp facilities are contributing factors.

Drinking culture

An additional workplace context discussed in the literature is the heavy drinking culture reported to exist across some mining sites (Gallegos, 2006; Joyce, Tomlin, Somerford, & Weeramanthri, 2013; Torkington, Lorkins, & Gupta, 2011).

An analysis of data from the WA Health and Wellbeing Surveillance System (Joyce et al., 2013) found that compared to shift workers who are not FIFO, and workers in other types of work arrangements, FIFO workers drink at risky levels, with significantly more consumed on a drinking day and a significantly greater number of drinking days in total. Heavy drinking has also been found to spill over to excessive drinking at home during the leave period (Clifford, 2009).

In a study of FIFO/DIDO workers' alcohol consumption over a 6-month period, Clifford (2009) found that a greater percentage of workers drank at moderate- to high-risk levels for short-term and long-term harm4 during the leave period, than sex-matched community samples. Drinking levels at the work site for this group of participants was found to be equal to or less than community samples, although the levels were still moderately risky for both short- and long-term harm. The reduced levels of alcohol consumption by workers during the work cycle may in part be attributed to limited leisure time, alcohol restrictions at the camp site, or the use of random breath testing that is conducted by some work sites.

It is important to note that while there is a reported culture of heavy drinking as a social outlet in some of the research, this is not a culture that all FIFO employees engage with. Many FIFO workers choose not to drink, or not to indulge heavily, and even find the drinking culture exclusionary of those who do not drink (Torkington et al., 2011). In a phenomenological account of FIFO workers and families conducted by Gallegos (2006), there was a general consensus that heavy drinking at mine sites was a cultural aspect of FIFO that was improving. Heavy drinking was a phenomenon that participants reported existed among young single workers, rather than people who were older and had family responsibilities.

Hoath and Haslam McKenzie (2013) reported that the FIFO industry has taken considerable steps to limit alcohol consumption, with many work sites now dry and routine alcohol and drug tests undertaken. However, qualitative evidence indicated that the crackdown on use on site may lead to a higher consumption of alcohol when at home.

Attitudes towards help seeking behaviour

The methods by which workers coped with the FIFO lifestyle, and their willingness to seek help if difficulties arose, was outlined in a number of studies. One participant in a mental health survey conducted by Lifeline WA noted: "Well it's really just a case of suck it up princess, you just do it" (Henry et al., 2013, p. 82). In fact, an overall majority of the FIFO workers surveyed in this study indicated that they maintain this kind of approach to coping with difficulties faced as part of undertaking the FIFO lifestyle. Participants (particularly male workers) were reported to have demonstrated poor insight into their own levels of stress and a general reluctance to seek support. Barriers to support seeking identified within this group included a culture of not discussing problems, fear of loss of employment if problems were openly discussed, embarrassment, and mistrust in those supports made available (Henry et al., 2013).

A culture of reluctance to seek support was also identified in a study conducted by Torkington et al. (2011), who interviewed a small group of FIFO/DIDO workers who were currently, or had previously, entered into this type of work arrangement. Along with a general fear they would be stigmatised or otherwise penalised if they admitted to not coping, some of the participants were concerned that their confidentiality would be breached if they did seek support. While some participants in this study reported feeling comfortable talking to a nurse or medic for support for physical health concerns, they were not sure they would be able to discuss mental health problems with these health professionals. When workers indicated that they did seek help, they preferred to talk to friends on site, colleagues, or family, rather than seeking help through official channels such as Employee Assistance Programs (Henry et al., 2013; Torkington et al., 2011).

Recruitment practices and FIFO expectations

Research indicates that applicants for FIFO positions frequently lack accurate knowledge or understanding of how the mining industry functions, and how a FIFO lifestyle may impact on themselves and their families (Sibbel et al., 2006).

In an exploration of workforce turnover in the mining industry, Beach et al. (2003) interviewed a number of Human Resource Managers who acknowledged that hiring of "green" recruits (people with no prior experience in the mining industry) needed to be managed carefully. As one participant articulated:

Of the crew we brought on, we had a lot of inexperienced people … they'd never done fly-in before, some had never worked away from their families before. So they were feeling (pretty low) and their families were screaming for them. (Beach et al., 2003, p. 35)

One study in the Pilbara region of WA found that many couples take around 6 months to work out if the FIFO lifestyle is suitable for them and their families (Watts, 2004). This has potential impacts on workforce training, turnover and recruitment processes if the employee leaves the position, and undoubtedly creates disruption for workers (and subsequently their families) as they seek alternate employment options.

Roster cycle

Onshore mining operations have increasingly become 24-hour operations. This, coupled with the increased use of FIFO workers, has led to the common practice of rosters that combine a set number of days living on site and working up to 12-hour shifts with a set number of days spent at home on leave (Solomon et al., 2008). The types of FIFO roster arrangements that are put in place by mining operations vary according to the mine site, the employer and the job being undertaken (Sibbel, 2010). For example, machinery and plant operators along with their direct supervisors are more likely to have "shift" work, incorporating a number of "day shifts" followed by a number of "night shifts". A common pattern is 1 week of night shift, followed by 1 week of day shift, followed by time on leave (Sibbel, 2010).

The proportion of time spent at home and at work depends on the symmetry of the work roster offered by the employer. Rosters can be symmetrical (e.g., 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off), asymmetrical (e.g., 2 weeks on, 1 week off), short (4/3 days) or long (6/1 days), and vary between staff and contractors, and between construction, operations and administrative personnel (Storey, 2009). Watts (2004) suggested that asymmetrical rosters are more commonly offered by land-based mining companies. There are, however, a number of variations of asymmetrical rosters in use, for example:

  • 6 weeks on, 1 week off (6/1);
  • 2 weeks on, 1 week off (2/1);
  • 9 days on, 5 days off (9/5);
  • 8 days on, 6 days off (8/6); and
  • 5 days on, 2 days off (5/2) (Clifford, 2009; Sibbel, 2010).

Highly compressed roster arrangements5 have been linked to lower levels of employee satisfaction. In particular, work-to-leave ratios greater than two combined with longer roster cycle times have been considered to be less satisfactory (Clifford, 2009).6

Access to communication

Access to communication is an important factor in mediating the impact a FIFO lifestyle can have on children and families (Gallegos, 2006; Sibbel et al., 2006). The ability to communicate regularly facilitates a level of emotional support that only family members can provide (Fresle, 2010). Access may be compromised in two ways - the ease with which a family can communicate when the FIFO worker is on site, and the ease with which the at-home partner can contact the worksite more generally (Fresle, 2010; Sibbel et al., 2006). Partners of FIFO workers have expressed their frustration at not being provided with the company's communication information and not knowing how to access their partner on site, other than if adequate mobile phone coverage was available (Sibbel, 2010). Communication facilities vary across sites, as demonstrated by varied reports of no access to a mobile phone during work hours, no mobile coverage, no Internet access, and poor quality mobile or wireless coverage (Henry et al., 2013).

The ability to access and use communication technology, along with obtaining the time and level of privacy required for meaningful contact to occur, can vary depending on a number of factors, including:

  • the worksite (e.g., the existence of a mobile phone tower and/or availability of mobile reception within the worksite or accommodation facility);
  • mine operator (e.g., workplace policies around availability and access to communication);
  • job position; and
  • the ability and willingness of the employee to use new technologies (Sibbel et al., 2006).

However, where FIFO workers and their families do have access to communication technology, they report using social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), regularly receiving photos of kids via email, using real-time video applications (e.g., Skype, FaceTime), and daily phone contact to help them stay actively involved with their families (Henry et al., 2013).

Accommodation and facilities at worksite

The accommodation available at mining sites is reported to vary considerably in terms of the quality of the facilities, how these facilities are managed, and the degree to which their design provides the necessary privacy individuals require (Sibbel, 2010). According to the Queensland Urban Land Development Authority (2012), non-resident worker accommodation in Queensland can range from large camp-style facilities, in-fill micro camps (where accommodation is built to fill vacant town blocks), and apartment or motel type developments of varying scales. Across Western Australia, individual rooms in mining site accommodation is reported to vary from having individual ensuites, shared ensuites, and external shared facilities in the form of ablution blocks (Makeham, 2011; Sibbel, 2010).

In a survey conducted by the Queensland Resources Council and distributed through its member companies, approximately 62% of non-resident mining employees rated the quality of their accommodation as good or excellent; however, the remaining 38% of non-resident employees rated their accommodation as neutral, poor or very poor (URS Australia, 2012). Complaints in relation to accommodation range from inability to sleep because of excessive noise, onerous rules and regulations, isolating conditions in remote facilities, having to share showers and toilets, unsuitable conditions for nightshift workers (e.g., using an outdoor toilet in daylight rest hours, further disrupting sleep patterns), and quality of the food provided (Gallegos, 2006; Henry et al., 2013; Sibbel, 2010; Sibbel et al., 2006). Many participants in the Lifeline WA survey reported that camp lifestyle was inadequate, with too much drinking and noise and too much control over private activities (Henry et al., 2013).

Individual and family factors

The organisational factors outlined above can play a significant role in influencing workers' experiences of the FIFO lifestyle. Organisational culture and conditions can create a set of circumstances that interact with a range of family and individual factors to determine the FIFO experience. Individual and family related factors explored in the literature to date include reasons for entering into the lifestyle, the life stage of the worker and their partner, family structure, and the age of any children at the time that research is being undertaken. These factors are explored in greater depth below.

Reasons for entering FIFO lifestyle

There are varying reasons that individuals and/or families decide to enter into the FIFO lifestyle and many of those cited by younger workers, couples and families are strategic in nature. Financial reasons are frequently cited as the main reason that FIFO employment is considered, while some workers indicated that choosing the lifestyle was not an option, but a requirement of the job (Clifford, 2009, Gallegos, 2006). Other reasons cited for opting to work on a FIFO/DIDO arrangement included the FIFO parent being able to spend more time at home on leave, and the intrinsic value of the job itself (Gallegos, 2006).

Sibbel and colleagues (2006) argued that high income, working hours, and opportunities for career advancement and training are part of an overall assessment that individuals make when choosing the FIFO lifestyle. The needs of workers' families, including educational and child-care needs, availability of family and other psychosocial support, as well as employment and career opportunities for family members, are also considered.

While high levels of income are an incentive for families to enter a FIFO/DIDO lifestyle, evidence suggests that correspondingly expensive lifestyle choices can become a trap for some families, particularly if the FIFO lifestyle is found to be unsuitable and the need to go back to previous income levels is problematic due to financial over-commitment (Hoath & Haslam McKenzie, 2013; Sibbel, 2010; Watts, 2004).

Family structure, age and number of children

The number of children in the family can influence adjustment to FIFO living, as can the age of the children (Gent, 2004). The decisions to work in a FIFO arrangement may clearly change over time as people's needs and the needs of their families change (Sibbel et al., 2006). Some couples make a decision to set themselves up financially by engaging in FIFO employment, but opt to leave once they decide to have children. Other families plan to leave the FIFO lifestyle once their children reach secondary school, believing that better educational opportunities are available at city-based schools. Evidence suggests that at each stage of child development, there are unique challenges that FIFO parents face, particularly the at-home partner, while some age groups present more unique challenges than others (Henry et al., 2013; Voysey, 2012).


3 A compressed roster has been defined as working a shift of 10 hours or more on consecutive days over a period where the work-to-leave ratio is greater than two (Clifford, 2009). For example, staying on site for 28 days followed by 7 days leave at home, a cycle which is common among mining construction workers (Henry et al., 2013), has a work-to-leave ratio of four and would be considered highly compressed due to the longer time away from home, compared to a less compressed roster of 8 days on consecutive shifts followed by 6 days leave at home (a work to leave ratio of 1.3:1).

4 See the National Health and Research Council's (2009) Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol for detailed explanations of short- and long-term harm.

5 See footnote 3 for definition of "highly compressed rosters"

6 The National Mining Industry Award 2010, which came into force on 1 January 2010, set down guidelines for hours of work, maximum weekly hours, rostering, and breaks that are specific to the mining industry (Australian Industrial Relations Commission, 2010). However, some states or territories have their own additional guidelines and regulations. For example, in Western Australia the Commission for Occupational Safety and Health (2006), has implemented a Code of Practice Working Hours which offers a detailed guide on potential hazard factors, some of which are specifically associated with FIFO working hours and roster arrangements. In addition, the code highlights the need to consider individual factors such as sleep, health, and lifestyle factors including family commitments and long distance commuting. A section is also provided explaining the risks associated with fatigue that needs to be considered in relation to the workplace.